[First published by Toronto's C magazine, April-June 1996, 43.]
I saw a visitor wince and overheard another whisper "ouch" at Aganetha Dyck's cigarettes, which have been dipped, pierced, tied, twisted, and punctured with plastic tubes, electrical wire, miniature figurines and innumerable other tiny objects. They look like dimpled and stretched flesh, the detritus of some sadomasochistic ritual. Cigarettes themselves, without adornment, can suggest the tightened chest of a lung damaged smoker, but a viewer's throat also tightens in front of Dyck's cigarettes, instinctively reacting to the wire used to bind these little creatures up.
Dyck's cigarettes resemble other assemblages of ordinary objects in her work. Another category of Dyck's oeuvre is objects--mostly buttons-- canned in jars. In her most recent work, she leaves things in bee hives so that live bees can cover them with honeycomb.
Dyck is a woman artist born on the prairies in 1937 to a Mennonite family. In the critical literature, which is invariably positive, her art is often seen to supplement her upbringing and her past life as a middle-class housewife. Dyck has lived the history of post-war feminism, and so domestic critiques can easily be extracted from the art. Canned buttons can indeed be read as a transgressive dig at domestic chores, but what looks like poisoned food and other substances in the jars' amniotic-like fluid also encourages wider psychoanalytical readings. A pile of shrunken sweaters on the floor may be either a small domestic disaster turned into a feminist allegory or an ironical celebration of domestic bliss, or, as I would like to argue, a species of neo-surrealist art.
Dyck inevitably returns well-known materials to a viewer as enchanted rituals and uncanny objects which subsume didactic readings in material play: a fridge opens to reveal inedible things; a purse is filled with wax; shoulder pads are turned into cabbages; and dresses, left for a time in some bee-loud glen, are drenched in bee stuff. The work has a surrealistic range which extends from the bee sting to the object jarred in fluid. Hal Foster defines this range in his recent book Compulsive Beauty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993 p.25): "surrealism oscillates between ... two uncanny fantasies of maternal plenitude and paternal punishment, between the dream of a space-time before bodily separation and psychic loss and the trauma of such events."
The original surrealists used Freud's thought as the scientific authority on which to hang dreams and psychic impulses, and to rethink artistic agency. But in the 100 years since psychoanalysis was invented, Freud's truth claims for the theory and practice of psychoanalysis as science have been severely tested. Karl Popper, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and most recently Ernest Gellner and Jeffrey Masson, amongst many others, have made fundamental challenges to Freud's theories, the upshot of which, for artists like Dyck, is perhaps that Freud's work (and the work of followers like Jacques Lacan) should be considered more as an allied art than a validating science. If so, then neo-surrealism bears a more complex relation to Freud's literary art and his bewitching conceptual schemes of psychoanalysis than before.
Dyck's art is rife with evidence of the complex operations of the artist's hand and mind, operations which express how art can get under one's skin. A series of books, purses and briefcases dipped in goo with objects appended are set on elegant tables and stands. Formally, these objects are satisfying organic wholes. From their look, Dyck was obviously, to paraphrase Jackson Pollock, "in" them as she made them--jazz and other improvisational forms come to mind. Dyck seems to work by instinct and improvisation and not through intellectual refinement. In conversation she champions "lateral" thinking as the basis of her work, an attitude to art making and life which has as much allure for some artists today as "surrealist automatism" once had at mid-century.
Technically, the artist refines, spruces up, makes glossy and re-presents mixed media techniques which have had a long history in contemporary art. She has long been interested in the late German artist Joseph Beuys. Her (earlier) use of felt, her longstanding approach to mixed media materials, and her attitude to artistic agency in the recent work with bees all bespeak Beuys' influence.
Dyck speaks of bees doing the bee works, but they are not really her "collaborators." Bees cannot choose, for example, to take a day off from making Dyck's art. Any choices bees make are, in a sense, pre-approved by the artist, the way the results of surrealist automatism were pre-approved by Breton. The use of bees does not collapse distinctions between human agency and animal instinct just because the artist makes a rhetorical parallel between human obsession and animal will. Like the original surrealists, Dyck welcomes artistic agents which can be guided at arms-length toward new forms.
The candy-apple curves of Dyck's beeswax-covered things recall Calgary artist Eric Cameron's Thick Paintings. But affinities with surrealism are as common to Dyck's work as they are absent in Cameron's. Dyck is plainly not interested in the object as the residue of a material process, but rather in the work of art as a glossy surrealist fetish. Dyck's surrealism thrives on the psychic effects produced as small objects like doll heads and smoker's pipes ooze up unexpectedly out of vulvic books and briefcases. Many of Dyck's works are given a treatment which recalls Dali 's jewellery and cubist collage. She turns every austere process art procedure to Rococo ends, so that every Protestant meeting house of process art (however faintly visible its liniments) gets gilded into a Catholic cathedral.
A spectacular part of this exhibition in Winnipeg (which will not travel with the rest of the show) was a honeycombed glass dress with living bee hive attached to it. A Plexiglass tube ran from the Plexi-boxed hive to the sky outside the exhibition space so that viewers could watch the bees do their work. Newspaper reviews of the show played up this work. One thought immediately of the young British artist Damien Hirst, who has, among other things, stuck live flies, dead meat and working bug zappers in Plexi boxes. Like Hirst, and with a similar feel for a gothic surrealism, Dyck makes compressed objects in which the sources can be plainly seen, but not so plainly understood.