“During the clearance and fixation of the fourth salt man, experts found an iron stagger in the scabbard attached to his waist. Also, two ceramic jugs have been found with a kind of oil inside which, scholars believe, could have been used for a lantern.”
—Abolfazl Ali, head of Chehr-Abad research group
“To open the doors of the Atomic Theatre your eyes have to open up like a vast reservoir of water falling from another planet. Once the mind has turned inside out, the springs of time will emerge as the centre of your cognition. The Atomic Theatre takes its pulse from the antimatter of materials that exist in an unknown dimension called invisibility.”
—Ron Giii, The Atomic Theatre and The Dictator’s Opera
Things change. A banal metaphysical statement worth reflecting on. This is especially true if you have the materials at hand to give substance to the idea. The work Ron Giii has made over the course of thirty-five years provides the perfect vessel for these considerations; in Giii’s oeuvre you can see what changes and what stays the same, much as you can in a biological body over time. This is also to say that art provides an excellent answer to the question, Where are we?
If you ask Giii, the continuities that both defy and define the present are “the antimatter of materials that exist in an unknown dimension called invisibility.” Even in this fragment from the artist’s writings there is so much to discuss, as in his work as a whole: mine deep and you will discover riches.
Giii’s work presents itself at the place where the invisible meets the visible; another example of this is theatre, which like visual art takes place within a framework, or proscenium arch. As in art, theatre is the forum where antimatter becomes visible, precisely because the primary consideration of art is form. In Giii’s case, artistic form and the forum of its presentation converge in a way that is especially distinctive. Giii’s full sentence: “The Atomic Theatre takes its pulse from the antimatter of materials that exist in an unknown dimension called invisibility.”
This is a quotation from a text written by Giii to accompany a show of his drawings in New York in 1986. A wholly coherent statement about his oeuvre, the text and the show provide a good pivot point on which to consider the stages of his career. What began as performance continues as drawing, all of it taking place within the conceptual framework of theatre. In Giii’s view, theatre formalizes the process of becoming that is all of our lives. Like us, the figure within the frame or on the stage looks outward, seeks a connection with others and beckons to an audience more often than it turns its back to the world. The proscenium, like the page, presents a threshold of possibility just waiting for the moment of its random apprehension.
Looking at Giii’s art, one understands that the simple encounter is his fondest hope for it; each work provides this encounter, fulfilling this desire with imperceptible ease. The drawings live and shimmer with unimagined sensitivity. In The Atomic Theatre, Giii speaks about the figures in his drawings as real people, “laughing and hiding from me as if they had their own reality.”
Giii was already active and engaged in the Toronto scene when he was a student at what was then the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD), in the 1970s. It was a cultural moment in which the bohemian sectors of society were alive with dreams and ambitions that are difficult to fully access today. Giii’s early works provide a way in. At the time, “live art” was a fringe pursuit. In 1978, Roselee Goldberg, writing in the first authoritative study of performance, noted that it had only recently been accepted as “a medium of artistic expression in its own right.” Like other practices in the visual arts in that moment, it was a hybrid—theatre or sculpture and dance—newly unbound from traditional constraints. In common with much that happened post Minimalism, performance art found its possibility in the context of art itself.
Pervading the era in which Giii first started working were the powerful cultural tendencies of political radicalism and lifestyle utopianism, not to mention the commercialism of these trends in the pop-cultural mirror, with its attendant distortion. Artistic disciplines intermingled to electric effect. Along with freedom from medium specificity and craft was an embrace of ordinary things as subject matter for art, including garbage and noise—the incidental art of John Cage and Fluxus—and, above all, people. The Happenings of the 1960s included audiences reimagined as paintings and sculptures, with the gallery as frame. In this context, real human bodies—frequently naked—had an incredible impact.
The shock produced by a simple encounter with a human body—naked or otherwise—and the things you could do with it, was a basic element in Giii’s art at that time. The experience could result in a psychological and sometimes physical violence. While both were still students, Kimo Eklund and Giii created the performance entity SHITBANDIT. Giii has said,
We used the name to shatter the very conservative milieu surrounding OCA . . . we did Christ on a pair of two-by-fours with microphones placed out in the street, and a used Volkswagen where males and girls got it on and they were surrounded by porn mags.
