Life and Death/ Light and Depth: The Pictures of Erin Shirreff

by Jason Smythe Erin Shariff

Having never heard of Erin Shirreff, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into when I entered the Contemporary Art Gallery. Yes, I realize I could have gone onto Google and done some basic research beforehand, but I do not get paid to write these articles, so it is what it is. At at the same time, the internet and Google have made it almost impossible for many of us to be genuinely surprised by things anymore, so perhaps not getting paid to write this article was actually a blessing in disguise. ‘Pictures’ is a brilliant and poignant exhibit, and it achieves this by challenging our perceptions of not only life and death, but of light and depth as well.

The best word to describe this exhibit is contemplative. When I first saw Lake I was overcome by a sense of nostalgia. The piece is a video still of Lake Okanagan, and like the artist I too spent much of my childhood in Kelowna. However, as the black-and-white imagery began its slow shift to vivid colours, the landscape came to life, and I was transported from the nostalgic world of my childhood to the present day, where things like death and student-loan repayments (aka death) exist. However, the highlight of the piece is the fake sun that appears a few minutes into the loop. As this impostor of a star moves across the two-dimensional plane, our perception of light and depth are taken for a figurative ride, shadows begin to creep across the landscape, and the colours of the landscape begin to slowly change tone. The same things would happen if this were the actual sun. The artist seems to be arguing that we live in a world where manufactured products can produce effects that are almost indecipherable from their equivalents in nature. The question: will this lead to the death of these natural equivalents?

UN 2010 is another colour video still, and like Lake, it plays on our perceptions of natural light and the motion of the sun. The landscape of New York fades from dark to light, mimicking the movement of light during a 24-hour period. What was most fascinating for me, however, was the fact that the UN building seemed as if it were a living, breathing organism, despite the fact it was completely static. Throughout the course of the ‘day’ the windows appeared to open and close and the vibrancy of New York was painfully evident. All of this occurred because Shirreff was using manufactured light in a way that was almost indecipherable from the real thing.

Erin Shariff 2

If you are a fan of Plato’s Republic and like to mention The Allegory of the Cave and The Metaphor of the Sun as much as possible, then this is the exhibit for you. A question to consider is whether Plato would think Shirreff is providing us with intellectual illumination, or reminding us that we still live in the cave—a world where we don’t realize that what we consider to be reality is actually nothing but the shadows caused by the ‘true forms’. I would try to help you answer this question, but that will happen once I get paid.

Pictures runs at the Contemporary Art Gallery until June 16th.

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