Artist pays tribute to times gone by

The latest offering from Kingston-based artist Michael Davidge conjures up the ghosts of Kingston past

A strong glass of spirits accompanies the digitized world of Michael Davidge.
A strong glass of spirits accompanies the digitized world of Michael Davidge.
A strong sense of Kingston’s historical past appears in The Third Policeman.
A strong sense of Kingston’s historical past appears in The Third Policeman.

When I walked into the grandiose Agnes Etherington Art Centre to experience Michael Davidge’s contribution to the gallery’s Solo Studio-Watch Series, I was instructed to walk down a corridor with the promise I’d be able to locate the piece with my ears first rather than my eyes. Immediately intrigued, I did just that and followed my ears into the Centre’s Etherington House Study.

Previously a private residence, going down the corridor will transport you to another era. With rich tapestries and rugs paving my way, I gazed around and strained to listen to a faint crackle that led me into the naturally lit room containing Davidge’s work, The Third Policeman.

I was immediately enveloped by Davidge’s piece, a deceivingly simple setup, I took in the components of the work bit by bit. Facing small plasma screens before me, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the images teasingly appearing on the screens. The three-channel video installation is accentuated by the soundtrack flowing through the room imitating a crackling, creaking fire and the eerie drip of an unknown source giving the viewer the illusion of feeling entirely alone with the piece. The dark and complex nature of the work is immediately evident.

“Low key absurdity, paranoia and koan-like evasiveness are trademarks of Michael Davidge’s deeply intelligent work,” the centre’s curator Jan Allen said.

The Solo Studio-Watch Series is a fairly new initiative for the Art Centre aiming to recognize the work emerging from both visual and media artists in Kingston. With a goal of making art more accessible for Kingston residents, the series invites viewers to understand the different interests and thought processes of six Kingston artists.

The piece is similar in theme to the novel from which it takes its name, Irish author Flann O’Brien’s surreal and mournfully ghostly story was written in the mid twentieth century but remained unpublished until 1967, after his death in 1966. The book is full of peculiar concepts, artifacts and locations. It seems fitting that the longer I experienced the piece the more I came to draw logic from it through decoding the mysterious images on the screens before me. I encourage viewers to do the same and give the work time and patience—the meaning isn’t necessarily an immediate or literal one, making it all the more appealing.

Davidge is also the artistic director of Kingston’s Modern Fuel gallery and also holds a Masters in English Literature from the University of Western Ontario. Committed to the advocacy of taking a chance, Modern Fuel has its finger on the pulse of exciting and groundbreaking art. Davidge’s vision for that mandate is clear. After moving to Kingston in 2006, his work has become key in representing various aspects of the community’s culture.

The centre screen depicts a pair of glowing flambé Christmas puddings balanced on scales, wavering slightly as they become more visible and illuminated as time progresses. Davidge selected the critical years of 1842-43 as a reference point for his work. The screens on either side of the centre screen introducing archival images of Kingston’s familiar institutions and influential figures such as Sir John A. MacDonald and City Hall.

Wavering to and from the line of visibility, the occasionally unfocused and blurred images flicker and guide the viewer through time incorporating both artistic and literary references. Lit only by the occasional glow of a cigarette, the images circulate in repetitions every three or four minutes, making deciphering the piece’s meaning difficult. It’s both surprising and exciting how interactive the installation is, as it challenges viewers to perceive the piece through inspiring thought-processes on various aspects of their city and community.

One of the many images used is an old photo of Charles Dickens, who visited the Kingston Penitentiary in 1842—he published A Christmas Carol the following year. With the inviting Christmas puddings as a constant visual reminder on the center screen, Dickens’s representation and influence seem to amalgamate here.

The piece constantly yet subtly probes the senses. Watching and re-watching the video installation is enhanced further by the ever-present, almost paranormal sizzling sounds surrounding the work. Eyes eventually wandered over to the adjacent fireplace to discover yet another aspect of the work; an abandoned glass of partially consumed strong and pungently sweet-smelling spirits sits staged on the mantle. The glass, a material and tactile object, ties together the piece aligning the virtual aspects of the video screens with that of the material world. With our first Prime Minister and literary greats flashing across the screens, I can’t help but wonder whose beverage it could have been.

The Third Policeman is on display until October 4th at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

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