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Tim Clark, Some Thoughts on the Question of Limits in Art, 1979. Installation detail.
Courtesy of the artist.
Tim Clark, A Reading of “On Obedience and Discipline” from The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, 1979. Video still.
Courtesy of the artist.
Tim Clark, A Reading from the Bikeriders by Danny Lyon, Cal., Age 28, Ex-Hell’s Angel Member, Chicago Outlaws, 1979.
Image of performance, Dove la Tigre, Milan.
Photo: Alex Neuman
Tim Clark, A Reading from the Lord's Prayer, 1979. Performance at Mercer Union, Toronto.
Photo: Alex Neuman
Tim Clark, Parzival: by Wolfram Von Eschenbach, 1980. Video still of performance.
Courtesy of the artist.

This exhibition is a retrospective look at the performance/installation work of Montreal artist Tim Clark. It begins in 1975 with Clark’s early photo work and ends in 2003 with a video that is a visual articulation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian.

Clark’s singular performance-based practice is significant for its engagement with the issue of the limits of art, particularly in relation to ethical and philosophical thought. In the late 1970s and 80s, Clark produced radical, latently violent performance and installation works that were enacted by means of intense readings of various texts, mostly of a philosophical nature. In the 1990s, he worked on a series of tables that became the site of a redeployment of performance practice in relation to the book, reading, and the philosophical subject.


Tim Clark. Reading the Limits provides an opportunity to address a number of important questions concerning both the history and the future progress of contemporary art in Canada. Moreover, it affords a rare glimpse into one aspect of the development of contemporary art in Quebec.

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In light of the nature of Clark’s work and his engagement with philosophical issues, this exhibition raises the question of the role played by performance art as a form of knowledge in the university, especially given the radical and often violent avant-garde history that has underpinned such an art form. How has the university redefined the nature of performance art, given the fact that it has transformed the social functions of the artist and the artwork since the 1960s, when artists first began to be trained systematically in its specialized disciplinary-based culture? This is a question that points to conceptual art’s role in pioneering a special relationship with one of the university’s basic social mandates (research) and with its privileged media (writing and the book)—which are the vehicles for the inscription and dissemination of knowledge. The artists of the 1960s and 70s used writing and book-based knowledge in their work in order to probe the limits of art as traditionally understood, and such strategies also redefined artists’ social roles and aesthetic practices. Clark’s performance work, his table installations, and his recent feature-length video point to the changing social functions of the artist. As well, these works are emblematic of how art fosters a transformation in forms of knowledge, especially in cases when artworks are used to explore and expand our understanding of what art is, of how disciplines operate, of how knowledge is constituted and disseminated, and of how knowledge can transform the world that we live in and share.

Tim Clark. Reading the Limits presents the full range of the work produced by this important yet little-known artist. The exhibition allows viewers to track and understand the nature of Clark’s engagement with both conceptual art and philosophy over a thirty-year period. In so doing, visitors are also confronted with an underlying curatorial problem which has been addressed through the exhibition’s mode of presentation. How does one present works that are transient to the point of leaving little or no visual traces? An answer to this question has been provided through the exhibition’s conceptualization and layout.

– David Tomas, curator


Clark, Tim. Bruno Dumont, the Sacred, and Our Experience of Violence. Parachute 123 (2006): 94-119.

Clark, Tim. Carter’s Cartesian Paraphrase and “Operational Autonomy”: The Carter-Bostrom Anthropic Principle, the Principle of Mediocrity, and “Being No One . . .” Journal of Evolution & Technology 17 (March 2008): 59-70.

Clark, Tim. Introduction, Dissemination, and Education : Michel Foucault, “Integrated Intellectuals,” and Writing on the Visual Arts in English Canada. Theory Rules : Art As Theory/Theory and Art. Ed. Berland, Jody, Will Straw, and David Tomas. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1996. 257-82.

Clark, Tim. Limits in Art. Montréal : Optica, 1979.

Clark, Tim. Tim Clark : Notes. Parachute 13 (1978): 40-42.

Tomas, David. Tim Clark’s Deipnosophistae : an art of aesthetic vice? Parachute 71 (1993): 24-27.

Tomas, David, and Michèle Thériault, eds. Tim Clark. Reading the Limits Œuvres/Works 1975-2003. Montréal : Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, 2008.



