By John Massier

If we are eavesdropping on objects, the reasonable question is: what are they telling us? But eavesdropping is entirely distinct from listening and anyone who has ever attempted to listen in when uninvited knows that it’s often difficult to hear everything. Clarity can be veiled in murkiness. Details can be missed. Meaning can be obfuscated. Which suggest the fog of eavesdropping may, at best, cobble together an incomplete articulation of situations and
meanings. It may also suggest that those elements that are discerned will cobble together an allusive, poetic evocation of experiences and ideas. Eavesdropping becomes a double-edged sword. Thrust through a urinal.

When John Marriott, in a triptych entitled Synthesis, tears an image of a geodesic dome from a book, crumples the page, and leaves behind a balled-up sculpture, a lot of things are happening. Yes, there is a droll critique of Buckminster Fuller’s utopian modernism, perhaps questioning whether its ideals remain relevant or have becomes icons of a quaint, idealistic past. And yet, as presented by Marriott, the gesture is as warm and human as it is dry and mocking. They are, after all, the hands of the artist (we presume) that enter the frame to enact this gesture. Mockery turns to generosity as the final image presents us with a crumpled wad that is funny and arguably far more organic than the more rigorously concocted dome, whose represented forms have been sacrificed for this new iteration.

Marriott’s destructive (or deconstructive) gesture is amplified in a companion dyptich entitled The Reverse Engineer, in which crumpled images of Fuller domes have been uncrumpled and adorned with yellow and blue triangles traced from the spontaneous folds. It brings the strict mathematical concoction of a geodesic dome down a peg or two, while simultaneously exalting an articulation of form and color. Marriott is warming up a cool idea. While visiting the artist’s studio, it was striking to hold the hardcover book from which the pages were torn – the dust jacket itself had been removed, crumpled, and replaced – this gentle tactile maneuver elicited an impactful sensory moment. Warm, seductive, funny, surprising.

With Marriott extending this aesthetic outward by covering the walls of his exhibition in crumpled paper, he is amplifying the potential of those warm, spontaneous gestures. There’s no denying the dry humor of manipulating the smooth white of gallery walls into some jocular, degraded version of itself, but Marriott is aspiring to something more engrossing that an art-world one-liner. There is an expansiveness and generosity to this action, as though this crumpled mis-en-scene into which we enter is infused with an air of pathos, telling us a joke about gallery environments while simultaneously laughing at itself.

In The Nature of States, Marriott again collapses the mildly chiding with an ultimately more expansive suggestion. Collecting natural and celestial symbols from dozens of international flags, Marriott congeals them all into a single picture plane (whose background, incidentally, maintains the horizon line so often demarcating space in flag design). It is a knowingly preposterous concoction, making great sport of flag symbology. At the same time, there is a grace and eloquence to the mad cacophony that suggests an emotional commonality among nations and peoples and things.

In Comes A Time, a man is seen confronting a utilitarian white bookshelf propped up in the midst of a cemetery. It’s a monument, a ghostly white marker propped up on the placid grass amid all the other ghostly white markers, a poor man’s minimalist masterpiece. As a ubiquitous consumer product, it suggests death by commercial banality. An empty bookcase describes a void of knowledge. The figure before is a mute and mournful testimony to these possibilities. As humorous (and beautiful) as the scene appears, it’s also a jarring juxtaposition as we cannot be certain that this dumb, quotidian consumer product isn’t the loved one most revered and most missed. It’s darkly evocative, to say the least, to hammer home the fetishistic nature of man’s relationship to consumerism by situating it in the final fetish arena of death.

Eavesdropping on objects is not only the act of curators and audience, but also that of anthropologists and archeologists, discerning significance from things otherwise still and mute. Marriott’s found object-based work often emits the palpable air of the artifact. Marriott takes a direct jab, or stab, at the artifact value of the found object in Critical Care, where a Duchampian urinal sits pierced by a large double-edged sword, a self-consciously absurdist sword-in-a-stone. On the one hand, Marriott is puncturing and deflating the lineage of the found object. But the sword in the stone was, according to the legend, proof of regal lineage, so Marriott could also be seen as laying some small claim to found object lineage.

In contrast to the real object hilarity of the sword in the loo, Marriott offers up a hypnotic video loop of the urinal submerged in bath water with a universe of suds circulating around it. Weirdly, this image connotes an Excalibur reference, the sword that was not in a stone, but emergent from a lake complete with magical powers and the rightful sovereignty of Great Britain. On the one hand, it makes the found object a farcical object, overly imbued with meaning and perhaps falsely stuffed with the magical promise of art. And yet, in the unexpected moment of circulating suds, it’s impossible to deny the evidence of a kind of rapturous beauty. Its farcical and transformative qualities are in equal evidence, coexistent and perhaps codependent.

Field Notes – a photo diptych of two artificial dogs represented and quantified in specific configurations – accentuates the pointed lunacy of found object representations. One dog sits on low-fi virtual plane of a white pegboard with a gridded mesh overtop it, while the other is stuck unceremoniously on a tripod, leaning stiffly forward, its nose resting against a yardstick. A photo with a certain rigorous elegance, both dogs appear haplessly awkward and seem to describe the inelegant possibilities (or probabilities) of re-presenting found objects. So much so there is almost an air of humiliation about it all.

If Field Notes is parodying its own found object-hood, Marriott’s untitled photo print depicting a roller coaster cityscape at night torques its found imagery into a wild, chaotic burst of unadulterated lushness and beauty. Its aspect is almost floral and its effect is deeply moving as a visually-concocted absurdity. It evokes the same warmth as the crumpled walls, the same rapturous sensation as urinal swirling suds.

If we eavesdrop on objects, we will likely catch them at their most naked and absurd, the moments that lay bare their preposterous pretensions and, by implication, our own. But we are just as likely to eavesdrop on the moment when their strange quixotic beauty rises to the surface to reveal itself to us in a series of unexpected and transformative gestures. They may fail to impress us in the slightest. Or they may move us beyond all expectation.

JOHN MASSIER is the Visual Arts Curator at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center (Buffalo).

JOHN MARRIOTT is a multidisciplinary artist and writer based in Toronto, Canada. His work has been seen internationally in venues such as The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery (Toronto 1995, 1996), The Impakt Festival (Utrecht, 2003), 25HRS (Barcelona, 2003), The Rotterdam International Festival of Film and Video (Rotterdam, 2003), The 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art (Toronto, 2004), The ZKM (Karlsruhe, 2004) and the Toronto Sculpture Garden (Toronto, 2006).

JOHN MARRIOTT wishes to thank these people for their support:

Patricia Steckley, Steve Reinke, John Massier, Michael Klein, Paul Humphrey, Tek, Joseph Doane, Katherine Morely, David Hodge, David Bowick, Shaun Moore and Julie Nicholson (Made Design), Melissa LaVallee (Toronto Image Works), Todd Macyk, Ana Barajas, David Salazar, Allan Kosmajac, Kevin Mayo, Marino Imperio, Ruben Guayasamin and the Board of Directors of YYZ.

Read STEVE REINKE‘S The Artist That Therefore I Am, an essay about JOHN MARRIOTT‘S exhibition