Yechel Gagnon’s Palimpsest

Alexandria Pierce


Yechel Gagnon’s art inspires the same half-sensed longing stirred by Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) in his esoteric writings that encompass Chinese gardens and labyrinths. Palimpsest refers to layering in visual art, while in literary works the term palimpsest refers to “an infinite text, a palimpsest of multiple layers of discourse.”1 Both Gagnon and Borges convey the concept of layering, to produce creations laden with suggestions of myths, tragedies, and vistas of other worlds. Their enigmatic works are fragmented, layered by dream, by time and by mist. To add to the complexity, Gagnon’s mural entitled Palimpsest, 2004, also the title of her installation, suggests a relationship to medieval Chinese landscape painting due to the visual effect of the marks made by routering, chiselling and gouging into the layered surface of the plywood. Moreover, Gagnon’s art evokes Jean Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra when she clones by “quoting” from the surface of her relief sculpture to render drawings and embossments. A French social theorist, Baudrillard (1929–) theorizes about a contemporary society of simulations and cloning2 and repeatedly cites Borges’ allegory “where the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory” eventually replacing the real territory and becoming an abstraction3. Borges’ writing is arguably an illuminating foil to the illusionary simulations created by Yechel Gagnon. Borges drew his fiction and his essays from many sources. Similarly, Gagnon creates multiple fictions in the mind by communicating in images that rise to the surface of the wood. The images produced appear to simulate Chinese landscape painting. Gagnon’s art can be contextualized further: “We live in an age of standardized cultures, of “channel-surfing” among civilizations ….even as meaning is lost the moment that its unique historical itinerary ceases to be taken into account.”4

Works in the Exhibition
Following a site visit to the McMaster Museum of Art in October 2003, Yechel Gagnon created Palimpsest. Works executed in her studio, shipped to the Museum, and transformed into a total work of art may be thought of like all three of Baudrillard’s orders of simulation (his simulacra). The “first-order simulation” is the real object (the plywood, the paper). His “second-order simulation” blurs the boundaries between reality and representation (the topography of the gouged plywood); and his “third-order simulation” is the hyperreal or replica of the replica5(Gagnon’s frottage of the gouged and carved plywood relief sculpture).

   The relief sculpture Palimpsest, measuring 10 x 35 feet (305 x 1067 cm), forms a mural comprising fourteen panels of gouged and chiselled spruce plywood. Created by a subtractive process, it is formed by ripping and chiselling with grinders, routers, sanders and knives to create eroded surfaces suggesting topographical forms, Chinese landscapes and a fictional mapping of the world. In the same gallery, a work entitled Plies, 2004, comprised of three free-standing columns, each 10 x 2 x 2 feet (305 x 61 x 61 cm), sanctifies the Sherman Gallery with its pristine serrated wooden forms that are resonant of Dolmens and temple architecture. Made by an additive process, two of the columns lean at 89.5 degree angles, and the third is completely straight. The monumentality of Gagnon’s wooden panels and freestanding columns implies the force of history, not with the violence of fire and blood as in Borges, but as traces, memory and information.

   Her work entitled Nuances, 2004, is created by a frottage technique where “rubbings” or visual impressions are obtained by impressing a real object with paper or another material. Gagnon mapped these fragments by drawing them with charcoal or graphite onto paper or mylar. Situated in the Panabaker Gallery, Nuances, measuring 10 x 16 feet (305 x 488 cm), is comprised of seven separate sheets, four of graphite on mylar and three with graphite and charcoal on paper. Positioned on the end wall of this chapel-like white space, it repeats some of the information on the mural Palimpsest in the adjoining gallery. It is a simulation of a simulation, mapping the act of carving onto the realm of drawing.

