“I think people generally look through photographs to the subject with the kind of primitive faith that they are being shown the subject. I am involved in a certain kind of skepticism that is just pointing out that the photo is the shadow of some subject” (Snow 2009). Looking for meaning in cultural artifacts, both in our daily lives and in high art, is what Michael Snow’s quote (found printed on the wall of the Art Gallery of Ontario) implies we should do. Snow’s subject in a photograph is symbolic of meaning found in other art and cultural artifacts. He guides us to understand his concept of the esoteric subject by leaving us clues about his artwork in his own writings about them and then inviting us to make the connections ourselves.
Housing several of Snow’s works is the newly renovated Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto. Its transformation was the work of the acclaimed architect Frank Gehry. The gallery is currently in the spotlight as a significant and contemporary cultural development in Canada. As I explore the newly renovated structure, I realize that Snow’s words symbolize my quest to understand the AGO as a contemporary cultural artifact by tuning my skills of observation and searching for signification within. Therefore, I begin my journey of re-experiencing the AGO as a cultural development (after its metamorphosis) with Michael Snow as my metaphorical ‘guide’.
I begin my study in a relatively hidden gallery that is accessible only by maneuvering through the gift shop and restaurant. In this private and contemplative space, photographs by Edward Burtynsky document the AGO’s transformation. I find myself eager to leave the room and get started enjoying the gallery but I am struck by something that keeps me gazing into the photos and demands my consideration. In all of Burtynsky’s images, there is only one work of art from the entire AGO collection depicted. It is a highly familiar symbol, and one synonymous with the AGO. This image is imprinted in my mind. It is an image of Michael Snow’s “Walking Woman” as it is being set up in the Steven & Michael Latner Families Gallery (a space dedicated exclusively to his work on the renovated fourth floor). I look down and in my hand on the pamphlet for membership to the AGO was yet another depiction of the “Walking Woman” in the painting “61/62” (see support materials 4 – Snow 1961-62). It became clear to me that if I was going to understand the analogy of subject/meaning between the newly transformed gallery and Michael Snow’s “Walking Woman”, I was going to have to learn more about both. With the “Walking Woman” as my guide, I set out on a journey through the new AGO, trusting this “shadow of some subject” (Snow 2009) to guide my steps.
In the “Biographie Of The Walking Woman” (Snow 2004) Michael Snow documents numerous iterations of his “Walking Woman”. The “Walking Woman” works are some of Snow’s most famous, spanning over 6 years in his practice. He began with a “cardboard cutout in 1961” (Snow 2004) where “no model was used” (Snow 2004) and “realizing that he had a positive and a negative stencil, and that this two-dimensional figure was easily reproducible, he decided to use this ‘mother’ cut-out to make . . . variations” (Snow 2004). In his “lost works”, “the Walking Woman contours were placed (usually clandestinely) in many locations” (Snow 2004) and in other cases “the outline was printed and disseminated to be used by anyone, randomly printed in newspapers (not advertising); compositions were sent by mail” (Snow 2004) and so on.
Meaning and movement are central themes in the “Walking Woman” works (obviously, because she is walking). However, we know that Snow challenges us to investigate subjects beyond superficial meanings. Snow asks “what are the differences in “meaning” in comparing the same form (W.W.) in sponge rubber, in plastic, in sand, in light etc” (Snow 1994). He bridges investigations of meanings and mediums. The mediums used to represent her range from “graphite, ink, watercolour, acrylic, enamel” (Snow 2004) on many surfaces and displayed in many environments. The literal meaning of the “Walking Woman” is therefore moving, never perfectly whole in any specific iteration. “Put the outside inside where it belongs. Simultaneity. “She” is the same in different places at the same place and time” (Snow 1994). In all cases, the cut out image of the “Walking Woman” icon is used, giving an indication that Snow’s subject is somehow universal. Frank Gehry references the “Walking Woman” throughout his immersive design. Both the artist and the architect use ‘abrupt’ and ‘moving’ forms in existing spaces evoking movement and flow (in Gehry’s case from an architectural point of view). That is to say, Gehry’s immersive and ‘moving’ walkways and staircases are analogous to the agenda set up by the “Walking Woman”.
