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A Space for Dreamers: An Interview with Duncan Alexander Cameron Stewart
by Stephanie Cristello

Toronto, Aug. 2014: “The daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.” –Gaston Bachelard

The tipping point between the limitless and the limited is well traversed. A common steadiness has been found in speaking of the two types of spaces at once, though they are indeed opposed to one another with regards to the dream: the two exist synonymously for the dreamer. But in using the metaphor of immense space to describe intimate experience, now the exact opposite image occurs at the thought of boundlessness—we have been trained, almost by design, to expect a very structured, personal, and limited experience in the face of vastness. How often is the infinite used as a vehicle to examine a personal poetic experience? The universe. The sea. Just as “literally” is now also defined as “figuratively,” through the translation (or transliteration) of one space in relation to the other, the endless is also the finite. While the double register exists, this shift does not automatically denote the sublime; this is a structural, ontological, and completely secular vision of interminable space. The daydreamer, once described as elsewhere, is now inextricably linked to the material present. Visions and dreams abound, but the dreamer cannot lose sight of its source: the physical, quantifiable, and permanent body that elicits its variable mirages and exists in both states as one.

I spoke with Toronto-based artist Duncan Alexander Cameron Stewart about his exhibition A Room Dreaming of a Lake, currently on view at xpace. As the title infers, the installation examines the boundary of the body-brain dilemma described above. Stewart treats the trope of large bodies of water in the history of art—once a marker for transcendence—in post-modern fashion. Appropriated and recycled as an image (not a container), the landscape of the sea (and subsequent expanses of water) is transformed into a symbol of itself. The simulacrum of sea is a common material. But one could just as easily say that history is not enough—that there can be younger dreams, younger visions of the sea or the lake, cropping up like sprouts in a thick forest populated by time. All of it belongs to fiction.

This non-Romantic yet still tender sign has an immediacy that is quite unmatched. Stewart accredits his representation of the sea, a cropped image of water that neatly meets the edges of the page, to Michael Snow’s structural film Wavelength (1967). In our conversation below we touch on the source, the ever-familiar tension between interior and exterior spaces, and methods of inserting the subjective—and, further, the sentimental—into a history of structural film, an impossibly “objective” practice.

Duncan Alexander Cameron Stewart, Installation view, A Room Dreaming of a Lake, At Xpace Cultural Centre, 2014; Courtesy of the artist.

Stephanie Cristello: Bodies of water are constantly being reimagined in art, though it is usually larger entities that form this trope—seas, oceans, etc. How do you see yourself inserting A Room Dreaming of a Lake within that practice? Does it fit into a more historical narrative, or are you approaching the subject more singularly?

Duncan Alexander Cameron Stewart: I would like to think that I am approaching the subject of reimagining bodies of water from a historical narrative—and not from a singular perspective. Where my work fits into this historical narrative, I am not quite sure, but the underpinning of the work is the structuralist film Wavelength by Michael Snow—although I am not sure if you can categorize him as historical just yet. As for inserting myself into the practice of reimagining bodies of water in art, I see my work using this subject in a very conscious way. I think the reason large bodies of water—seas, oceans, etc.—have become a common trope in art is because the subject is approached as a metaphorical or poetic device for something beyond what a body of water literally represents, and this is where I see my work inserting itself. I am using the image of water for myself, and hopefully for others, to provoke what I consider are the inherent qualities one thinks of when presented with the idea of a large body of water. When I think of large bodies of water, I think of the vastness, the horizon line, or maybe that which lies beyond the horizon line such as unexplored territory, and such themes as endlessness and limitlessness.

Duncan Alexander Cameron Stewart, Installation view, A Room Dreaming of a Lake, At Xpace Cultural Centre, 2014; Courtesy of the artist.


SC: The relationship between interior and exterior cited in the title of the exhibition is very lithe—it could be any room or any lake. Is this the “dream” you are referencing? That the imagination of any room or any lake can essentially be dreamed by the viewer, or is it more specific?

DACS: For me it is very specific. I am referencing two bodies of water, Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan, two of the Great Lakes—although in the work one can in no way pick up on that distinction. To the viewer, the work is just a body of water; it is only in the title that the water itself is suggested to be a lake. And of course if you asked me, I would tell you. But I think the dream lies within the viewer, and not within an interior or exterior space. The dream that I am referencing in the title functions more as an emotional space, where the room and the lake become metaphors for something beyond physical or representational space, what myself and the viewer might actually experience when confronted by this work. For myself, when I stand in the work I am in a room surrounded by representations of a body of water—or representations of a lake—I am caught in a space of in-between-ness which results in contemplating both interior and exterior space and how do others relate to space; how is one confined or liberated by space? We all know that a room cannot literally dream—the viewer makes the dream. One of the questions I am navigating is how does a viewer dream of a lake, but further how does anyone dream of anything within a room?

