Child of Slow Time (2005)


Exhibited at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria, B.C., January 14 to February 27, 2005.

This installation is based on the image of a baby’s face from the work Baby with Bib drawn by an unknown artist in the late 19th century. The drawing is in the collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The title of the installation, Child of Slow Time, comes from Romantic poet John Keats’ well-known lyric poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Although the urn that Keats addresses exists within the real world, a world that is mutable and subject to change, it represents for him an unchanging world of slow time, outside of temporal constraints.

The drawing Baby with Bib, evokes a similarly ambiguous relationship to time. There is no chance that this portrait, drawn more than a hundred years ago, represents someone still living. In fact, the portrait is described within the gallery records as a memorial portrait, meaning it was drawn to represent a child who was no longer living at the time the drawing was made.

This doubled loss engaged my interest in this drawing, along with ambiguity of its provenance. There is no record of where this drawing comes from, nor information about the circumstances of its production. This lack of information opens a space for me to speculate. Perhaps this drawing is based on a photo, like my drawings. I wonder what relationship the artist had to this child. Perhaps the drawing was commissioned, or given as a gift to the grieving parents.

The face looks like that of a seven or eight month old child. The cheeks are full and round, the eyes attentive and well focussed. Whether this child is a girl or boy is impossible to confirm. The gender of the baby’s face is ambiguous, and dresses where worn by both male and female children in the late 19th century. The fact that this drawing was made at all, in combination with the setting and clothing, indicate that this child belonged to a privileged family. Although the drawing may memorialize a child who has died, the image suggests a still-living child.

A baby’s face is a peculiar subject within portraiture. While a portrait traditionally endeavours to capture the enduring character of a subject, the image of a baby, whose face continues to change dramatically, does not embody individual character so much as it represents possibility. The portrait of a baby thus highlights the inherent paradox of portraiture; an attempt to fix and materialize that which remains mutable and in flux. Within memorial portraits, whose subjects are deceased, this paradox becomes poignantly resolved.

The graphite and ink wash drawings affixed to the walls within this installation both recover, obscure and obliterate the face of this unknown child. They animate an image that remains outside of time and fixed narratives, within the slow time of Keats’ poem. This face becomes a template for the recollection of other faces. The drawings use materials and techniques that are tentative and ephemeral, foreshadowing their own demise. They will eventually be taken down or painted over. These drawings function, as the original may have done, as a memorial; a representation of inconstancy and loss.

Description of the exhibition from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s archives.

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