Spider Eggs & Criminality @ The National Gallery of Canada

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours at the National Gallery of Canada, where I have often been before. As I strode up Safdie’s long cerebral ramp (a place not to dream but to trip and crack your skull, splashes of sacrificial red blood worth the pain perhaps to bring this mausoleum to life) I silently cursed the curators who refuse to hang or display or build or scar or explore the vast expanses of air and surface Safdie’s cathedral presents for transformation, content to speak instead in surly granite and pretty panorama. Such emptiness in this temple of dreams. Such waste.

Be that as it may, I was on my way into our national mausoleum (which does nonetheless contain many wonderful works and is well worth visiting, just remember to complain about how dead it feels) to witness a couple hours worth of Christian Marclay’s justly celebrated cinematic mashup, The Clock. This is a remarkable work of cut and paste that consists of thousands of remixed scenes from movie history that relate directly to time. Who knew that there were so many things that happened in different movies at 12:04 pm? But there are. As there are at any point in the 24 hours of our chronological being, as this monumental 24-hour long film demonstrates.

I won’t offer a detailed review here, especially since I only saw two of the 24 hours, but I can say that this is a brilliantly executed and monumental work. It is certainly among the greatest artistic masterpiece of the 21st century to date. Utterly subsuming, it is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, something to be liked or disliked. It merely exists, as an immersive world, both a critical and playful exploration of the meaning of clock-time and an explosion of that meaning through the fracking of social and narrative coherence in the endless mashed-up moment.

Interestingly, it is also blatantly, utterly criminal, in the sense that it is essentially plagiaristic, essentially pirated, essentially stolen, to use the nasty language of the world’s copyright industry. It does not seem that Marclay actually licensed any of the 10,000 or so flim clips he uses in his movie. Which is – just to be clear – entirely fine by me. More power to him and all other remixers I say. But my point is that somehow due to his brilliance, the highbrow popularity of the work and/or the sheer scale and volume of his cinematic sampling, he has successfully avoided being slandered and legally assaulted for his efforts. Moreover his work is being presented in Canada’s National Gallery, where authenticity is paramount (despite lip-service to post-modernism in theory, contemporary art practices are all still highly authored, catalogued, valuated, etc. etc.) thus challenging some of the gallery’s fundamental values. At least to some degree. It is not exactly “Steal This Movie” because ‘The Clock’ was itself ‘purchased’ by the National Gallery. Still…it does feel at least slightly transgressive. And the freeform viewing space the gallery provides serves it very well in this respect too.

There is another interloper at our national gallery, however, another transgressor, and that is the delightful, deliriously powerful Louise Bourgeois sculpture that stands before it, titled Maman. This massive bronze spider appears terrifying at first, until one notices the white eggs in the egg-sac beneath her belly. She is one of nature’s hundred billion mothers, looking out for her children with the same fierce pride as any other mother on this earth.

I have always loved this sculpture, but yesterday I understood for the first time that Maman’s eggs contain more than spiders. They contain our future. Maman’s ovoid eggs symbolize the inter-weaving of cyclical being, the round architectures of symbiotic relationships, standing in such stark contrast to the Gallery’s overwhelming rectangularity. It turns out that Maman is actually defending her eggs from the Gallery itself, from the literate values of linearity, fixity, rigidity, mechanized culture, reminding us, as Christian Marclay’s The Clock does within, with its mashed-up meaning, that nothing lasts forever, not even a massive mausoleum, and that perhaps we should devote ourselves to the greatest art of all in this ecocidal era – the art of sustainable survival.

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