  • reading, installation, and performance and how they interact in Tim Clark’s work;
  • the relationship that exists between language and action and the ways in which it is explored;
  • the use of references and the act of referencing and how these intersect and diverge;
  • art as research and art in the context of university culture;
  • film, its influences on this work, and the ways in which its boundaries or limits are examined.
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  • What is historiography and what are the processes by which historical knowledge is transmitted in Tim Clark’s work?
  • How do the words, texts, and the book define and transmit ideas and, in the context of this exhibition, what are their roles in defining what an artist does?
  • In what ways are notions of performance and performative identity important in this work?
  • What kinds of philosophical and artistic influences form the basis of this work? Examine their integration in the work.
  • What is your sensory experience of this work? What references to violence are present and how do they affect this experience?


à Kempis, Thomas. Of the Imitation of Christ. London : Oxford University Press, 1906.

Art Performances au Québec. Videorecording. Véhicule Art, Art Montréal, 1983.

Bataille, Georges. Story of the Eye. San Francisco : City Lights, 1987.

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Bringhurst, Robert, ed., Visions : contemporary art in Canada. Vancouver : Douglas & McIntyre, 1983.

Britton, Susan, et al. The 11th Paris Biennale: The Canadians. Parachute 20 (1980): 4-15.

Byg, Barton. Landscapes of Resistance. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1995.

Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex : the case for feminist revolution. New York : Bantam Books, 1971.

Gilson, Etienne. Heloise and Abelard. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 1960.

Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Nietzsche: philosopher, psychologist, antichrist. New York : Meridian Books, 1956.

Lyon, Danny. The Bikeriders. New York : Macmillan, 1968.

Meyer, Ursula. Conceptual Art. New York : Dutton, 1972.

Musée d’art contemporain, Montréal. Tendances actuelles au Québec. Montréal : Ministère des affaires culturelles, 1980.

Suppes, Patrick. Introduction to Logic. Princeton : D. Van Nostrand Co., 1957.

Racine, Rober. Festival de performances M.B.A.M. Parachute 13 (1978): 43-47.

Viereck, Peter. Metapolitics the Roots of the Nazi Mind. New York : Capricorn Books, 1965.

Warnock, Mary. Ethics Since 1900. London/New York : Oxford University Press, 1960.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical investigations. Oxford : B. Blackwell, 1958.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.


Produced with the support of the Frederick and Mary Kay Lowy Art Education Fund.

Curator: David Tomas with the collaboration of Michèle Thériault and Eduardo Ralickas

Exhibition produced by the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts


Room, 1975

Series of 6 gelatin silver prints

During the early 1970s I got tired of shooting street work. At that time I was working in the library of Concordia University. One day I was looking through their photo book collection when I came across the work of the American photographer Aaron Siskind. He did his most important work in the late 40s, 50s and 60s. He was good friends with people like Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman. That changed his work from documentary towards Abstract Expressionism.

His work had a major effect on me at the time. I was also visiting the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Mira Godard’s gallery which was the only existing commercial venue for “good” contemporary art production.

After the “expressionist” work I began to work in a studio where I started to construct objects and to photograph them with my 4”x 5” view camera.

Eventually this led to a small series of eight 30.5 x 38 cm black-and-white prints, which were shown by Bill Ewing in a group show at the first Optica space located next to the Centaur Theatre.

In 1976 I entered the M.F.A. program in Photography at Concordia University. This was an extremely important period for me since it was the first time that I was formally studying art and, more significantly, was a member of a community of artists.

It is here that I came into contact with what I would now call applied art history. By this I mean I was part of a community that was familiar with the history and traditions of making “art”. Up to then I only had contact with a small group of photographers — individuals who, in most cases, kept the “fine art” tradition at a distance. The exception to this situation was Bill Ewing’s Optica, where Bill had made it his objective to exhibit work that breached the segregation of “straight” photography.

One of the most important courses I took was Chantal Pontbriand’s seminar on contemporary art. This brought me into contact with a lot of performance and dance-based work. Outside of class it was my conversations with Tony Brown, who had come from the undergrad program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). It was through these discussions, and the readings I was doing, that I first came into contact with Conceptual Art which, next to performance work, had a major impact on me. In particular, Joseph Kosuth’s text “Art after Philosophy.” Most importantly, Kosuth was using a lot of references from the analytical tradition of philosophy, which was what I had studied at university.

7 Hours, 1977

Created for Tom Gibson’s graduate class in photography, Concordia University
Monitor, video camera, electronic flash, chair, flood light, black cloth blindfold

This was a piece I did at university. I sat in a darkened room, in front of a video monitor with a video camera mounted on the set facing me. It was a real-time loop shot of me sitting with an electronic flash taped between my legs with the flash head pointed up towards my head.

Roughly every 30 seconds, I manually fired the flash which, in turn, over-exposed my upper body and the image on the monitor for a few seconds so that I would disappear in a blinding flash of light each time.

