Nothing – not the Gulag archipelago, cirrhosis of the liver, the interior life of Miley Cyrus, boll weevil infestations – is supposed to be off-limits to the artistic impulse. If you think you can make a topic fresh, interesting, new, no matter how arid or improbable it may seem to others, … well you just go, girl – or guy.
It's an ethos that's been fully embraced by Nicolas Baier over the past couple of decades. Now 46, the Montreal-born, Concordia University-trained multidisciplinary artist has become famous for finding what he likes to call "the poetic potential" in realms and materials not usually associated with the fine arts tradition. Like meteorites. In recent years he's been methodically grinding down meteorites he's bought or been given into very fine graphite particles, mixing them in an acrylic medium, then applying the black particles like paint to oval-shaped canvases. He puts the results into shiny aluminum frames, then snugly installs each canvas in a custom-made box that includes a photograph of the precrushed meteorite and a sheet with information on the age of the meteorite and where it was found.
Several of these paintings – called, aptly enough, Météorite 1, Météorite 2 (and so on) – are on display and for sale at the Galerie Division/Division Gallery booth Friday through Monday at the 14th Toronto International Art Fair.
For the full experience of the Baier oeuvre and his current enthusiasms, though, it's best to go to Galerie Division's sprawling Toronto outpost in funky Bloordale that is hosting a survey of recent work titled Transmission. It's a decidedly cosmic show "about reaching what's important, what's at the base of everything," Baier said the other day as he oversaw the exhibition's installation. Which is one way of saying that if you're interested in, say, precise acrylic paintings of the Higgs boson ("which just may be the most important particle in the universe") or a black metal sculptural representation of a computer server "containing all the books of human history in all languages" or mirrors incised with triangles and polygons illustrating astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet's theories about the dodacahedral shape of the cosmos, well, Division is the place to space. Laughed Baier: "It's just my own very, very little participation in a science project."
Transmission revels in the interplay of macro and micro. Neurones, a large (152 cm by 203) ink-jet print on matte paper, for instance, appears on first inspection to be something concocted by an Abstract Expressionist in the 1950s – that or bullet holes fired into a plaster wall. But it is in fact as advertised: two months' worth of photographs of human neurons, painstakingly shot through a microscope, at exposures of between one and 1.5 seconds, then digitally assembled.
Thing is, for all its intimidating aroma of science and technology, Transmission is frequently ravishing to the eye. Indeed, it's Baier's hope that "you can enter this show with having any explanation from me and still enjoy it. I mean, when was the last time you looked at a DVD and put on the option of running the director's commentary the first time you watched the movie? You never do that. But in museums they do it all the time! You have the piece and the written words on the walls and the voice-guides that explain everything to you. That drives me nuts!"
Certainly, no "explanation" is needed for the pleasure and the menace the viewer will experience upon encountering Vanité/Vanitas, a major hit last year as part of the Oh, Canada exhibition in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Baier readily acknowledges that "as hard as I've worked on the other pieces here, it's gonna steal the show. People supposedly stare at an art work, on average, for eight or nine seconds. This one? They'll stand for 15 minutes. It's crazy!'" Monumental in size (a cube – or cell? – roughly three metres by two metres by three) and construction cost ($250,000), it contains within its fluorescent-lit glass-and-mirror frame, an artist's working environment in which everything – including a half-eaten breakfast, crumpled pieces of paper, a tangle of electrical cords – has been completely plated in aluminum, nickel and steel. Yet for all its many surfaces, shiny and transparent, it permits no human reflection. "Everything is dead, sterile," Baier observes. "We are in the zoo of the human," the installation a riff on the Baudrillardian notion that "the objects we create are the mirrors of ourselves."
Asked if he feels his work is a sort of corrective to art's relative neglect of advances in science and applied technology in its content, Baier side-stepped the question. "To tell you truth, I don't want to enter into a kind of political way to see contemporary art and judge my peers and colleagues. It is as it is. I'm just trying to do my little thing. Maybe art has thought a little too much about itself. Maybe it needs to open a little bit more its eyes and ears and its head. Maybe. It's not my field of discussion," he shrugged. "For me, it's time to lose. I prefer to work."
At the same time, Baier is quick to deny that there's something anti-human or utterly rarefied about his interests and his practice. Sure, he likes big ideas, philosophy, mathematics, thinking about the Big Bang Theory – but "the cosmos is everywhere," he insisted. "It's not a thousand miles from us. It's inside you; it's inside me; it's this room. … The observations about the Higgs boson permit us to think that primary particles are almost all the same material. It's just the different combinations, the juxtaposition, of these same materials, that makes this table metal, your flesh flesh, wood wood. So when I'm thinking of the cosmos it's not a way for me to be far away from the human. It's a way to be in touch with the most important things in human life."
Nicolas Baier: Transmission is at Division Gallery, 45 Ernest Ave., Toronto through Dec. 21. Information: galeriedivision.com. Works by Baier are also on view at the Galerie Division booth at Art Toronto Oct. 25 through 28 (Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Front St. W.).