A site for many of Giii’s early performances was the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC) in Toronto, one of Canada’s first artist-run centers and one with a short, explosive history. Ever more and more radical in the theoretical and political platforms it promoted, CEAC eventually lost its government funding. Its many provocations gave birth to a notoriety that is increasingly obscure—and that appears to have little relevance to the activities and self-image of the Toronto arts scene today.
As part of a group of artists associated with CEAC, Giii traveled and performed extensively in Europe and the United States. A 1976 tour, for instance, took the group to Sweden, Germany, Italy and Belgium. Communicating with each other via the postal system, among other methods, rather than the Internet, they were part of the first globalized artists’ network, made possible by the dematerialization of artwork. Dot Tuer comments on the intense schedule of activities carried out by CEAC. She has noted that “during 1976 and 1977, there was literally an event held at CEAC every night of the week.” As with everything, the moment was fleeting; as Giii wrote, “The performances were wild like animals who were going extinct.”
In her fascinating and very thorough scholarly essay on the history of CEAC, Tuer notes the influence of Hermann Nitsch and the Vienna Actionists on the kind of performance work Giii, SHITBANDIT and others did at CEAC.1 Self-exposure, transgression and ritualized actions formed a common thread, the goal being to orchestrate a moment of “raw” experience for audience and performer. Informing it all was the idea that confrontational art stripped away layers of falsity in consciousness and social interactions, and the naked individual in the gallery promised a return to Rousseauian innocence and/or political consciousness or some combination of the two.
While the Vienna Actionists were motivated by the desire to expose the incipient societal guilt stemming from the not-so-distant (Nazi) past, Canadian shock performance tactics had the broader target of exposing the individual’s complicity in a generally corrupt society. Giii: “After reading texts on the destruction of nature we adapted the wild behaviour and hence we entered the world of dominance, force, power and abuse.” This focus in Giii’s work continued into the 1980s in the film Taste, the only surviving example of his work in Super 8. In Taste, which was shot in a garbage-strewn alley for about $100 in 1984, Giii and Darinka, his female accomplice, subject each other and themselves to a series of ad hoc actions. By turns emotionally disturbing and theatrical, even Dadaesque, the performers’ actions have quasi-sado-masochistic overtones, but Giii’s intention in the film was to do more than shock. He makes this clear in the soundtrack, which he narrated spontaneously in a single take after the fact in complement to the film’s continuous improvisational performance. “The artist is a fascist,” Giii intones many times throughout the film, questioning the power dynamics inherent in the artist’s relationship to the audience and to the work of art. Enacting a theatrical sado-masochism in the film, Giii indicts himself, but as with the doctrine of original sin itself, this is only to declare that he is part of humanity.
Hegel’s Salt Man
In his later work, Giii’s investigations into the dynamics of power gave way to openness and vulnerability. The figures in his drawings are always tender and are rendered with the lightest of touches, like a mere breath upon the page. Frequently also present in these works is a proscenium arch; figures float inside a box or within intersecting lines that delineate geometric space. Together, the lines and the figure represent a new naked self, one that grapples with and must survive life’s intractable circumstance and that does so with moments of joy and lucidity. Another quote from Giii: “Each instance of conception is a view of a theatre that has no words nor semblance of a rational world with all its contradictions and confusion.” Combined, the early and later works compose a biographical “before” and “after,” that corresponds to Giii’s experience with bipolar disorder; the drawings belong in the “after,” which continues to this day. More striking, however, is the work’s extraordinary coherence and wholeness, as if all of it were of a piece, antimatter that was once and will be again invisible, that is available as a point of contact in this moment and yet is just passing through.
By Rosemary Heather
Epigraph Ron Giii, from his text produced to accompany the exhibition The Atomic Theatre and The Dictator’s Opera, 1984–86 at 49th Parallel gallery, New York, 1986.
1. Dot Tuer, “‘The CEAC was banned in Canada’: Program Notes for a Tragicomic Opera in Three Acts,” in Mining the Media Archive: Essays on Art, Technology, and Cultural Resistance (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2005), which can be purchased here.
This text was originally published to accompany the exhibition I curated, Ron Giii: Hegel’s Salt Man, presented at the Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto (2007) and Carlton University Art Gallery (2008). The catalogue Ron Giii: Hegel’s Salt Man: writings/works 1975-2007, featuring essays by me and Eli Langer, can be purchased at Art Metropole.
Andrew Patterson wrote a review of Hegel’s Salt Man you can read here.
A version of this text appeared in Hunter and Cook No. 8.
Ron Giii is represented by Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.