André Du Bois: An Instinct for the Ephemeral

- John K. Grande

The language of sculpture is a complex one that has evolved over the years. In the early modernist era sculptors like Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore integrated aspects of nature in creating forms that moved modern art forward. They pierced holes in stone, integrated string and even incorporated elements of primitive art in their sculpture. As sculpture has continued its evolution, it has incorporated a broader range of elements. With installation, for instance, sculpture has become as much a phenomenological practice, as an aesthetic one. The phenomenology of art has become so prevalent in the language of contemporary art that an environment surrounding a sculpture as much as the sculpture per se, now plays an active role in the way a spectator reads an artwork.

Contemporary culture is well versed in the phenomenon of event, and the visual/perceptual interplay. This is particularly true as screen bred imagery, video, DVD and other forms of visual effect now compete with the three-dimensional, tactile world for our attention. The nature- culture divide in our culture has left a great gap in our own perception of the world that surrounds us. We are less aware of the holistic process, of the full circle process of life from broth to death. Indeed, even our Cartesian and religious mindset has not equipped our society well towards embracing a regenerative model for the interface between nature and culture.

André Du Bois has for some time been embarked on a metaphorical journey, and it is one that involves his own direct experience of the land, of the region where he lives in the lower St-Lawrence. Du Bois is a unique sculptor with his own aesthetic vision. We see this in his approach to the sculptural process, particularly in the way he works with materials as a metaphor for that process. Art becomes a daily practice and a way of life. It builds bridges between life and art. This approach to sculpture is neither traditional, in the modernist sense, nor purely phenomenological in its emphasis, as installation art can be. 
Du Bois has evolved his own language of sculpture. His art is not a brief mediatic message or a visual quip. He wants to communicate more elemental, even existential concerns, but with a simple methodical approach to materials. There is a layering process, that paraphrases the passage of time, of memory as a mapping of physical experience in life. The layering of materials also recalls the role nature plays as a scenario or backdrop to our experience in life. Du Bois considers himself as artist/actor in these nature scenarios. Nature becomes a force that moves through one, and is not a representation of an idea. With this intuitive approach to art, art becomes a sensitizing vehicle that can enhance awareness among people of their place in the permaculture that is the planet earth. This approach contrasts the PostModern refusal to accept holistic values and an ethics of materials, even that there is a continuous tactile reality we are part of.  The sculpture projects that involve architectural integration that include Vaisseaux-flammes (1991-92),  La voie rouge (1999), Rouage céleste (2003), Thesaurus (2003) and Odyssée (2004), likewise integrate nature and the experience of living in relation to the land in their conception and eventual realization.

Sculpture involves a direct response to universal elements found and observed in the lower St. Lawrence River region where André Du Bois has lived, taught and worked for years. Looking at the body of work he has produced using wood and stone, we are reminded of the contemporary Japanese sculptors, such as Kimio Tsuchiya, and equally of environmental sculptors now working in Europe. This language of expression involves an acceptance of the characteristics inherent to the materials used; grain, weight, texture, colour, density. André Du Bois will often use materials found in his immediate environment, and along the shorelines of the St. Lawrence river. He finds them in nature. He begins to discover a form, and this is integrated into a language that suits the materials he has discovered and works with.

We can see this nature appropriation and re-situation in his own backyard in Rivière-du-loup where he has build a series of stone works, that resemble ship forms, or concave landscape interventions. Following the surface of the existing land, and then indented into it, these stone emplacements heighten our awareness and sense of place. Set within these stone areas are tree trunk segments. This experiment with art in the land led to the Emprise (2000) intervention, Here, Du Bois installed found stone elements that became like indented markings along the shore line of the St. Lawrence river. Situated near a trail, the artwork was a sort of metaphor for the traditional hunt. An inverse metal pyramid (man made) set into the ground had a rock that directed the passers-by to a table made from a tree trunk. Between the table and the inverse pyramid the two ships of stone had wood elements (from a pier and tree limb) that had anthropomorphic animated characteristics like animal life. 

