True Temper/Cold Storage Essay

Thierry Delva and Helen Yeomans
True Temper/Cold Storage

The city workers were recently pouring new cement on a section of sidewalk on the road to my daughter's junior high. Of course this attracted the attention of all of the kids sauntering to school that morning -- the prospect of a fresh concrete 'tableau' was oh-so-tempting. The city workers stood by, however, and warily eyed the kids who dutifully carried on to school.

But at lunch-time, Claire and her pals rushed back to the fresh but now unguarded concrete. What to write? Memorialize one's name? No, she thought, too obvious... Besides, she was the only 'Claire' in the entire school, therefore easy to find should there be retribution on the part of the city works department. So she hastily scrawled 'Megan' in the slushy concrete; there were five in her Grade Eight class alone.

Writing in wet concrete. It is the classic childhood prank, the spirited kid taunting the powers that be with a private inscription onto public property. It truly is a juvenile action but humorously entrenched within Western social mythology as a sanctioning of the individual's right to make their mark and inscribe their will on the public slate.

Thierry Delva's new project, True Temper, ironically taken from the name of the manufacturer of the thirteen wheelbarrows featured prominently within Delva's installation, is a marked departure from his previous body of work. For the past few years, Delva has been casting the voids created by Styrofoam consumer packaging of commercial, domestic electronic goods and, in doing so, created sculptural surrogates of the absent components. Filled with wry irony, Delva's objects slyly quoted early, abstract, modernist sculpture cast in the formal whiteness of studio plaster production while commenting on the slipperiness of visual and material meaning.

With True Temper, Delva has slipped in a twist; the contents of a container are again constructed through cast material but the 'subject' is a social matter rather than abstract readings of absent consumer products. Indeed, each vessel, the wheelbarrow, is magnificently present and filled with set cement. Each cement pour is inscribed with a scrawled revelation: "David loves Melinda." "Robert loves Tonia." While there are many Davids and Roberts within the Halifax art community, there is only one 'Melinda' and one 'Tonia.' Delva's inscription is certainly about real people. His previous product-casting pieces were titled by their brand-name and product number; using real people as his subject matter is in keeping with this strategy.

But what are we to make of his portable sidewalk romance revelations? The associations are varied and evocative. The wheelbarrow quotes the tool of the worker, the concrete is the slate of the public domain (also eerily reminiscent of tumbled tombstones), the inscriptions are the revelations about a social group, while the installation alludes to a community of wheelbarrows arranged in a formal table-seating configuration. In conversation, Delva reveals that the named couples are taken from his social and professional community with his initial link to the first of the named couples. These are his friends unknowingly written into a dinner party scenario where their inscribed names, written in Delva's hand, functions as surrogates for their presence. The artist functions as an impresario who has brought together a 'cast' of friends for a provocative glimpse of his relevant community. By exhibiting within the Khyber, Delva is bringing this piece 'home' to us. Displayed in another city or context, the names become detached from specific people and lightened in social meaning.

Fifteen years ago I lived alone in an apartment on Queen Street West in Toronto. The front area was my studio, the big kitchen my living space. My then 'girlfriend,' now my current wife/partner/spousal-module, still pokes fun at me when she describes my refrigerator back then. She saw it as 'empty'... two litres of milk, a sad bag of carrots, mundane condiments, half a dozen eggs, a great variety of beer and a bag of frozen peas which had to be chiseled out of a freezer long over due for defrosting. I was mocked as a typical straight, single guy.

Now, married with two daughters and sharing quarters with a mother-in-law, our refrigerator is jam packed with, well, homemade jams, for starters. There are low-fat milks and foods and no-fat products for my mother-in-law who has a serious high-cholesterol problem. My daughters have packaged servings of exotic snacks for school. Vegetables are crammed everywhere. There are three species of bottled mustards. Tupperware containers of sorted fresh foods are segregated from containers of leftovers. My beer is now stored in the back room with only room in the refrigerator for chilling a few bottles at a time. This might be a typical domestic refrigerator for an extended family governed by three generations of mothers and daughters with myself, as the only male, a passive observer of contemporary female culture. But I really don't know; I have no datum point to judge by. Perhaps I'm just a typical married guy. But what is 'typical?'

Helen Yeomans' project Cold Storage, photographs of the contents of people's refrigerators, helps us know a little bit more about others, and, by reflex, ourselves. She capitalizes on a basic human instinct, that is, the urge to voyeuristically look closely at private things that are not meant for public viewing. What is fascinating about the process of vision, though, is its all-encompassing scope. A quick peek into someone's refrigerator will provide the average person with a snapshot of it contents. Quick decisions will be made about the refrigerator owner's social class, their taste in food, and the economic priority placed on nourishment. Is there more beer than real food? Are contents fresh? Are products expensive brand names? How are things packaged? The crumpled containers from the grocery store, leftover Chinese takeout food or nested stacks of Tupperware and Rubbermaid?

The old adage, "You are what you eat," is easily replaced with the axiom, "You are what you consume." Yeomans allows the inadvertent glance into a refrigerator at a party to become a cold, analytical stare through the process of photography. All is up for scrutiny, indeed, judgment. Yet it is important, however, to understand the source material of her images. These refrigerators are those of her friends and acquaintances that often represent, as with Delva, specific age and economic groups within the region.

When Delva and Yeomans were paired for this two-person show, the reasoning was based on how each artist played with the concept of 'content' within their art practices. Each revealed or constructed a view of an interior space, Delva's the void created by electronic packing, Yeomans' of refrigerated cold-stored goods. Yeomans' project stayed the course of her original proposal; Delva's, on the other hand, is a tangential leap away from the original proposal. Gone is the formal Modernist play. If anything, Delva's True Temper accommodated Yeomans' scrutinizing tactics of poking into other people's domestic business by posting private names of couples with the confessional tone of a spy destined to be caught snooping in on other people's affairs. Both artists, then, create thumb-nail portraits of absent people. When presenting this work to a larger public audience, the artists have truly become secret agents through whom information flows from private places to the cultural interrogation site of a public gallery.

In popular anthropological mythology, aboriginal peoples would not allow themselves to be photographed for fear of having their souls/spirits stolen by the camera. Perhaps Delva and Yeomans are mischievous, twinkly-eyed, stealers/revealers of souls. Yeomans' camera staring into refrigerators becomes the conduit for plucking away chunks of other people's souls for the pure visual enjoyment of gallery viewers to capture. Delva's inscriptions cheekily formalize couplings and fix it in concrete as an impromptu social ledger for all to see.

But there are vicarious thrills fueling each level of these activities, and we are all complicit. The artists experience the thrill of conceptualizing and authoring these coy exposés; the participants, as 'subject matter,' are willingly, or unwillingly spotlighted for the social record. The gallery-going public completes the program by consuming those named and unnamed people who are 'consumed' within each artwork. We are all voyeurs, both insiders and outsiders, happily stealing/revealing each other's souls.

© Peter Dykhuis, 2000