Information Series, 1977 (printed in 1978)

18 chromogenic prints
Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa

Interestingly, I did my first performance and my last photo project in Tom Gibson’s photo class. This was a series of eighteen 41 x 51 cm colour prints of a 244 x 305 cm free-standing wooden wall which I constructed in my studio. The wall acted as a support structure for a series of interventions that I did on the wall and then photographed. This work eventually went on to be my graduating show that was held at Gilles Gheerbrant’s gallery on Crescent street in 1978. The title of the show was Information Series. The NFB bought the entire set of negatives and prints from this series the same year.

Clearly the reference in the title to “information” links up with conceptual art. However, its genesis has as much to do with my earlier studio work as it has to do with conceptualism. More than anything else, the title is really a nod in the direction of Artforum, which I was reading at that time.

This project is rooted in three sets of interests that represented a single point of intersection. First, it goes without saying that the final title of the project, Information Series, speaks directly to the work of those artists who were roughly framed by what has been referred to as Conceptual Art. Second, the series acknowledged the very important role that my reading of Artforum magazine played in my introduction to modernist art. Remember I essentially learned about this tradition when I was working in the stacks at the university library. While I was doing photography at the time I really knew nothing of modernism. It was really out of boredom that I would look at art magazines. I used to tell people when they asked me what I meant by Information Series that it was an ode to Artforum!

A Reading from “The Story of the Eye” by Georges Bataille, 1978

Presented at the Art and Performance Festival, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1978
Super 8 mm film projector, 35 mm film projector, mirrors, supporting wood structure

This was the next performance after the first one that I did in Tom’s class. Chantal Pontbriand had put together an art and performance festival at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts that brought together all the major practitioners of performance work in Canada. This was my first performance where I deployed the strategy of “reading” selected textual documents that addressed the issues that I was interested in.

I am holding in one arm an 8 mm film projector and a 35 mm slide projector in my other arm. One is pointed at a large, tilted mirror at one end of the room while the other projector is pointed at another tilted mirror at the opposite end of the room. The 8 mm projector has a short porno movie while the other projector has a slide of a paragraph selected from Bataille’s book.

What I am trying to do is read the text while, at the same time, attempting to keep the 8 mm projector directed on the opposite mirror. This is extremely difficult given that I had to turn my head in one direction while I had to guess where to keep the other projector correctly pointed. And, as I was reading the text the weight of the two projectors became increasingly unbearable. All of this difficulty was integral to the performance.

From my second performance on I had decided to include installations as a part of my performance practice. As such, I always have viewed the installations as “performances for the audience.”

Some Thoughts on the Question of Limits in Art, 1979

Presented at Optica, Montreal
Two 16 mm film projectors, wooden double-sided screen, accompanying publication titled Limits in Art

This was my first installation. It was also the first time the leather glove/gauntlet made its appearance in my work. The work is also important because this is the first time that my interest in philosophy (of language), ethics and art converged in one project.

I placed a 16 mm projector at each end of the gallery from where each one could project a film loop onto the opposing sides of a single, free-standing wooden screen.

One film loop depicted me wearing the gauntlet and writing a text on a transparent plastic sheet. However, the viewer could not read the text because the camera and operator were actually positioned on the other side of a 15 m plastic sheet that was horizontally stretched between two 2.43 cm wood columns. I started writing from left to right and, as I did, the camera operator moved the camera, which was mounted on tracks, in unison with me. Because the camera was on the opposite side of the plastic the writing was, of course, filmed in reverse.

The other projector was projecting a 16 mm loop of a printed version of the text I was writing on the opposing side of the free-standing screen.

Limits in Art began as a film project insofar as I had the idea of a long tracking shot of me writing out the last page from “Limits in Art” on clear plastic in a straight left to right line. When the viewer saw the film they were not be able to read it because of the way that it was shot in reverse. Originally, I had the crazy idea of putting the entire contents of the little artist’s book that I wrote (and that accompanied the installation), entitled “Limits in Art”, on film and project it on the opposite side of the image of me writing. I gave that idea up pretty fast when I realized both the cost of producing such a film and that no one was going to ever read the entire book projected as a film. In the end I decided to shoot the last, concluding page of the book.

A Reading of “On Obedience and Discipline” from The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, 1979

Commissioned by Véhicule Art as part of Art Montreal for Cable TV
Black leather gauntlet, text

This piece was prepared for a series of performance projects curated by members of Véhicule Art for Cable TV in Montreal. Véhicule was the first parallel space in Montreal and was, along with A Space in Toronto and Western Front in Vancouver, one of the first artist run organization in Canada.