The first open space playing with this relationship of meaning and movement is Frank Gehry’s new “Allan Slaight & Emmanuelle Gattuso” spiraling staircase that penetrates the “Walker Court” on the main level of the AGO. In the ‘new’ space is a massive penetrating irregular spiral staircase moving through the top of the building and flowing right through the middle archway of the very large space. The asymmetrical twists and landings of the staircase (plan view) geometrically match the forms of the “Walking Woman” silhouette graphic when placed on top of one another. With this visual clue we are challenged by the uniting concepts of movement and flow. Gehry’s potential ‘architectural’ movement draws parallels with the ‘movement’ and flow of the “Walking Woman”. She is also trapped in a state of potential motion with her amputated feet and hands, not actually allowing but rather evoking motion. The “Walking Woman” is a stationary object, facilitating movement and potentializing motion. However, in both the architecture and the art the presence of an observer (or an individual) is required to actuate the potential motion.
Given these mirror elements of meaning and motion one must ask; where does the path lead and how do I become a “tracer of missing persons” (Snow 1994) in defining the relationships between the penetrating forms in the renovated structure and the “Walking Woman” (Snow 2004)? I am compelled by the clues in Burtynsky’s photographs where he makes a deliberate point of showing only Snow’s work at the heart of Gehry’s renovation. In the gallery space, “she” is clearly a tour guide, with her representations strategically placed throughout the gallery.
In “Four to Five” (Snow 1962) with silver gelatin prints on cardboard, Snow shows the viewer images of the “Walking Woman” (Snow 1994) in various public settings (see support materials page 3 – (Cornwell 1980). His intentions are to “test the perception and definition of art” (Kellman 2002) but simultaneously he may also be testing our perceptions and the results of his public “Experiments” (Snow 1994). It is also important that in each case ‘she’ is directing the flow of pedestrian traffic in the streets of Toronto. In some cases she can be seen literally guiding the masses in her direction (Cornwell 1980). She embodies and evokes movement although she cannot move. Motion is central to her design but she is completely stationary. This static-dynamic dichotomy is completely embodied by Frank Gehry’s flowing adaptations. ‘Her’ image is by far the most prominent one peppered throughout the entire gallery and in each case she guides movement, flow and perhaps even perspective.
What becomes evident is that there exists a symbolic partnership connecting the “Walking Woman” and Gehry’s architectural transformation of the AGO. The importance of architectural and cultural artifacts as guidance for cultural experiences is an important theme that has been discussed for some time in the arts. Milton Carman’s article “Ontario’s Decentralized Non-hierarchical, Automatic Response System” (Carman 1969) predicted the existence of an idealistic cultural space where “the grounds are an arts environment in themselves” and “the constantly changing exhibit is a cultural representation of all kinds of activity, political and economic as well as artistic.” (Carman 1969). Carman envisioned a space where the place itself would be an artifact guiding ‘usage’ of culture signification. With this point in mind, we must proceed in questioning the “Walking Woman as a cultural guide.
A reflective “Walking Woman” (both visually and ideologically) with ‘her’ shiny metallic surface is found guiding the flow of AGO patrons in front of the “Salle Margaret and Jim Fleck Gallery”. ‘She’ faces the entrance to the Thomas collection of Canadian art from both the left and right. This placement of her form is perhaps the most obvious guidance of movement in the gallery space. We are being guided by both architectural flow and the direction the “Walking Woman”, indicating a moment of important intersection at a ‘must’ see collection of art.