The ritual feeling of this landscape intervention is of a journey, of boats going on a voyage of discovery. The approach André Dubois has towards sculpture is not just respectful of the characters of the materials he uses, but equally of the place he works in. He lets the materials have their own voice, lets them speak within his conceived artwork. This notion that an artwork has its own essence, is an ancient one, and recalls the anthropomorphized sculptures of African and Oceanic tribal peoples.

In his own backyard  Du Bois built a 10 foot high structure using stone and driftwood found along the shores of the St. Lawrence river.  This nature assemblage involved building a series of steps using 2 tons of stone. Created in situ, Oeuvre au jardin (1997) became the support structure for its own completion as the sculptor climbed upwards integrating wood sections into a naturally undulating platform in the air. Stones were set in between the tree branches to a considerable height. The project took a month to complete. This sculpture recalled a story Du Bois once read about a particular species of eagle who builds his nest, increasing its size, until it deconstructs from the weight of stone and wood. This interesting story could be a paraphrase for our ambitions, which drive us upwards while we forget the foundations beneath that supported us early on. A l’abri / à découvert (1997), another sculpture that used nature to build a structure, again involved building the work in stages. The nest structure of this piece was eventually reclaimed by nature. Wild growth overtook the original form, adding to it. Nature eventually overpowered the art! The backyard piece, described by Du Bois as a process work, likewise became too heavy and untenable, eventually deconstructing itself, according to the laws of gravity. The language was appropriate to the region Du Bois comes from, for this type of wood is very often visible along the river shores, and this kind of stone is there too. The structure suggested something hastily built and fragile, perhaps not entirely impermeable or protective, but temporary. One cannot call the language of André Du Bois’ sculpture primitive any more than Giacometti is a primitive: each action or sculpture is manifest only after a great deal of reflection and experience has come to bear.

Site Specific Assemblage with Found Materials

Though the materials may seem rough, they are what we find in our North American, Canadian and Quebec environments. If there is a discourse that could develop in literature and art, it is this strange existential experience that nature and humanity share in a country that was perceived of as wilderness, as a bush garden by Northrop Frye even if it may never have been. Du Bois uses materials to fit a particular site, and the event of place. Truth to materials often involves nature-found elements. Truth to materials is an expression that alludes to an inner world, and brings a spiritual and emotional dimension to experience. There can be an element of irony, of improbability to this sculptor’s work.

The sculpture developed further because André Du Bois did not follow fashion. He inevitably developed an idiosyncratic and vernacular approach to artmaking. Works created at one time, that deconstruct, eventually return in a new form, in new configurations. 

De Gré / De Forces was a particular exhibition that embodied this culture and geo-specific approach to sculptural practice. Held at the Musée du Bas-Saint-Laurent, it included a series of fragile emergent wall structures, Qui/Sangs /Suivent. While the viewer may interpret these sculptures fragile, precarious quality as a window into Du Bois’ vision, for the artist precariousness is a vicarious way of life, a daily phenomenon. Qui/Sangs /Suivent (1999) took over an entire wall at the museum with five wall mounted “beak-like” sculptural elements. Lighting again plays a role. You could feel the nature-culture duality here. The beaks made of nature looked threatening, but if you walked beneath them, you feel protected from what surrounds the place these sculptures occupy. The extremities of the “beaks”, covered with red paint, again alluded to the potentially violent character of nature, to a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” syndrome.

In an unusual assemblage, l’oiseau d’eau (1999) built its structure outwards from a centre. The process was one of accumulation of found recycled wood sections. These were appended, added to a tree trunk. Alternatively, they could be carved in thin sections, to then be put together. In l’oiseau d’eau, a tree trunk has a base that looks like a bird’s head and eye. Applied onto this tree found on the river shore of the St. Lawrence were hundreds of recycled building wood sections. They covered the entire surface of the tree. André Du Bois thus effectively “covers over” the natural outer surface of the tree. Hammering tiny lathe-like sections with nails onto the trunk, he builds a natural disguise into his sculpture. What he applies to the tree surface follows the original form of the tree trunk. Nature disguises nature. This process an additive one. It could be seen again in Du Bois’ Emprise (2000) backyard stone emplacements. Both apply matter onto an existing form: in the latter the landscape topography or surface, and in the former the tree trunk surface. The matter within - the spiritual element - is brought out through Du Bois’ exploration of light and space. The finely carved Untitled works echo the large sculptures. With a minimalist economy of materials they achieve the same result. The pale white exposed wood suggests ... fragility, exposure, skin, impermanence. Du Bois splits these wood sections apart as one does cutting firewood, but even finer, until the ends are like fine points reaching into nothingness. This allegory is akin to a batttle between nature and the artist’s consciousness. All things connect!

