Cycling the Life of Language

Lois Andison has a particular interest in concrete poetry because it is both visual and textual. Her tree of life is the 11th installation in the smallest and highest art gallery in Canada, the BMO Project Room. Situated on the 68th floor of the Bank of Montreal tower in downtown Toronto, the 8.11 x 17 x 9-foot space was conceived by Dawn Cain, the curator of the bank’s Corporate Art Collection. She also selects each project. Andison’s piece is subtitled a reflection of time and being and a reminder of our past, present and future, and the addition takes words through a round of making, breaking and remaking, a progression that applies equally to language and life. Her installation forms a narrative through the process of breaking down words, and what emerges from the fragments is a different sense of wholeness. This deconstruction operates in two registers: it can result in playful and oddly poetic associations, and at the same time it can lay the foundation for a deeper understanding of faith and belief.

The play comes through the relationship of one word to another. The installation is comprised of five columns, each of which starts with a single word: “Beginning,” “Becoming,” “Believing,” “Belonging,” and “Bequeathing.” The viewer’s presence activates a downward movement of the LED tracking device and optical sensor inside the column, and the originating word comes apart and begins to light up new letter combinations. The vocabulary of 57 words coming from “Bequeathing” includes “beating, bath, eating, quean and quay,” and as a viewer you start to make connections; a “quean” is an archaic word for an impudent woman, a prostitute, in some understandings, and you imagine her plying her trade on a quay. “Belonging” bounces syllables around and provides “boing, bong, egg, loin, log, gin, gig,” a goofy nonsense poem that bp Nichol, the Canadian sound poet Andison admires, would have appreciated.

Lois Andison, tree of life, 2018, detail, acrylic, led lighting, custom mechanics and custom electronics, five units, 80 x 18 x 8 inches. Installation view, BMO Project Room, Toronto. Photos: Toni Hafkenscheid. All images courtesy the Bank of Montreal.

The deeper read comes through her invocation of Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life, the name of which Andison borrows for her sculpture. The film is about the cycle of life and death, a process the artist experienced over the two years it took to finish the Project Room commission. The death of two relatives and a close friend made her aware of suffering and mortality, as well as her own sense of aging. A previous work had taught her that a full cycle—a journey, say, from beginning to bequeathing—could be encompassed within a relatively small number of words. While her columns are shaped like coffins, the feeling tree of life gives off is one of comforting austerity and serenity. That sense of calm pervades the entire installation: in the tonal warmth of the room and in the quiet ascendency of the sensor as it returns to its beginning. tree of life embodies a perfect symmetry. The columns conclude by lighting up the letter “i,” that most personal of pronouns. At the end of Lois Andison’s moving deconstruction, we return to an important recognition. All her words start with “Be” and end with “ing.” In the tree of life, then, all ‘BE-ING’ asserts self. It is a persuasive and satisfying affirmation.

Volume 38 Number 1 : Language + Art

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #149, published March 2019.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.