This was a very simple piece that was recorded on camera for later broadcasting. It was premised around a reading of a section from The Imitation of Christ, by the thirteenth-century German monk Thomas à Kempis. This work of spiritual devotion, or the “Following of Christ”, is second only to the Bible in terms its universal readership.

Each of the artists involved in the project was given a separate appointment to record his piece at the cable TV station, which at the time was located near Jean Talon and Décarie. The station’s studio was very small. I requested that nothing be set up for the piece and that the set be left empty. Once we were ready, I walked in front of the camera, took off my shirt, put on my black leather gauntlet, knelt down, placed a small copy of the text in front of me, lifted my right arm up to slightly cover my face and proceeded to yell the text out. Once completed, I removed my leather arm while still kneeling then rose up and walked off the set. I found out later that the piece freaked out the station so much that they refused to air it.

This was the first time I used the “arm” in a performance. I first developed it for the Limits in Art installation. Apart from its rather obvious iconic references to pain, violence, fascism, evil, etc. etc., the true reference of the arm is Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. I had seen that film at least twice when it was released during my high school years. In particular, it refers to the scene when Strangelove (who was modelled by Kubrick on the former Nazi rocket scientist Dr. Werner von Braun who, after the war, worked, like many other former Nazis, on the American rocket program) is explaining Herman Kahn’s “Doomsday” principle, during which his right hand, which is always covered by a black glove, starts to function autonomously from his control. This then leads to the hilarious scene when he starts fighting with his own arm in order to keep it under control.

A Reading from “The Bikeriders” by Danny Lyon, Cal., Age Twenty-Eight, Ex-Hell’s Angel Member, Chicago Outlaws, 1979

Presented at Dove La Tigre Gallery, Milan
Black leather gauntlet, 18 m of reinforced, black gaffer tape with text deployed on the inside of the tape, black steel brackets

This is one of my personal favourites. Danny Lyon’s book is, for me, a classic piece of documentary work. Lyon rode with the Chicago Outlaws biker gang. He was very close to them and decided to produce this now famous piece of 60s photo work. It is a combination of photographs and interviews with the gang members he was close to. “Cal”, which I selected to read, was originally Québécois, and now lived in the States. I picked his story because for many years my brother, Christopher, or “Johnnie” as his buddies called him, was a member of what was, at that time in Québec, the biker gang “The Devil’s Disciples” (an English name, but the gang was strictly French-speaking). On a couple of occasions I also rode with them on some of their “runs.”

The piece is very simple. I stretched a 18 m length of reinforced black gaffer tape between two black steel right angle brackets screwed to the wall of the Dove La Tigre gallery in Milan. The brackets served to project the tape about 20 cm from the wall. I placed the text for reading in a straight line on the inside, or wall side, of the tape. The actual performance was me reading the text from left to right with, as you will see, my leather arm pointing at my mouth for the entire length of the reading.

A Reading of the Lord’s Prayer (23rd Psalm), Mercer Union, Toronto, 1979


Presented at Mercer Union, Toronto

Black leather gauntlet, black leather ankle straps, metal cable, steel brackets, wooden structure, text


This project was presented in the first space of the recently established parallel gallery, Mercer Union, located on King St. in Toronto. The first phrase of the prayer, “Our Father, which art in Heaven”, leads us into what is perhaps the most important and famous prayer in all of Christendom. This project was premised on the principle of the “reversal of values” set out by Friedrich Nietzsche in his work on Greek tragedy, The Birth of Tragedy. Ostensibly, the piece has the “intended” appearance of being a “Satanic” reading of the Psalm insofar as I read the prayer while I am hanging upside down. However, this aspect represents the act of “Reversal” in two senses. First, in the narrow sense, as referencing the satanic liturgy, where all the values of the Christian experience are reversed, including most famously the inversion of the Crucifix. Second, but also more importantly in the broad sense that all of human lived experience is subject to the ‘reversal of values” — that “tragedy” functions in the Sophoclean sense that the hubris that underwrites the human activity of ratiocination cannot escape the inherent limitations of this human experience. As C.M. Bowra notes:

“The central idea of Sophoclean tragedy is that through suffering a man learns to be modest before the gods. . . . When [the characters] are finally forced to see the truth, we know that the gods have prevailed and that men must accept their own insignificance.”

