Robert Bean allocates a major portion of his photo-based installation, Table Land, to multiple landscape images assembled with the selective, empirical gaze of a scientific observer. As artist and rookie field geologist, he utilizes photodocumentary strategies to inventory exotic rock formations in Newfoundland which reveal significant moments in geological history. Through these photographic records, Bean champions the theory of “deep time” where the physical world is a site of perpetual cycles, constantly producing new rock formations which overlay eroding flows of older materials. This reading of endless, regenerative geological cycles within the planet’s physical construction stands in stark contrast to the dogmatic canon of scientific Modernist thought where time and space are placed on a linear trajectory with a prehistoric beginning and an anticipated end. The Table Land project is conceptually modelled after this cyclical process as the artist revisits a set array of subject matters, each time layering in more crossreferential information and interwoven connections.
The geological subjects of the artist’s photographic inquiry are found at two sites in Newfoundland: Green Point on the west coast and the Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park on the Great Northern Peninsula. At Green Point, Bean documents an intact fossil sequence which delineares the boundary between the Cambrian and Ordovician periods. The Tablelands are significant for the presence of rock material from an ancient ocean bed which, due to tectonic plate action, has pierced through the earth’s crust and exposed rock strata displaced from deep within the upper mantle. His saturated colour photo images of these sites are laminated onto hinged, multiple-panel, plywood constructions which are wallmounted at different heights throughout the gallery or gently arced as free-standing units on the floor. Panoramic, documentary-like views of the landscape are butted against micro-views of geological details, occasionally prompting misreads in scale and subject matter from image to image. This interplay between images is an early hint into Bean’s visual game where individual panels are presented as documentary modules whose authorities are, literally, hinged upon the contexts of the adjacent images and assembled work beyond.
These plays on the photo-documentary process are also the intellectual springboard into the remainder of Table Land which is comprised of subsets of components that form stations or zones throughout the exhibition space. Interspersed through the panorama/detail views are three typologically unique single works: Pendulum (1995), a moody, sepia-toned, wall-mounted image of fishing jiggers and tackle; like water in water (1995), a video image of caplin (a small fish) swimming in shallow water which is projected onto a low table with the title’s text carved into its surface; Iceberg (1995) a transparency image of a drifting iceberg mounted in a back-lit wooden box perched on a plinth-like table. In Pendulum, four sequential freezeframes of hooked jigs, arrested in mid-swing, directly quote the historical work of Eadweard Muy-bridge and Etienne Jules Marey where the latent motion is the subject matter of the piece. These monochromatic images, mounted on thin panels flush to the wall, contrast strongly the colour-saturated, hinged and constructed landscape and rock portraits. Yet they are linked. Both of these image typologies present evidence of latent motion and flow; the photographic process “captures” the staged, short burst of kinetic energy in Pendulum just as effectively as it records the latent but invisible thrusting and grinding of rock in deep time at Gros Morne.
The fishing jiggers in Pendulum provide a subtle hook for reading the video projection piece like water in water. Its image of swimming caplin represents the only real time moment in this exhibition where, appropriately, organic life forms are also the subject matter of the piece. The video projection of a school of small fish, viewed from overhead in shallow water, transforms the social surface of the table top into a pulsating pool of phantom life where the fins of fish unexpectedly poke through and disturb the imaged surface of water, transgressing the boundary of their own illusory surface. The quote from Georges Bataille, “like water in water,” engraved into the table’s surface, functions as a highly poetic marker within the show where all image and object surfaces flow through each other in a liquid apparition of time and space.
It is difficult, however, to read exhibited images of fish and tackle in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia without recalling the shrinking Atlantic fishery. Yet Bean is not positing maudlin laments for the lack of fish or loss of a provincial lifestyle. Instead, he stoically positions organic life against the context of deep time where the decline of a recent fish stock may seem like a miniscule event when scaled against the millennial ebb and flow of rock.
Queen’s Nails Annex in conjunction with the Outpost for Contemporary Art
The frostily cool back-lit transparency image of Iceberg reads as a humourous pun in response to like water in water since an iceberg is indeed one form of water in water. It signifies, in yet another photobased typology, the age of polar ice, which, as solidified and reconfigured water, is destined to drift south and remingle its molecules with the warm waters of equatorial oceans, completing yet another cycle in the earth’s history.
The images in this exhibition are but this project’s tip of the iceberg. Just as there is a “text” stratified into the landscape which must be analyzed for its geological significance, so there are highly specialized codes and references in the work which need to be revealed. The catalogue essay, written by curator Colleen O’Neill, is an elegant textual tool for unearthing the geological and critical theories densely layered into Bean’s work. Many casual art museum patrons, though enamoured with the surface of Bean’s individual pieces, will be lost in the intellectual terrain of the installed exhibition without consulting this document as a guidebook.
Yet, the work is mounted as an exhibition in public galleries where disparate publics meander through the carefully constructed path which the artist has created. Bean, pokerfaced, has produced ordered image stations which operate as scientific tables of constructed meaning. Although his images appear to be the product of a cool and analystic mind, Bean also plays the role of the twinkly-eyed trickster where every image has a hook and a reference which points to another level of meaning embedded in an adjacent construction. His pieces are etched both physically and intellectually with excerpted texts from Heraclitus, Nietzsche and Bataille, to name the key sources, conflating empirical observations with poetic notations, producing readings where nothing is fixed. All histories, theories, observations and images flow through each other and mingle. The photographic process is a mere framing device to record the passage of time; the objects and their attendant installation function as specialized signifiers of this fluid interplay between image, object and temporal context.
Discretely etched on the backside of a free-standing photo-panel installed deep in the exhibition space is the quote by Heraclitus, “Nature likes to hide.” Again Bean is playing a game with his viewing public. This key point in understanding the artist’s world view is easily missed when casually scanning the exhibition. Those who carefully and systematically scrutinize Table Land, however, will discover all necessary data to link together seemingly disparate information layers in this poetic game of intellectual hide and seek.