By Kim Carpenter
"Live Canaries 2004. Catherine Ferguson, Installation Artist with Mario Verandi, Composer and George Ferguson, Video Artist
Alchemy, the Medieval, pursuit to magically transform worthless items into pure gold hardly seems like a fitting approach to living in the modern world. Yet at the beginning of the twentieth century, Carl Jung used alchemy as a philosophical allegory for how individuals could become whole, a process the psychoanalyst dubbed "individuation." Inspired by this Jungian interpretation, installation artist Catherine Ferguson believes the alchemy of art can similarly lead to profound, personal transformation. In "Live Canaries," she used this idea of miraculous change as her point of departure, deftly weaving symbols universally inherent in myth, memory, mysticism, and metaphysics.
While typically associated with early, failed attempts at chemistry, alchemy originally derived from the ancient Arabic and Egyptian word "Al-Khemeia," meaning "the science of the black earth." Drawing on this etymology, Ferguson constructed her installation as a "mountain" of black earth, eleven feet in height and twelve feet in diameter. In the dim lighting, black rocks of varying size littered the ground in and around the bleak structure, which was built from thick wooden beams haphazardly formed into the shape of a loose pentagon. Only one bright spot appeared in this darkness: a canary, symbolized by a highly gilded, gold-leaf wing. This angularly avian object was mounted on gently whirring wheels resembling a roller skate. Powered by hidden electrical cables, the canary wended its way in and around the structure by way of a twisting train track. Viewers were able to spy the wing only briefly as the small bird cast enormous, fleeting shadows against the gallery wall’s white backdrop. While the mountain remained immutable and immovable, the canary’s quickly darting shadow dwarfed the ebony mass. What the singular wing lacked in size and strength, it made up for by continually changing and growing, disappearing and then returning from the black abyss to reemerge anew.
For a more private and intense experience, individuals could stoop to enter the installation through a roughly constructed archway and stand on one of five small wooden viewing platforms. Waiting for the canary’s momentary appearances in such a small space imparted a pseudo-spiritual feel to the experience. In this regard, Ferguson’s construction transformed into a temple, with the black stones mimicking the Zen serenity of a Japanese rock garden. Only the golden wing brought light through with its ephemeral flight, a fitting metaphor for personal transformation from darkness into light. The viewers remained hushed and self-contained, absorbing the experience very quietly and very privately.
Since Ferguson believes installations are a form of theater, she collaborated with both a composer and video artist to intensify the experience. Mario Verandi composed the music, and his ethereal computer generated sounds enhanced the installation with the percussive sounds of cascading rocks punctuated by the gentle fluttering and chirping of the canaries. In the adjoining gallery, a five minute film by George Ferguson (no relation) provided the visual narrative. Black rocks buried a white mannequin, which several gentle canaries gradually liberated. When unearthed, the androgynous figure emerged as golden as the beneficent birds, an archaic smile revealed in the final close-up of its Buddha-like face.
Ferguson’s experimental use of symbolic imagery was highly imaginative. Combining sacred elements such as temples and meditation spaces with a golden-winged messenger conflated at least four world religions, a confluence that went beyond doctrinal parameters to a more quietly private sense of the divine. After leaving behind the dim, dark world of "Live Canaries," daylight, even on a gray afternoon, seemed blinding. Perhaps this was Ferguson’s own sly way of bringing her viewers through one more metaphorical awakening. As Jung envisioned, the universal reached the individual, turning the alchemy of personal growth into pure gold.