A Reading of a Letter From Carl Von Clausewitz to his Fiancée, the Countess Von Bruhl, Written on the Eve of the Battle of Jena, 1808, 1980


a) Version for Performance festival organized by Parachute at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: black leather gauntlet, slide projector, wooden steps, text

b) Version for the Biennale de Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris: black leather gauntlet, aluminium tubing space frame, black plastic canvas with an slit in the lower middle of the sheet, knife, text

This work was developed for the Biennale de Paris at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where Max Dean, Raymond Gervais, Kim Tomczak, John Greyson and I represented Canada at the Biennale. It was curated by Alvin Balkind. The piece is based on a letter that Carl von Clausewitz sent to his fiancée, the Countess Von Bruhl, on the eve of the Battle of Jena where Napoleon crushed the Prussians. There are two things about the letter and the location of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. One, the museum is located on the Boulevard de Jena and the letter contains Clausewitz‘s heartfelt desire to participate in the battle. The letter expresses, in a simple, unaffected manner, sentiments completely at odds with the mentalities and expectations of the audience about to see the piece. More importantly, Clausewitz, in his canonical work, On War, did for modern war what Machiavelli did for the politics of life and governance. As he stated, war is merely an extension or arm of the governance of the foreign policy of the modern nation state.

The first version was presented at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. For the performance I built a wooden staircase of 10 steps. Onto this I projected the head and shoulder section of August Sander’s “Corps Student”. The performance began when I walked out into the audience, removed my shirt and then climbed the stairs and raised my arm as if I was slashing at the face and read the letter which was on the wall.

The Paris version was constructed around an aluminium tubing space frame that, when erected in the centre of the space in the Musée, supported a 2.43 x 3.04 cm black plastic canvas with an 9 cm slit in the lower middle of the sheet. The piece commences when I move from the audience, where I am sitting, towards the front centre where the slit is located. As I move I remove my shirt to expose the “leather arm” and once the shirt is off I kneel before the canvas, whereupon I take out a knife and proceed to slit one of my wrists. Once I have done this I then push my right arm through the slit so that I can grab the canvas from the other side and proceed to say, in a moderately loud speaking voice (but not yelling) the contents of Clausewitz’s letter.

A “Corps Student” is not a military figure. Rather, he is a member of traditional duelling societies that still exist today in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The duels are fought at very close range — virtually face to face — with heavy sabres. The goal is to slash at your opponent’s face. You are not allowed to move or attack any other part of the body. The goal is not death, but to produce duelling scars.

Carl Von Clausewitz was a Prussian general who analyzed Napoleon’s political and military innovations in what is certainly one of the least known but most important books to come out of the nineteenth century: On War. Clausewitz developed the modern doctrine that war must be understood as “foreign policy by other means.”

Parzival: by Wolfram Von Eschenbach, 1980

Presented at the Musée du Québec, Quebec City and the Alberta College of Art, Calgary, Alberta, 1980; Mercer Union, Toronto, 1982
Black leather gauntlet, custom-built rolling platform, miniature white Plexiglas staircase supporting a white Plexiglas screen, 16 mm projector, roller system and steel cable, audio system

I built, out of a single sheet of 1.21 x 2.43 m plywood, a rolling platform. On this assembly I had made, out of white acrylic glass, a small staircase on top of which was a 2.50 x 3 m white, acrylic glass screen. In front of this screen about three feet away was a 16 mm projector with a one-minute section from The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo. The platform is designed to be moved over a length of 9.14 m on rollers and is guided by a piece of steel cable stretched just above the floor for that distance, so that when I shove the platform hard with my foot it shoots along the cable until it is stopped at the end by a steel angle bracket in the floor just in front of the audience.

The performance starts with music from a section of Wagner’s opera Parsifal. Near the end of the three-minute section I suddenly turn on the projector then shove the platform full force with my foot and “order” the audience to come forward and see the film. However, because the film is only a minute long only a few members of the audience actually managed to see anything.

John, 15: 2-3, An Anonymous Letter, 1981

Presented at the Belgo, Montreal
Rectangular space constructed out of sheets of metal, a free-standing white wooden wall with a window space pierced in the wall, two sheets of clear Plexiglas sandwiched together containing six panels of text mounted on clear Mylar sheets, 35 mm slide projector

I came across an editorial published by the American magazine Soldier of Fortune. The magazine had been accused of functioning as a clearing house, via their advertisements, for hired killers. The magazine responded by publishing the editorial defending their right to publish based on the constitutional right of the freedom of speech and the press.

In a room in the Belgo Building I built a rectangular space constructed out of 2.50 x 3 m metal sheeting. The space was roughly 6 x 15 m in size. At one end there was the entrance door from the Belgo hallway. Next to it I mounted a 35 mm slide projector with 80 slides of the head and shoulder shot of the “Corps Student.” At the other end of the room I built a free-standing white wooden wall that was located about 36 cm from the back of the sheet metal wall. The projector was located in a way that allowed it to project the image upside down and to completely cover the wall. There was a centrally placed window of 182 x 50 cm in size cut through the wall containing two sheets of clear Plexiglas that were sandwiched together. Between the sheets I placed six panels of text mounted on clear Mylar sheets. Each of the sheets had a section of the editorial that was placed in an upside down position.