Entropy figures in artworks like La lune à 3 pattes. Created for a symposium at Carleton in the Gaspesian Peninsula of Quebec in 1997, this work included a ladder element that lead to a moon. This 20 foot high imaginary curved ladder is set atop an assemblage structure of 3 branches. A stick drawing of a moon rests atop the piece. The natural language of Du Bois’ assemblage, surreal and environmental, builds imperfection into its container, like a great creature carrying its own nest. The work was destroyed by nature after the symposium. Elements were recaptured from the site by the artist four years later and brought home to be recycled. 

The curved ladder, a recurring element in Du Bois’ sculpture is an emblem. It could suggest a desire to reach the infinite. There is an animated, gestural sense to this sculpture. With Nancy Arrive (1996) a studio work, we see a curvilinear chaos of branches and forms, and a ladder curved to extremes. The whole is gathered into a bundle of curious wild animation. The artist made the sculpture into a mobile nomadic sculpture apparatus for a performance. One of the most incredible and succinct Du Bois ladder works is Le conteur de chimière (1997) a sculpture enacted near the shores of the Baie des chaleurs in the Gapesian pensinsula of eastern Quebec. A tall undulating weather worn tree reaches upwards to a point. At this point seaweed joins it. From this conjuncture a ladder (not a perfect ladder, but an undulating symbol of what a ladder might be), reaches up in the wind to the sky and heavens. This seemingly impossible, even ludicrous and improbable dream sculpture says it all – in the infinite. The fiction, sited in reality, is itself a real story. 

Light plays a role in the installation of Du Bois carved assemblage works as seen in an exhibition La Ligne du nord held at Labelle in the Laurentians north of Montreal in the summer of exhibition organized by the CACQM. A central, seemingly endlessly curving carved ladder shape is sited on rocking chair like legs. The whole stretches its form upwards. Its enigmatic presence alludes to the fragility of culture specificity, and of human life itself. The title of this work is Echelle aux berceaux (1999-2000). The fluid, rough hewn forms of this sculpture are achieved via a process of splitting. They are trailing up in space. The structure looks like an imaginary construct. Du Bois infuses an instability into the structure that is part history and part nature. Ironically nature is the main support structure for this sculpture.  Miraculously, it hangs somewhere between balance and instability.

Nature is more than just an idea, it is a perpetual and precarious state of being. Sculpture becomes a metaphor for life, There is an existential edge tempered with allusions to disinherited cultural memory in this rocking chair fragment, that ladder, the space between. There is also a miniature haiku-like ladder assemblage attached to the wall, whose pointed forms recreate the same sense of disequilibrium and suspended movement as the main work. The mini-assemblage constructions are reminiscent of Tadashi Kawamata’s maquettes for larger projects. The shadows on the gallery walls became a part of the art, as did the physical material of the large scale sculpture.  Another maquette drawing in three dimensions on the wall Quelques instruments du désir (2003) evoked the same feelings. 

The totality of an exhibition environment is something André Du Bois is quite aware of. The phenomenological character of his approach to sculpture is evidenced in a simple allegorical installation titled Occupation (le silence) (1995). Here lead, wood, light and a floor installed TV monitor with no image evoked the image of flowing water. A sense of silence and of some other outer force permeated the atmosphere. The spotlights lit a series of vertical undulating branch elements. The effect was both musical and rhythmic. It likewise evoked a sense of the strange effect of ultimately being alone in the world. The walls disappeared in the background darkness. The branches were arranged to give a sense of living creatures or vegetal formations, embarked on a journey,... abstract, hesitant, and precarious. These forms abstract or figurative, take your pick, express a sense of being threatened, of potential displacement. Wood, paper, and metal combine to give a sense of strange enigmatic unreality. As with many works, there is less colour, more light and dark contrast. This furthers the sense of a no-man’s land, of a surreal and unreal state of being. A text in lead that made reference to silence, in a multi-dimensional sense, accompanied the work.

