Art within art: 2019 Karsh Award winner Andrew Wright offers an homage of sorts

Andrew Wright, Portrait with Mirror, 2019. Courtesy City of Ottawa

Sometimes, the precise moment when a work of art began can be known, even if the full concept takes years to coalesce.

Andrew Wright, this year’s winner of the Karsh Award for Photography in Ottawa, was strolling about the annual Glebe garage sale in 2009 when that precise moment occurred. Wright found a sealed (unplayed) boxed set of LP records that had been released by the CBC in 1982. The music included the Kurelek Suite, an orchestral piece written by Ukrainian-Canadian composer George Fiala in response to paintings by the Canadian artist William Kurelek.

And that, for the moment, was it. Wright, who notes that “I always have about 17,000 projects on the go,” set the records aside. He focused on other projects in video, sculpture, installation and photography, including After Kurelek, a large diptych from 2013.

“I’ve always loved the idea of artwork based on other artwork,” he says, as we chat over sandwiches in the café at city hall, a few steps from Karsh-Masson Gallery. “I like the idea of transposing content from one form of media to another.”

Andrew Wright is with Estrellita Karsh, widow of Yousuf Karsh, in this July 2019 photo.

It seems almost inevitable that he would have looked at Fiala’s musical homage to Kurelek’s paintings and conceived his own part in the sequence of homage — an artwork based on an artwork based on another artwork

That brings us to Filmtrack 4 A Sound, his exhibition for the Karsh Award now showing at Karsh-Masson Gallery. The award, named for the sibling photographers Yousuf and Malak Karsh, is awarded every four years to an Ottawa photographer.

The title references the fact that “the pictures accompany the sound, as opposed to the other way around.” I tell him I initially misread “Filmtrack 4 A Sound” as “Soundtrack 4 A Film,” and he smiles broadly.

“That’s awesome,” he says. “I try to flip things around or put in little reversals, shift the view a little bit and try to make the take into a double-take.”

The double take is a fundamental part of the exhibition, which is one large, room-filling installation in various media. The video component is not what it appears to be, and you’d never know what it really is without being told.

Enter the room and your hear Fiala’s music, a 22-minute suite. (I’m no expert on classical music, but it made me think of Stravinsky, both romantic and by times perhaps jarring.) Three large video screens hang side by side, offering sweeping aerial views of the Arctic landscape.

Except, it’s no landscape, and what appears vast and endless is in reality tiny and a few inches across. It is, in fact, the very records he found at the Glebe garage sale, along with the record sleeve and cardboard box, all captured with a special, wand-like camera that makes a typical macro lens look wide angle.

“I filmed the record as if I’m flying across it from very, very high up and very, very slowly, and at times it really does look like those landscapes.”

To say “at times” is to put it mildly. It’s uncanny how the edge of a paper sleeve looks like an ice-bound coast or a huge, snowbound ridge, how the plain, off-white paper stands in for seemingly endless plains of snow and ice. It’s a WTF moment when giant letters suddenly drift across the landscape — the letters, and other shapes, lifted directly from the cover of the boxed set. 

Inside the Karsh-Masson Gallery you’ll find the Filmtrack4Sound installation.

“I think of landscape not so much as a subject, but as a prop that allows me to consider lots of issues — things around the condition of the photograph, what is it we’re seeing, what’s ultimately behind that ability, or that privilege, we have to look and ascertain based on looking,” he says.

That vague sense of disorientation applies to both the installation and the actual landscape it’s based upon. Wright has been to the far north several times and his voice is rich with awe as he describes how it’s “so overwhelmingly terrifyingly beautiful,” how sometimes land and sky blend so seamlessly you “don’t know which way is up.” I say that sounds claustrophobic, and he says he realized that and claustrophobia and agoraphobia are “two extremes of the same theme.”

When he says that, I think of his 2011 exhibition Coronae, in which he made the infinite and the infinitesimal as one. He photographed bright light as it shone through a pinhole he’d poked in a strip of film, and the result looked like a massive supernova in furthest space.

Even when Wright’s photographs are literally recognizable there’s something askew — those iconically crooked trees of the Canadian shield turned upright, or a tree suspended over a vast dockyard, or frames of American farmland taken where photography has been deemed “illegal.” (That latter set, titled Data Trespass, was acquired last year by the National Gallery.)

Filmtrack 4 A Sound was a unique challenge, and it required the recruitment of colleagues at the University of Ottawa, where Wright is an associate professor of visual art.

First, he went to the music department and opened the box of records for the first time — he thinks of the installation as “an unboxing video,” à la those on Youtube. He borrowed a fantastic turntable, a JMW Mitchell Transcriptor, “the same turntable that was featured in A Clockwork Orange,” and one referred to on one audiophile website as “the most eccentric turntable ever made.” Directional mics were set up around the room to create a sense of space befitting the original recording, made by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and befitting the Arctic landscape.

The records were played once and put back in the box. As part of the installation, they sit inside a transparent cube that’s connected to a vacuum pump.

“All the air is constantly being removed from that box . . . so there’s negative pressure in there,” he explains. “There’s no medium for sound waves to transmit. So the box is there with no sound, inside a room with lots of sound.”

Photographing the box and records required its own “mad scientist contraption,” another type of turntable that rotated the records and packaging even as the turntable itself moved — all incrementally, like glaciers across a frozen landscape.

The other part of Wright’s Karsh Award exhibit is less complicated, but no less contemplative. It’s a 70-foot long panoramic photograph of the tiny village of Apex, not far from Iqaluit in Nunavut, and it’s titled Apex: Interloper. The 11 panels flow down the hallway of Rideau Station, closest to the Rideau-Sussex entrance.

In each of 11 panels the “remote, barren land” shows signs of human incursion, both traditional and modern. The photographer is an interloper, as is the viewer.

It’s all “some kind of incursion, some kind of modification, some kind of presence,” he says, and he searches for justification, for validity.

“What does it mean for any of us to go somewhere and take pictures? . . . I don’t want to contribute to the archive of insipid but beautiful pictures we have in the world, so how do you do that? I still think it’s an important activity to do, somehow.”

This is Andrew Wright’s place as a photographer, as an artist. His teenage son describes him as “a photographer at the periphery of photography.” Wright is the interloper, always at the borders of media and concept, looking inward for understanding, for answers.

Filmtrack 4 A Sound continues to March 29 at Karsh-Masson Gallery in Ottawa City Hall hall. Admission is free.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.