When people came to see the piece they would find me sitting outside, in the Belgo hallway, next to the door of the installation. However, I would only permit one person at a time to go in. Each entered into a space that was only illuminated by the slide projector which was changing the slides of the “student” at three-second intervals. Each slide remained in place for five seconds. Once a viewer entered it was up to each of them to discover the text and to read it if he or she wanted. To do so, one had to go behind the wall and bend one’s head and read the text in an upside-down position as the slides were projected directly onto one’s face and eyes through the transparent window that was supporting the text.

The expectation was that once a person had finished reading, he or she would leave the space and ask me what actually was going on with this work. In particular, where did I stand with respect to what was said in the text. More importantly, because a viewer only realized what the text was stating after he or she had read it — you may or may not have thought that you were somehow ethically complicit in the content of the text.

“I will explain the work and state my own position if, and only if, the viewer asks me about the piece and where I stand.”

Letter I, Heloise (1100-1163) to Peter Abelard (1079-1142), 1982

Presented as part of the Canada Performance Art Series, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1982; in OKanada, Akademie der Kunste, Berlin, 1983; at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 1984
Custom-built white circular Plexiglas platform in nine sections, integrated set of strobe lights, black triangular column, length of chain, dog collar, text

I arranged to have a circular (3 m in diameter) white acrylic glass platform built with a centrally located 2.75 m high black triangular column. A set of strobe lights was positioned under the Plexiglas. I placed a text, “Letter I,” from Heloise Fulbert to Peter Abelard, around the edge of the platform.

The piece began when I removed my shirt and turned the lights on. I then picked up a 3.50 m piece of chain, swung it around above my head and then whipped it at high speed around the bottom of the column whereupon it locked itself there. I then attached the other end to a collar around my neck, walked onto the platform, went down on all fours and slowly read the text. When I came to the end I howled loudly like a dog.

Yet Another Philosophy of History by Johann Gottfried Herder, 1985

Presented at the University of Ottawa and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
Wooden platform, free-standing two-part wooden wall with two slits and two door handles, modified table and chair, 16 mm film projector, microphone, audio system

This project was based on the work of the German pastor and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, And Yet Another Philosophy of History for the Education of Mankind: One of Many Contributions of the Century (1774). In particular Herder’s selection of a quotation from Epictetus’s Encheiridion to head his essay:

“It is not things but opinions about things that disturb men.”

—Epictetus, Encheiridion chapter 5.1:1-2

This was my last and probably my most complex performance.

As may be seen from the installation photos, I had a large, ground level, flat stage constructed with a “wall of doors” bolted to the centre of the stage floor. The wall consisted of two 4’ x 8’ doors fixed side by side with one door being placed in an upright position and the other in an upside-down position. In the centre of each door there was a single 5 x 20 cm slot.

I placed a 16 mm film projector that was mounted onto a narrow wooden table on one side of the constructed wall. It was pointed away from it towards one of the museum walls so that the audience would think that the film would be projected away for the “doors”. But the projector was actually fitted with a special optical element that projected the film at a 90º angle towards the wall. On the opposite side of the “wall” there was an antique wooden school chair bolted to the floor facing in the opposite direction to the projector. In front of this chair I placed a microphone mounted on a tripod. The projected film was six minutes long and consisted of outtakes from a British feature film. One of its major scenes was the rescuing by the British Special Arms Services (SAS) of people being held captive by Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorists.

As was the case with almost all of my performances I was in the audience wearing my “leather arm” under my shirt. The performance began, again like my other performances, with the removal of my shirt. I then switched on the projector and flicked open a large switchblade that I was hiding on me. I then sat on the chair and leaned backwards so that my slightly opened mouth was in direct line with one of the sections of the films being projected through the slot in one of the doors onto my mouth. At the same time, I commenced gently tickling the microphone with the tip of the blade. (The location of the microphone was such that the other section form the film was projected through the second slot onto the microphone and knife tip.) I remained in this position, tickling the microphone for the duration of the film clip. The final part of the performance consisted of a handout that was given to the audience as they entered the performance space. It contained the title and first page of Herder’s essay. But I had randomly reversed a number of single letters in words so that they were printed backwards on the page—thus making it difficult for the audience to read.

