Jamie Hilder
Shelfed Gallery

Abbas Akhavan
Elizabeth Zvonar
Colleen Brown
Steven Brekelmans
Gabi Dao
Marina Roy
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A close friend of mine – my closest friend – once, at a party, pointed at me while I was leaning against a door jamb and told everyone in the room that I like to “frame myself in doorways.” At the time, I took it as some indication of how unaware of myself I could be, but also as an example of how I preferred to be on the edge of things, how I refused to commit to anything out of a radical uncertainty rooted in teenaged misreading of existentialism. But still, every time I discover myself leaning against a door frame, I get anxious.

I bring it up because it is another complex, given to me by that same friend, that gets triggered by Elizabeth Zvonar’s concrete sculpture Hand In Glove. It is about the smell of my apartment, or any of the places I’ve lived. Whenever this friend – who currently lives in the apartment across the hall from me – visits me in a new place for the first time, he’ll inhale through his nose, wrinkle it, and say “It stinks in here.” The smell of a home is always odd for visitors, and undetectable to the occupant. It follows the occupant in their clothes, in their hair, attaches itself to their things and is also, resolutely of the building. In Vancouver, that smell – especially in the apartments or suites of the propertyless, but not limited to them – is a combination of mildew and wood. It greets me like a wet dog every time I return to my building after being away: there’s a comfort to it but also a slight revulsion. It comes with an impulse to clean something. I often feel the urge to find and fix a leak.

Because Elizabeth’s sculpture comes with an olfactory component, it performs in space differently. I don’t want to say it becomes aggressive, but maybe it becomes more confident, or more literally multi-dimensional. While we generally have a difficult enough time describing sculpture, translating shapes into language, we have an even tougher time describing smells. Our language becomes almost entirely metaphorical. Beyond “acrid,” “sweet,” and maybe “musty,” I struggle to think of any words that describe a scent without attaching it to an object or process. Missing are the equivalents of shapes, colors, or patterns in the visual realm, or the various scales in the acoustic. One of my favorite smells is the flower of the Fremontodendron plant, but when I describe it to people I say it is a cross between burning garbage and a compost. Sometimes I say it is “kind of sweet” but I’m always dissatisfied with my capacity to express it. I never feel like I can communicate it the way I could communicate an image, or mimic a sound with my voice. Freud says our alienation from smell is related to our upright posture, which has moved our fragrant genitals further from our faces. Much of the knowledge that comes from scent is lost to us (and maybe contributes to our discontent).

The night Elizabeth installed the work, she lit some of the incense she had made for the piece, but I couldn’t really distinguish it against the smell of my apartment. That morning the smoke from a nearby forest fire had drifted into the city, changing the daylight to a spooky orange but also bringing with it the odor of a campfire. I have a complex relationship to that smell. It might be that I enjoy it while there’s a fire, but when the fire is out and the smell remains, I want to get away from it. I find it too obdurate. The day Elizabeth brought the work over was hot, so all of my windows were open. Once I realized how pervasive the smoke was I resigned myself to my entire apartment smelling like campsite clothes. I know better than to pick a fight with a cloud.

Since that evening I have lit the incense – is that activating the sculpture? – several times, and it does smell like a campfire. Elizabeth left some other, store-bought incense as well, and I often light both. A couple of times I have thought that, in combination, they smell like a headache. The thicker, homemade incense burns slower, and leaves behind a stringy ash that I don’t understand. It smells like that evening of the forest fire. The thinner incense burns quickly, and the fine ash drops from the stick and makes no sound. It smells like incense. One of the sticks burned all the way down to the plaster finger and made a mark. I haven’t told Elizabeth about it yet.

The sculpture looks like a hand, but is actually a hand inside a glove. It appears to be a leather work  glove – the kind worn to protect skin from blisters, cuts, and irritants – by the creases on the thumb and little finger. Or it could be a golf glove, or a baseball glove, designed to increase leisure proficiency by adding a second, tougher layer of skin. The little and ring fingers [what ridiculous names for body parts! : like the “adam’s apple”] seem slightly too short for the glove, though there does not seem to be any violent amputation implied. The violence comes in the severing of the hand through its base, the impaling of it with stigmatic sticks of incense, and the gauze-like bandage wrapped around the palm.

There’s humor here amongst the violence. A severed, gloved hand is an odd mechanism for holding incense. Reclining backwards to provide a counterweight to the much lighter incense sticks, the sculpture seems to be taunting physics, and performing play in the balance. If the sticks fell, I imagine the hand would pick them up and try again. The gauze around the palm is a sculptural giggle, especially in its proximity to the larger cut that forms the base. On top of everything, the hand is a badly functioning incense holder: the ash just drops onto the shelf. It makes a mess.

Severed-Foot

But that cut, that primary cut at the base of the hand forms a powerful line. While it reads as a surgical amputation, it also points to other dangers. Reading it as a work glove evokes the risks involved in manual labor, where bodies might be injured in the act of creating value for bosses. The posture of the hand, the gauze, and the impalement do not present the hand as at being comfortable or at leisure. The sculpture has a particular relationship to its place of production, in the Pacific Northwest, where eleven severed feet have washed up onto the shores of the Salish Sea since 2007. While some of the feet have been linked to missing hikers, people who have died by suicide falling from bridges, and victims of a plane crash, there is also speculation that some of the unidentified feet belong to victims of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. It is common for the extremities of a decomposing body to detach in water, but it is the connection between the shoe – that technologized, artificial foot – and the body that makes it possible to float across oceans. The same would be true of fishing industry workers, who mightalso go into the water wearing gloves. That the sculpture is of a relatively small hand only contributes to its expression of vulnerability and sadness.

Buddha-Incense

The incense points obliquely towards Asia, at least through the commercial marketing of incense as supplement to the orientalist products of spirituality, yoga, meditation, and calm. In Elizabeth’s sculpture, it also points towards the denial of bodies in their global circulation, through labour and violence. There’s a cover-up involved in the work, and it is not only the glove covering the hand, or the concrete covering the glove. It is the use of incense to cover the scent of dead and decaying bodies.

Incense has historically strong ties to ritual, but globalization has changed our rituals. We worship and meditate in domestic spaces, but neither practice is traditional. I once read an article about a study that identified similarities between the brainwaves of meditators and those of people watching TV, and it made me feel better about watching so much TV.

If the incense is part of the sculpture, part of it is gone. It has been transferred into heat energy, and the smoke has drifted out my windows and into and out of my body. Some of it will remain in my apartment permanently, attached the paint on my walls and ceiling. I’m sure some of the ash has settled into spaces I won’t reach in even my deepest cleans. I think that function of the sculpture is really beautiful. There is a base from which action springs, and that action is both temporary and lasting, both pleasurable and irritating. I could use more bases like that.