   Just inside the entrance to the Panabaker Gallery three vertical embossments, measuring 10 x 2.5 feet (305 x 76 cm), entitled Mindscapes I, II, III, 2004, were created by positioning and impressing thick wet paper over sections of plywood relief sculpture.In Gagnon’s work, the final result appears to be unstudied and never overworked, but the process is as labour intensive and as intricate as computer circuitry. The routering tools require physical stamina and a high level of skill to intervene with the surface of the wood and to raise it to the level of art, rather than to leave it as a defaced slab. While Paterson Ewen (1925–2002) used plywood as his material and a router as his tool, his works are Modernist—the colours are rich and vibrant, the themes sublime, the surfaces are bravado inflections. Distinct from the Modernist concept of artistic genius, Gagnon’s command of forms resembling ink wash painting, and her capacity to select and render conveys an understanding of the moral law in nature, strengthening her artistic integrity. Its elegance belies its origins in wood and paper, mould and product. Gagnon’s art is like the map that covers the surface, providing the comfort of certainty that a map provides. The poured paper moulds become objects themselves when extruded. They are replicas of the replica, thus hyperreal—and free from reality.

Gagnon, Borges and Chinese Aesthetics
Like the Chinese landscape painters moved by the ideal, Gagnon’s art recaptures the freshness, the vitality or chi that runs through all things and imparts this energy to the world. At once architectural and restrained, poetic and mysterious, this art is satisfying, since it is full: full of nuances, full of memory, full of space, both open and contained. It is also free: free of politics, free of irony, void of cliché. The palimpsest does retain a sacred connotation arising from impressions like barely perceived floating clouds, falling water, and details in the surface of rock formations. Borges writes, “We must save the traces of the illusory world’s definitive opacity and mystery.”6 Arguably, this is what Gagnon does in the imaginative spaces revealed in the routered, chiselled and treated surfaces of wood, and in the frottages produced on paper and mylar by rubbing and embossing. In Borges’ essay, The Wall and the Books, he speculates “that all arts aspire to the condition of music, which is pure form.”7 Gagnon’s process is to inscribe cadences and rhythms and transcribe them onto paper and wood, controlling and actualizing creative forces, thus projecting libidinal energy.

   The free play of illusion, together with the mystery arising from the palimpsest of this layering, reveals what is not hidden while retaining an aura of mystery. The delicacy of her art belies her physical intervention with the wood. Just as Wang Meng, one of the four great painting masters of the Yüan dynasty (A.D. 1280–1368) achieved “a final effect of repose” with his “technique of restless intensity,” so too does Gagnon direct the force field of her creativity through tools to the wood under them, to create a world beyond the real. Chinese landscape painting requires years of practice to achieve the requisite control of the body and discipline of the mind needed to master it.8 Created in the studio, Chinese landscape painting results from recalling an image from the mind. The concentration and energy necessary to create fine calligraphy or a subtle ink brush painting are the same synergy that Gagnon finds. Hers is not an art of chance but one of precision, gradation and subtlety. Her employment of monochrome or very restrained hints of colour bears comparison to medieval Chinese aesthetics where poetry, calligraphy and painting were intended to inspire contemplation.

   Allegedly, painting did not move Borges, because he went blind in early middle age, but Chinese aesthetics fascinated him. His story, The Garden of the Forking Paths, is a labyrinthine tale whose theme is time.9 It “embraces all possibilities of time.” In the story, Dr. Yu Tsun, a spy for the Germans in the First World War, arrives at the home of Dr. Stephen Albert in a suburb of London. He intends to kill Albert so that the murder would be in the news and signal the Germans to bomb the city of Albert, where the British held their munitions. However, before he acts, he learns that Albert is a Sinologist who has reconstructed an intricate garden from his perception of illusory images in the novel of Ts’ui Pên, a governor of Yunnan and Yu Tsun’s own great grandfather.10 Borges’ story, while irrational, is imaginable. There is the possibility that it contains a greater mystery. Gagnon’s large-scale drawing Nuances is like the “image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it.”11 Out of seeming randomness, Gagnon creates delicate metaphysical sketches that belie the physicality of the process. The aesthetic becomes the marvellous, and the viewer is allowed to dream, to imagine a purpose to the universe and to picture wordless artificial intelligence.