The physical or technical task of moving patrons through an art gallery has implications beyond architectural flow. The gallery functions as an institution of culture and art. It is practically essential to create pedestrian flow; as one might find on a particularly busy day or when dealing with circulation through the space. The mandate of the ‘house of art’ is to facilitate a ‘controlled’ flow or movement processing access to the space and art within. It also represents “a new technique for taking charge of the time of individual existence; for regulating the relations of time, bodies and forces; for assuring an accumulation of duration; and for turning to ever-increased profit or use the movement of passing time” (Foucault 1977). Whether it is utility or some other program that guides the agenda of Michael Snow’s work, it seems secondary to the fact that both Frank Gehry’s adaptations and Michael Snow’s “Walking Woman” demand, control and play with movement throughout the AGO. The two movements climb the chambers of high art together, guiding the masses through a cultural experience.
One conceptual height that Frank Gehry’s staircase does not seem to be able to reach and cannot share with Michael Snow’s “Walking Woman” is that ‘she’ is a shadow and ‘she’ is a symbol so she operates above and without the constraints of an ‘architectural reality’. ‘She’ is an independent woman who can easily work on her own and if she requires company, she replicates herself in rows of accordion-like paper craft cut-outs. With another of Snow’s artworks, “Encyclopedia” (Snow 1994) we are given hints about Michael Snow’s “Solid-color-space-ladies” (Snow 1994). The work is analogous to a landscape or abstract topographical architectural model playing with positive and negative space. The nineteen figures on each row and thirteen rows depicted are a subtle reference to the year 1913, when both global transformations and conflicts were brewing (Snow calls her W.W.I in some cases – referring to both Walking Woman I and an obvious reference to the first world war). Snow also references assembly line manufacturing and reproductions that were emerging for the first time in 1913 at the Ford Motor Company.
In many versions she is represented by negative space as a cut out (see support materials page 2 – Snow 2004). This challenges us to look not only at the actual graphic but the graphics within and around the form itself. If the image of the “Walking Woman” is flipped upside down and we focus on the upper torso (see support materials page 1 – Snow 2004) then the image of a man emerges from the left facing an image of a bird on the right (upside-down). This specific ornithological reference is not entirely clear but the beak is distinctly raptor. With this we are challenged to consider if the “Walking Woman” is a graphic of a symbol embodying many meanings that are within it and wrapped around it. The dichotomy of reference to the gallery’s renovation is that Frank Gehry architectural elements are surrounded by the original ‘institutional’ canvas. The ‘negative space’ is then the old structure, filled with classical imagery, symbols, arches and crown moldings. Again we are given an ideological tour of the new space with the “Walking Woman” as our guide. “W.W. is detached from her background or ‘she’ is in reciprocal relations to it” (Snow 1994).
Ultimately only Michael Snow knows the meaning of his iconographic “mother cut-out” (Snow 2004) and because he believes that “Painting is not about communication, it’s a form of secrecy” (Snow 1994) we may never get to hear the whispers. Nevertheless, when we contemplate the intricate and wonderfully elaborate meanings that emerge from the “Walking Woman” we can build connections to the flow, movement and potential energy of the newly transformed AGO.
Carman, M. (1969). Ontario’s Decentralised, Non-hierarchical, Automatic Response System. Cultural Affairs No.6. P. Spackman. New York, Assosiated Councils of the Arts.
Cornwell, R. (1980). Snow Seen: the Films and Photographs of Michael Snow Toronto, Pma Books.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison, Blackwell Publishing.
Kellman, T. (2002). Figuring Redemption, Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Snow, M. (1929). Encyclopedia. Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario: reproduction drawings, acrylic, resin, on paperboard.
Snow, M. (1961-62). 61-62. Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario: oil and graphite on canvas.
Snow, M. (1994). The collected writings of Michael Snow. Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Snow, M. (2004). Biographie Of The Walking Woman/ De La Femme Qui Marche: 1961-1967 (2004), La Lettre Volée.
Snow, M. (2009). quote from the wall of the Steven & Michael Latner Families Gallery 4th floor of the AGO. Ontario. Toronto.