by Tina Gelsomini
At the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, an unbearably bright white room holds Lost in Time/Murcof (2014), a spinning vinyl record on a player looping the soundtrack to Patrick Bernatchez’s film Lost in Time. The haunting sound reverberates off of the empty gallery walls, functioning as a gateway; installed in a side room off of the main exhibition space’s hallway, the piece acts as an auditory prelude and virtual introduction to Les temps inachevés, a sweeping installation of the Quebec-grown interdisciplinary artist’s work.
A literal translation of the exhibition title would be “Time unfinished.” This moniker not only reflects central themes explored in Bernatchez’s illustrations, films, compositions, and installations on view, but also points to an important aspect of his artistic practice. For this self-taught artist, a work contains no clear beginning or end. Exhibitions fail to render a piece complete, but instead mark a new phase in its potential. Bernatchez creates cycles of work over many-year periods—within this cycle, pieces refer to and inform one another, often overlapping both in chronology and thematic content. Les temps inachevés presents two such cycles—the first is Chrysalides, developed from 2006–2013, and the second, Lost in Time, between 2009–2015.
We encounter Chysalides first, the cycle for which the “Fashion Plaza,” a manufacturing building in Montreal’s mile end neighborhood where Bernatchez’s studio is located, functioned as the nexus. The building—at once the site of production and the source of inspiration—was also the first exhibition space for the works. Here, Bernatchez created three short films, I Feel Cold Today, which portrays an office building of the Fashion Plaza slowly filling up with snow, Chrysalide, shot in the building’s parking lot, and 13, a sweeping tracking shot of the building’s exterior.
Most impressive for its complexity, however, is Fashion Plaza Nights. To complete this piece, Bernatchez photographed the four façades of the Fashion Plaza and its neighboring building each night over a one year period, sighting the building’s fluctuating lighting as a means to track the activity of the Plaza and its dwellers. Implementing the resulting patterned photographs as sheet music, Bernatchez transforms the documentation into twelve musical compositions, one for each month, played and recorded as a piano duet to mirror the two buildings. Transposed into the MACM in its final form, the sound installation contains speakers that play the audio recording, connected to a rotating device hung from the center of the room. On either side of the speakers, a metal structure holds dozens of spools of white yarn, drawn out like a spider’s web towards the central structure, slowly wrapping around the rotating speakers. Over time, the spools will unwind completely, muffling the sound of the recording more with each rotation.
The space is shared with earlier works, a series of 91 illustrations that wrap around the gallery walls, and point to a provocative thematic counterpoint in Bernatchez’s work. The artist’s method, creating one drawing each day over the course of a season, reaffirms his preoccupation with process and the cyclical nature of time. Yet the content—near-fantastical scenes of women and children whose bodies are often eroding and morphing into barnacles and branches as if bent to the will of nature—betray the tangible power of passing time.
Fittingly, this series of drawings at the MACM is spaced out, leading us into the final cycle, Lost in Time. Departing from the themes first examined in Chyrsalides, this work delves into a deeper exploration of the dimensions of time. The works and walls themselves take on darker tones, as if to suggest being sucked into a black hole. At the center of the exhibition lies BW (Black Watch or Bernatchez/Winiger) (2009–2011), a black wristwatch enclosed behind glass, developed in collaboration with a Swiss watchmaker, whose single hand takes a millennium to complete a rotation. The watch is referred to in Bernatchez’s forty-six minute film, Lost in Time, whose soundtrack we first encountered before entering the exhibition. Bernatchez’s game of repetition and referral does not end there. Recreations of the film’s protagonist—a helmeted rider on horseback who wonders through a timeless, unknown snow-covered space—hang as screen prints in the adjacent gallery rooms, reappearing again in a short 35 mm film, set to loop until the film itself dematerializes. The final works within the cycle incorporate elements that approach the form of a soundtrack, or musical compositions whose sheet music is quite literally turned sideways and reimagined.
Throughout Les temps inachevés, one may either choose to delve into the process behind these pieces, or simply interact with their final, often breathtaking, physical manifestation. The choice is up to the viewer navigating the exhibition.
Les temps inachevés is a co-production of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and the Casino Luxembourg – Forum d’art contemporain, in partnership with Argos – Centre for Art and Media, Brussels, and The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto.
Tina Gelsomini lives, works and writes in Montréal, Québec. She graduated from Concordia University’s Communications & Cultural Studies and Etudes françaises programs.