   The poetic subtlety of Gagnon’s art, its monochromatic delicacy and its evocation of mist, falling water, and caves, is reminiscent of Chinese ink brush painting.12 The Chinese word dan (“bland” or “insipid”) signifies both delicacy and inner detachment. The blandness and elegiac beauty that inspires Chinese aesthetics invites meditative contemplation, leading to introspection and a calming effect. François Jullien, a professor of Chinese philosophy and literature at the University of Paris, finds the concept of blandness to be a commonality in Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. It is not an abstraction but a property that allows access to the “uncluttered spareness and allusive depths” of Chinese art, unfurling and expanding into the world with nuanced profundity.13 Blandness is the capacity to remain neutral, with the emotions in balance, obtaining efficacy by being discreet and unobtrusive. It rejects everything that is spectacular and superficial; whatever is diffuse, obscure, and subtle is never wearing but is of essence. Blandness expresses a harmonious relation to the world, a tranquility defined in Chinese aesthetics as emptiness or a “poetic quality that opens the way to this unceasing transformation.”14 It ebbs and flows with the visible and the invisible, its emptiness embracing all possible worlds. Blandness, according to Su Dongpo (1037–1101, aka Su Shi) allows one to return the mind to its virtual state. As Jullien writes,

   The richness of the bland lies in its capacity to offer us an opportunity to transform our gaze into consciousness and to go endlessly deeper. Rather than providing immediate gratification of our most superficial tastes, a bland painting beckons our inner being to immerse itself in it ever further. And so painting and consciousness evolve together…15

When Gagnon contemplates how patterns in wood contain all the wonders of the
universe, compressing the mystical aura of the world into whorls or vignettes, her mental activity is similar to Borges dreaming of an Aleph: a point in space containing all points, a place where all places in the world come together and can be seen from every angle, revealing the universe in a hole in the trapdoor of a cellar under a dining room floor.16 Borges suggests the absurdity of attempting to decipher the universe, while Gagnon presents visual evidence of the metaphysical journey possible through discovery rather than through invention. Borges refers to eighteenth century Idealist philosophers (i.e., George Berkeley) who proclaimed that reality exists only in the mind. Perhaps the artist has a greater chance to achieve aesthetic perfection than the scholar has of discovering truth, since visuality is empirical. Borges conjectures “a world of evanescent impressions; a world without matter or spirit, neither objective nor subjective; a world without the ideal architecture of space; a world made of time, or the absolute uniform time of the Principia; a tireless labyrinth, a chaos, a dream.”17

   The correlation between the artist’s marks and Borges’ world-making with words springs from the same creative drive. Didier Anzieu (1923–1999) writes that “narcissistic omnipotence runs like a thread through the stories: creating a new language (so as to be the only one speaking it), manufacturing other societies, other worlds, gathering in a single library all the books .…”18 Narcissism need not be ploughed into the creative furrow to establish the realization that artists need to keep their egos intact to avoid falling into the abyss that waits just beyond the borders of reality.

   Borges’ writings spring from near chaos, collapsing history, time, and all possibilities into uncanny juxtapositions by stimulating the irrational and questioning conscious reality. By way of juxtaposition, in contemplating the detailed passages or compositions of Gagnon, one may enter a similar matrix of shifting ground. Her skill as an artist allows her to incorporate imaginative responses to the complexity and ambiguity of existence to map it in a visual form at once metaphysical and concrete.

Pleasures of the Imagination
While not critical, these works are analytical. The seemingly random configurations are ordered into a pleasing aesthetic that goes beyond surface pleasure to instigate an inquiry into the very nature of visual art. What does art do? How does this happen? Unbidden associations to real objects or scenes arise from the minutiae. Imagination takes hold of the obscure and tries to fashion signs from it. Striving to distinguish her ethical production from esoterism or sophistry, one pays close attention. The experience of wakefulness when viewing the works is what makes them Zen-like. In this information age, bytes and bits comprise cybernetics and the visual linguistic image is the medium to assimilate knowledge. Gagnon’s art acts to visualize our daily experience of interfacing with machine intelligence, where the various mutations are infinite. Our minds need to map a route through information overdrive and the buzz of computer thought. “Surfing the net” requires mindless attention. This state of mindlessness is a desirable result of the Buddhist advocacy of emptying the mind. This is how Gagnon’s Mindscapes function. The pleasure engendered is an unthinking one. The work requires contemplation and results in relaxation. Berkeley thought that the world does not exist outside of our impressions of it, and that we call the world into existence. Therefore, we live in our thoughts. Perceptively, the marks, lines, layers, ridges, and fissures of Gagnon’s tracks laid down in wood are a metaphor for this existence.