SC: Can you speak a bit about Wavelength by Michael Snow and its relationship to your installation?

DACS: There is an image that Michael Snow uses at the end of his film Wavelength, which comprises the final shot of the film. This image is the central theme of my installation. I have recreated the image through photography, Super 8mm film, a 12-inch PVC compound record, and multiple zine take-aways. My initial reaction to the image in Michael Snow’s Wavelength was that it had an unsettling effect on me, and somehow denied my expectations. When I first heard about Wavelength I thought the final shot of the film was a close up of an ocean with a horizon line, and maybe even a sunset or a beach with a palm tree, ha. But when I finally watched the film and was confronted with an image that contradicted my assumptions, I was filled with a longing for wanting to know more. Where was that image taken, which body of water was it, what did this image represent to Michael Snow? I found the image very dark, and in a way, almost like a door that had something on the other side of it. For that reason, I became very interested in how an image can stir the imagination and maybe what an image could stir in other people. Almost like a dream or the unconscious.

Duncan Alexander Cameron Stewart, Installation view, A Room Dreaming of a Lake, At Xpace Cultural Centre, 2014; Courtesy of the artist.


When looking at the image, I thought to myself “this is far more than just an image of water, this image has meaning.” Really, I am not sure if that is true, but I would like to think so. What I would love my work to do is deny the viewer of their expectation. Just like how the lake is not physically in the room, the lake comes before what you see in the room, and extends beyond what you have just experienced in the room. It preempts itself, and undoes itself. In a way, it makes me sad.

SC: You speak about the image—of water—in very psychoanalytic terms; do you think how we associate with the image is automatically psychological?

DACS: I wish I could answer this question [laughs]. I am not quite sure. I think the answer is no. I would like to think that an artist has some understanding or grasp of the psychological effect of images, and to some extent we certainly do, but I also have a feeling that often an image just speaks to you, and you cannot escape it.

SC: You spoke also of denying expectation. What are some of the ways the installation subverts what the viewer may predict about the piece?

DACS: My thesis paper sourced an essay by Briony Fer titled "Night." The text looked at a photograph by Jeff Wall of the same title; the image that Fer was examining was a very under-exposed image. Fer describes the image as a photograph that acquires “a prolonged viewing,” since only as one sits with the image does it visibly reveal itself. I would like to think this is one of the things my work requires, a “prolonged viewing,” where what you are looking for is not always apparent. You touched on this in an earlier question where you asked if it could be “any room or any lake,” and I think everyone ultimately brings their own assumptions of what they might expect to see—which is the viewer’s own idea of what the room itself might look like. The same goes with the qualities attached to the “lake,” or the “dream” for that matter. The installation deals with a certain off-centeredness: there is no image, no sound, or no object that overtly states, “Hey! This is what you should think.”

SC: Structural film is purposefully devoid of emotional content. It is ontological, focusing on the subject of the film itself. What is your relationship to poetics and/or sentimentality in this piece? How are you navigating the difference between the objective—the film, and materials themselves—and the subjective?

DACS: What I love about Wavelength is—like you said—the ontological aspect of the film. It is investigating the nature of film as medium, and medium as being, but I also get a sense that Wavelength has a sentimental quality too. In my work I try and keep the formal decisions neutral. By neutral I mean I’m attracted to the formal aspects of my installation for their objective qualities (my immediate visceral attraction to the object) and not for their subjective qualities (an object’s ability to convey some kind of sentimental or nostalgic feeling, although I believe all objects carry a certain subjective quality). I feel by keeping the formal aspects as neutral as possible it allows myself and the viewer to move beyond the objective to the subjective, opening the work to a second and hopefully deeper reading. This is also where I see myself denying expectation, by not giving everything to the viewer all at once. I feel as if the final image in Wavelength was Snow’s attempt at conveying something beyond the medium and the structure of the film. And to go back to the original question, this is where I see myself inserted into the narrative. Where I have projected a poetic or sentimentality onto Wavelength and then picked that subjectivity up in A Room Dreaming of a Lake.


Stephanie Cristello


ArtSlant would like to thank Duncan Alexander Cameron Stewart for his assistance in making this interview possible.

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