Real Dead Ringers: The Art of Liz Magor

There is a line written by Northrope Frye about Flaubert, how he turns “all simple life into an enormously intricate still life, like the golden touch of Midas.” Liz Magor also freezes and transmutes “simple” life, and her tableau can be just as intricately precise or as abjectly complex as an image in Flaubert. Her accumulations of foodstuffs, clothing, deceased animals and other objects are uncannily odourless and irrevocably silent. They are capable of stopping your breath, if only for a moment, in mortal dread or fascination. The airlessness and the motionlessness of time in the gallery rooms these things inhabit must be negotiated without much recourse to language. Fluidity of speech is held like Midas’s water and wine.

Unlike the occasionally lavish, gold-tasselled banquets Flaubert transcribed (when Sentimental Education was published in 1869, the critic Edmond Scherer dismissed the novel as “a collection of photographs”), Magor has a fondness in her still life for the quotidian amalgam of pewter (which is primarily tin) or silver-plated lotus shaped or round trays. In their modesty and intimations of worldly dignity, these domestic objects transmit a certain pathos, especially when they are tarnished. The effects of the daily atmosphere seem to have adversely affected these decorative plates, as gravity affects mortal skin and bones.

Magor’s objects may be “real”–a mickey of scotch or a stick of gum (the labels removed but identifiable as Johnnie Walker and Wrigley’s), a box of Toblerone chocolate–or, like many of the plates and cigarette butts, and the animal corpses and leather or tweed jackets, they may be remade as polarized gypsum casts that hold every surface detail of the originals, and are painted or coloured to more or less match them. For the viewer, there is more to this position than to simply sort out the “real” from the “fake,” although that is part of the tentative questioning one becomes involved in. How much “reality,” how much pre-fixed meaning is resident in any object? Objects are made by us, and in this sense they contain us, are made of us; it isn’t only media, as McLuhan famously observed, that are “the extension of man.” The few pieces of Chiclet gum sitting in the shadows of one of Magor’s stacked plate still life sculptures are the height of artifice, whether Magor has manufactured them or not. A strange, chemically engineered habit, not quite a food but a moulded thing that seems to speak of Magor’s methods and concerns. An insignificance that is capable of invoking cultural and individual memory. In Canada, a stick of gum is more likely to act as an agent of memory than any Proustian madeleine …

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Volume 30, Number 1: Production

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #117, published March 2011.

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