The importance of sketches, to André Du Bois’ artmaking, whether photos, or drawn or ink, as ideational dream spaces where the artist develops ideas for larger projects can not be underestimated. Over the years, Du Bois has created many ideas that have not been realized - on the backs of envelopes, on tissue paper, on cardboard, and coloured paper. Sketches can use wood assemblage, and even stone. In a particular environmental or land art initiative, Du Bois made Projet pour l’habitat d’un arbre. The project consisted of a stockade-like circle of vertical wood pieces set into the ground. An entrance or opening enables the visitor to enter into the inner space where a small tree has been planted. In this case, nature becomes the foil within which we find nature regenerating itself. As an environmental gesture, it established a permacultural dialogue with natural history, as much as humanity-centred history. sensitized to the material he works with and adjusts it, fits it to the given circumstance. 

In a duo show Sur la brèche (2002) with Florent Cousineau at Galerie Rouje in the Bas Ville section of Quebec City, André Du Bois integrated his unusual wood structural assemblages to great effect. One of the most enigmatic and effective, yet sensual sculptures Paysage à bercer (2003) effectively and with extreme sensitivity presented stone, sand, colour pigment in a found wood section. This work is for the most part composed of found wood and stones recuperated from a hillside. The stone elements recall notions of the land as a series of strata, and the way memory is likewise constructed of a series of layers or fragments drawn from life. (...) Paysage à bercer was surrounded by three oblique islands created with cable and stones. Light played a role transforming the object elements, heightening the sense of drama. The installation sculpture was an eloquent evocation of the cycles of nature, of the rhythms of life that are part of a northern climate and environment. The level of sophistication of Du Bois’ natural assemblages is exquisite. Other islands integrated miniature collections of fine wood, almost like found ruins, traces of human intervention in a rural landscape. The language here is minimal, reduced to its essence, evocatively communicating with a minimum of materials. 

In the same exhibition, vertical wall placed ladder pieces become echoes or tonal responses to the larger elements in the show. Wall drawn shadowy ladders echo the three-dimensional installed ladders.  In another piece titled Work in Progress (2002-03) miniature ladders appear at both ends and at the centre. They are incomplete, as if being built or deconstructed to the wear of time. We are never sure which end of the process. Beneath this, a shrine-like offering of blood red painted sticks has been assembled and brought together. The red suggests a primordial violence something Du Bois has often considered a central part of his artistic message. As he states:  “There are traces of a necessary violence, condensed, a violence of nature that recurs endlessly in my work. This violence has nothing to do with the violence of wars instigated by humanity, an endless cycle of destruction. The destruction of war is against nature and its processes.”

The wood fragments in Work in Progress are piled to look as if some unseen or invisible force pulled them there, gathered them together in a chaotic tangle. This unseen force paraphrases the inherent force of nature, like that of a river that pulls trees, branches and detritus downstream to a place where it collects, in spring when its energy is the strongest each year.  At that place where all the wood collects, a wildly complex scenario can be seen. This realization that nature is more powerful than humanity, that nature has the last say, returning again and again, like the seasons each year, in André Du Bois’ art.  Materials are used by Du Bois like the spoken word. It is a fluid conversation that reflects the battle between the conscious creative impulse and the physical nature of materials. His sculptures becomes an equation for a state of being that surpasses the ideational.  By emphasizing the various surface, tactile, tensile and physical relations between materials, Du Bois presents the human situation as a process. Like the natural materials he uses, this process is in a constant state of flux and change. The ephemeral and fragile essence of the human condition is a central theme in André Du Bois’ art. Nature and our distance from the conditions of life that gave us birth, are a existential paradigm that our civilization will have to come to terms with so as to survive, grow, evolve. As Du Bois has so eloquently commented: “The nature of the artwork is intimately tied to the nature in the artwork.”

John Grande’s book Balance: Art and Nature (Black Rose, distributed by University of Toronto Press) appears in a new edition in January 2004. His latest publication Art Nature Dialogues: Interviews with Environmental Artists will be available from State University of New York Press in 2004.

Publié le 4 Avril 2011