[1] Veit & Comp., Berlin, 1845/1846. [2] Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1991, 1992

Presented at the Belgo, Montreal
Custom-built black modernist style table with cut-out central square, glass, anodized aluminium rods, mirror, copy of Fichte/Schelling: Correspondance (1794-1802), Paris, PUF, 1991

This was my first work of art after completing my M.A. in art history. In many ways it was an accidental piece. I was browsing in the Flammarion bookstore that used to be on Laurier Street when I came across a monograph published by Épiméthée in Paris. Its title was Fichte/Schelling: Correspondance (1794-1802).

Since the work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling constitute two of the most important contributions to the philosophical foundations of modernity, I decided to make a memorial to their work, that history and the immense difficulty that they must have faced in attempting to confront the work of Kant.

This is also the point in my work when the principle of difficulty comes to the foreground. I realized that it had always been a part of my work, but only when I made this work did I actually foreground it in the work itself.

Why the principle of difficulty? Perhaps it was because of the effect of Conceptual Art on me, in particular Kosuth’s work, and my love of philosophy. It is hard to say. But, by the time I finished my M.A. in art history I felt that a lot of work I was seeing and some of the writing I had read when I was doing my thesis was really just about the appearance of being theoretical and/or of being a work of art.

I had a black, hyper-modernist table constructed with a space in the centre of the table where I sandwiched a copy of an edited collection of the correspondence between Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854) and Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), positioned face down. I then suspended a mirror from under the table near the floor. Each aluminium rod holding the mirror was anodized in one of the primary colours of De Stijl modernism. The viewer would realize that the book was face down, and although they could see the cover of the book in the mirror, they could not read the title because the mirror had reversed the title. So, if they wanted to read the title they had to go under the table and look up. Only then could they read it. However, even that point of reading comprehension was further frustrated given that the title of the book contains the term “correspondence” which immediately earmarks the contents of the book as private discussions via letters. Finally, this frustration was further increased because that it was all that you could read since you could not manipulate the book given that it was sealed in the table top. If one wanted to do know more one had to go out and read the book. That is, go and work for your supper!

Deipnosophistae, 1993

Table installation
Presented at Galerie René Blouin, Montreal
Custom-built table, limited edition book (3)

It is with this work that I began to explicitly conceive of my installations as “performances for the audience”. Deipnosophistae is also the title of a work written in the second century A.D. by the Greek writer Atheneaus of Naucratis in Egypt. The title means “The Banquet of the Learned or Philosophers at Dinner or The Gastronomers”.

This text is an invaluable source of information concerning Hellenistic and Roman literary and cultural practices. Constructed in the manner of Platonic dialogues, it recounts a series of lengthy conversations. It also contains the Greek term Pornea, one of the root sources of the modern term “pornography”. The actual term “pornography” has its origins in two 18th and early 19th-century sources. One of them was related to the development and application of the term by German historians to classify the “obscene” objects recovered from the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

While ostensibly about the history of the term “pornography” the actual source of the project was a work by the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza: Tractatus de intellectus emendatione (On the Improvement of the Understanding [1662]). The portfolio that was placed on the table in the gallery begins with a quotation from Spinoza’s work. In it, he counsels would be scholars to respect the customs of the city/culture in which they are living and working. This counsel marks the philosophical problem of difference — as defined by the presence in the city of anyone who is not of that city, that is the “other” who must take care of their person and opinions while living in that city, and among the local inhabitants. Thus, Spinoza provides a cautionary note to anyone with an opinion against the normative conditions they are working under. Therefore, they must attempt to respect the norms and, at the same time, control their own arguments through the careful articulation of their opinions so that their expression will not disturb or disrupt those norms.

The exhibition was constructed around a format whereby only two people could view the work at a time. To facilitate the application of this rule people were informed on the invitation card to make appointments to see the work. Another reason for this rule was to make certain that the gallery was in a position to inform any potential viewer that the portfolio on the table in the small exhibition room contained explicit sexual imagery, thus permitting anyone to decide beforehand if they wished to view the project.

Livres pour hommes, 1994

Table installation
Presented at Galerie René Blouin
A 1940s-style grey metal office desk, clear Plexiglas and blue anodized aluminium display mechanism, set of 5 volumes of a nineteenth-century edition of the work of the German writer and botanist Adelbert von Chamisso, a first edition of Die unsichtbare Loge (The Invisible Lodge), by Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, custom-built chair with a blue anodized aluminium extension to the right-hand side rear leg

This is the first piece where my much earlier reading of feminism finally came to the fore. I had a very mechanical, precise looking device built to hold two works securely to an old 1940s-style office desk.

Both sets of books are first editions that I bought in Germany. The set of books on the left is a collection of the writing of the 19th-century French-German novelist and naturalist Adalbert Von Chamisso. He is best known for a children’s story that he wrote entitled Peter Schlemihl, which is the story of a young man who sells, or is conned by the devil to sell his shadow (the traditional trope for one’s soul).

