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HARRY SYMONS' THE CONSTITUTIONAL DEBATE HEAD ON

[First published in 1997 in the Harold, a compilation booklet made by Winnipeg's Plug In Gallery. Eyland curated the Harry Symons solo exhibition for which the following essay was written.]

Harry Symons began his "Constitutional" work in Montreal where he lived for several years before recently returning to Winnipeg. Since 1992, his mixed media installation works have portrayed, or visualized, or enfleshed--many terms are appropriate--processes of decision making and debate, specifically the ongoing Canadian constitutional debate.

There is a simple way to regard Symons' work: it traces the binary decisions that are made in any formal debate--yes/no, this/that, left/right--in a complex physical record that is like a three-dimensional chart, the tree-structures of hypertext, or a many branched river.

Symons: "The foundations of any reasonable approach to the constitutional debate are the facts: what is it about, how does it happen, who's it for, who's creating it, what are they saying..." Symons' art gives tactile form to abstract legal concepts. The work does not explain so much as it represents the constitutional debate. The legal, ethical and moral choices that lawyers, politicians and citizens grapple with in democratic legal systems are traced. The arranged materials allow a viewer access to Symons' thinking, but the work offers no political solutions. Instead, a maze-like game is set up through which any solution can be plotted.

In a five month evolving video installation at the Belgo Building in Montreal several years ago, Symons visualized the foundations of the constitutional debate by arranging his materials, including a large number of newspapers, in stacks, on shelves and on tables. He then used his "constitutional materials" in the exhibition "Urban Revisions: Projects in the Public Realm" at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. In a more recent maquette for an installation, he arranged fences with materials that were spread out across a floor in lines. (See illustrations of "Buyer Beware" which accompany this article.) At a recent Plug In group show at the Cornish Library, he had elements of the work--this time pieces of painted canvas, commercial labels, and other urban detritus, radiate out in overlapping layers from the centre of a wall. In last year's Plug In exhibition "The Moral Imagination," he stacked and hung newspaper articles about the constitutional debate around a complicated arrangement of small wooden fences. Just one month ago at <SITE> Gallery in Winnipeg, he shingled loose canvas paintings into a large, richly-coloured wall work.

Each time Symons has a show, the materials take on new forms. After sifting through a landfill's worth of matter in his studio, he emerges with a new maze or wall configuration for a new show. Symons' work gains physical density as all kinds of materials are stacked, connected, strewn and carefully positioned. Wood, paintings, newspapers, shelves, used packaging and, in this exhibition, sewn fabric give Symons' work the physical aspect of by turns a fantastic dumpster or a surrealistic landfill site.

At Plug In, Symons will stack raw and finished materials and construct the work as the show progresses. The fabric pieces -- Symons calls them "fans" -- are a new element in his work. Physically they remind a viewer of the pie-charts that pollsters sometimes use to show percentage break-downs of public opinion.According to the artist, they are representations of "an argument's definition."

Argument?

Could Canadians could go to war over Quebec or would a wrecked economy be the least expected disaster? For Symons, his Constitutional work makes his -- and perhaps others -- interior dialogue visible: "Back in 1991, after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and before the failure of the Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, I became preoccupied with trying to visually interpret the complexities of the constitutional debate. An element of this endeavor was the notion of trying to lay out the groundwork for the arguments, which I saw as a kind of mapping out of the debate."

When I first became concerned with the constitutional issue, I lived and had my studio in St-Henri in Montreal. Feeling somewhat like an outside observer in the community that I lived in, and sensitive to the differences between individual and collective perceptions, experiences and rights, I tried to approach this abstract debate in a more concrete manner. What got me going in the beginning was the presentation by one side of Quebec's independence as inevitable. Questioning this notion led me to many avenues of thought. As a visual artist, I believed that I could do something with some material in such a way as to make it meaningful first for myself and then perhaps to Montrealers. As well, of course, self-interest was central to it, in particular using the experience of creating whatever as a means to educate myself on the issue. I was always trying to relate it back to myself and my daily experience, which I knew and to my perceptions of daily life in St-Henri which I more imagined. Did it matter? It wasn't a sociological study. It was a work of art.

With so much at stake, Canadians often ask themselves, why do eyes glaze over and roll back into the head when the latest constitutional proposal -- the Calgary Declaration -- is announced? This debate is more exciting than a line of political suits and a five pound press release, but perhaps because it has little concrete effect on the daily lives of most Canadians it feels like a Phoney War, a stand-off which may blow up at any second or fade into what Symons' calls "a big nothing."

As citizens, Canadian artists do the usual civil things about this issue: they vote, they write letters, they make their opinions known. In Quebec, francophone artists have long been activist bulwarks of the independence movement, but in the Rest of Canada, artists rarely speak directly in their art to complex political issues of any sort. Canadian artists, like other contemporary artists, usually work issue by issue, narrowing their focus in order to give their work a coherent wholeness.

The sheer complexity of the Canadian Constitutional debate, within which issues of identity are only one question, demands a complex visual form, and Harry Symons is the only contemporary Canadian artist I know of who has the obsessive will and energy to tackle it as the major theme of his art. Symons: "I have been concerned not only with sorting and putting in order the barrage of information but also in sorting out my thoughts and feelings on where I stand on the issue myself. My use of salvaged material and my efforts to focus on the everyday reflect the concern of trying to bring the lofty constitutional debate down to an every day kind of reality, something that we all know. This assemblage can be seen as a map of this exploration."

For local artistic parallels one thinks of the fictional Larry, the maze-making hero of fellow Winnipegger Carol Shield's new book Larry's Party or perhaps the complex theme-park fantasies of Winnipeg artist Alison Norlen, but Symons deserves to be described by an over-used term: he is a unique artist. Symons is a unique artist because of his subject matter. Most ROC (Rest Of Canadian) artists rarely address any "Canadian" political issues directly in their art. Gender, ethnic, and environmentalist issues are hot, but are usually seen as international problems with local portent. Unlike many Quebecers (and excepting First Nations) ROC identities are often conceived within the international politics of some sort of diaspora in which a culture and mythical homeland originates somewhere else and ends in Canada. Contemporary art about identity is common, but Canadian identity, ironically enough, only seems to be an important issue for Quebec artists.

Symons: "For some an argument is a battle, for others it is a dance. In developing different studies, I am exploring the possibilities between these and other poles. The work evolves, keeping some things while others are dropped and left to collect dust. The project has been described as a field constantly being plowed as ongoing concerns are turned over. It is an assemblage about accumulation in which it is hard to make out particular details because everything is crammed so close together. The process of establishing the visual structure requires a number of studies, as can be seen in different areas of an assemblage."

The present exhibition--Symons first major show--could either be the culmination of the artist's "Constitutional" work or yet another stage in its growing complexity.
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