   If Gagnon’s art describes an intangible world, it still relates to an internal world of thoughts, volitions and emotions…and also of extensional reference, since one may imagine—when looking at a detail or scanning all the “information”—references to human history and activity. Gagnon’s art, while fictive, arises out of the empirical or experienced world since she physically creates it, and in this act she not only imagines it, she intuits it.

   For Borges, thinking and reasoning were significant activities, while Gagnon suggests that seeing sets in motion its own imaginative connotations of an ideal abstract world. Borges’ short story, The Library of Babel, suggests that an existential void arises when the language of books is unknown and the feverish, fruitless quest to translate them thus has no meaning. Gagnon’s art suggests the pleasure to be found in unknowing. Some commentators describe Borges’ writings as esoteric, understood by only a select few, possibly because his work is not widely known. Borges revelled in being mysterious. That the word is not as clear as the image is perceptible in Gagnon’s art. It acts like Borges’ Aleph, the small window onto the universe that reveals all mysteries of time and the universe, since they can be seen. George R. McMurray deduced that “Borges intensifies the emotional impact and leaves the reader with a combination of heightened awareness and ecstatic expectancy evading intellectual formulation.”19

   Similarly, the exhibition Palimpsest suggests epistemological and ontological solutions to what literally is under the surface of things and of thought. It offers a refuge from confusion by delimiting complexity into defined fields separated by white space or a lack of noise. The dialectical interplay between intense passages and the nonbeing of emptiness balances tension and creates a vitality without passion. In the absence of linguistic signifiers, a pared down truth emerges. It is both enigmatic and completely open, strong, yet delicate, inspiring, yet sobering in tone and restrained in effect. Gagnon’s technique of recording information may be compared to Borges’ methodology of enclosing a story within a story. All parts are segments of a whole, and everything is connected. The pleasure of Palimpsest rests in the imagination.

1. Didier T. Jaén, Borges’Esoteric Library, Metaphysics to Metafiction. Lanham, University Press of America, 1992, p. 3.

2. Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion. Ed. Julia Witwer. New York, Columbia University Press, 2000.

3. Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1988, p.166. Richard J. Lane, Jean Baudrillard. London and New York, Routledge, 2000, p. 86, identifies this fable as Borges’ “Of Exactitude in Science.” Baudrillard also refers to the “fable of the map and the territory” in The Vital Illusion, p. 63.

4. François Jullien, In Praise of Blandness, Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics. Translated by Paula M. Versano. New York, Zone Books, 2004, p. 24.

5. Baudrillard explains this in “Simulacra and Simulations,” Selected Writings, pp. 166-184.

6. Vital Illusion, p. 74.

7. Jorge Luis Borges, A Personal Anthology. Ed. Anthony Kerrigan. New York, Grove Press, Inc., 1968, p. 92.

8. Barry Till, Chinese Painting from the Bei Yi Zhai Collection. Victoria, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Exhibition Essay, 1992, unpaginated.

9. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths. Selected Stories and Other Writings. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York, New Directions Publishing, 1964, pp.19-29.

10. Labyrinths, pp. 27, 28.

11. Labyrinths, p. 28

12. Gary Michael Dault, “Yechel Gagnon at V. MacDonnell Gallery,” The Globe and Mail, 9 February 2000, p. C6.

13. In Praise of Blandness, pp. 24, 25.

14. In Praise of Blandness, p.106,

15. In Praise of Blandness, p.133.

16. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph,”A Personal Anthology, pp. 138-154.

17. Labyrinths, p. 221.

18. Didier Anzieu, preface to the French edition, 1989 of Julio Woscoboinik, The Secret of Borges: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry into His Work, cited in the English edition, Lanham, University Press of America, 1998, p. XI.

19. George R. McMurray, Jorge Luis Borges. New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980, p. 151.

photo : Isaac Appelbaum


Copyright © 2004 Alexandria Pierce



©2001 Yechel Gagnon