In the case of the books on the right they are two volumes of the work Die unsichtbare Loge. Eine Biographie (The Hidden Lodge: A Biography, 1793) by the late 18th-century German Romantic writer Jean-Paul Friedrich Richter. The novel concerns the correct education of a young boy. Richter was influenced by the work of Rousseau, hence the reason why he changed his name to “Jean-Paul” Richter.

The role of feminism is fundamental to this work insofar as they had argued for both a critique of patriarchy and, equally, a self-critique.

The Glass Book, 1994

Presented at Galerie René Blouin, Montreal
Rectangular box formed of six black anodized aluminium machined plates, blue anodized aluminium plate, block of optical glass with etched drawing of a bush, straight razor

This work attempts to produce a “saleable object” through the “beauty” of its formal appearance, the exquisite preciseness of its craftsmanship and its material presence. Allegorically and analogically it creates ironic commentary on the “generic” characteristics of being a “man”. This is most emblematically represented in the image of the “plant/bush” on the cover of the book. It plays with the notion of “natural” verses the “artificial” and also with the book cover’s generic qualities.

Melancholy of Maleness, 1996

Presented at Galerie René Blouin, Montreal
A set of six diptychs, each comprised of a framed black-and-white print and a framed set of small Iris prints of sections extracted from prints of the landscape paintings of Nicholas Poussin, another single framed diptych, an object composed of two Russian bayonets glued together and presented on a shelf.

Melancholy of Maleness, with my last video project, A Reading of Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, by the Southern, American Author Cormac McCarthy, represent the end of my work as an artist. In order to answer the question of why the “end” I should outline what drove all the projects since the mid-1970’s — my interest in philosophic criticality, in particular to what Hegel referred to as the “critique of self-limitation.” As William Bristow notes with regards to Hegel’s discussion of the epistemic principle of ‘self-limitation’,

“… the failure of self-limitation, limitation by the self of its claims about itself is shown by its failure to respond satisfactorily to the demand that the knowing subject define the limits of its knowledge…. This knowing subject cannot define the objects of its immediate certainty as limited within the confines of its self-limited stance…” (Hegel and the Transformation of Philosophical Critique, 2007)

Since the 1970’s my reading of the “critique” has always been strongly filtered through the work of Wittgenstein. In particular, a statement in a letter to his friend the architect Paul Engelmann that featured prominently in my 1979 installation Limits in Art and that has influenced much of my work since then:

… we run up against the limits of language. This running-up-against [anzurennen] Kierkegaard also saw, and indicated in a completely similar way — as running up against the paradox. This running up against the limits of language is Ethics.

An example of what I am talking about is the project Melancholy of Maleness, an exhibition that is a reflection on a work that I read in 1970, The Dialectic of Sex (1970) by the Canadian born Feminist, Shulamith Firestone. This book was my first encounter with Feminism as a critical practice, and, as a “Critique” directed at the history of patriarchy. In coming to terms with the overall force of her arguments I noted that Firestone positioned both of us in a state of “Melancholy” — a plaintive space.

This situation reminded me of Wittgenstein’s commentary on Heidegger and Kierkegaard that being “human” is the “running-up-against [anzurennen]” or “limits of language” ⎯ that is, “Ethics” is the inevitable metaphysics of (self) limitation.

Shirt, 1996

Installation proposal for the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
Aluminium plank or rod, bronze platform, birch wood platform, quartz lamps, shirt, text

This project was developed explicitly for any museum with a mandate to collect and exhibit contemporary art. I first proposed the “Installation” to the Musée for their project space. It consisted of a 618 cm long x 1.25 cm wide x 7 cm high aluminium “plank” running lengthwise in the space. Located at precisely the centre of the length of the “plank”, to the right of it, is a “used” “Shirt” placed on a platform. This platform would be made of machined bronze plates and was 5 cm high x 30 cm x 45 cm in dimension. Exactly parallel to this platform on the other side of the “plank” is another 121 x 152 cm platform made out of birch wood with a printed text “Loi” published in Paris on March 28, 1792.

The installation is there for the viewer to consider. By “consider” I mean that I have not provided any name for the provenance of the “Shirt” nor will I ever tell anyone. The piece was intended to underscore the utter obviousness of evil and, more importantly, that modernist explanations of suffering, injustice and violence are potentially worthless. Finally, given that the installation has all the material and formal trappings of a class of modernist art practice, “minimalism + installation”, it also underscores the failure of modernity as a utopian vision of the ethico-political progress of humanity through the enunciative belief in the principles of the inherent goodness of “free humanness” functioning within the constraints of “ratiocination” or human reasoning.