Punchers, burins, blade knives, and guillotine splicers invade Rhayne Vermette’s working space. Born in Notre Dame de Lourdes, Manitoba, and residing in Winnipeg, for this self-taught artist, collage, photography, and film are the tools that demolish the house of rhetoric. Inspired by architects who infused a reinterpretation of building with wood, glass, and stone, Vermette questions methodological foundations and surroundings—in her case, to make the towers fall. What once was defined as path and pillar do not govern the artist or her work. She breaks down structures that mirror the dysfunctional models and causalities of closed structures. Her schemes and patterns are not affixed or in service to a system. Instead, she shows what is beneath the logic of make-sense enunciations, and their own relational dynamics. By deconstructing edifices of rules, meaning takes its power back. Scratches, flares, glue, and tape are the weapons of the artist’s anti-language.
Highly laborious and musical, Rhayne Vermette’s works are moving fragments of a whole that transform themselves both poetically and politically. A female character in a film (Take My Word, 2012) will continue evolving in another a year later (Full of Fire). Each image is a composition of movable motifs that respond and react in disregard to categorical, self-contained conventions. The artist choreographs shifts and alterations in what had been previously built up as truth or context, stratification and alienation. In one of her first films, Tricks are for Kiddo (2012), multiple little pieces of 16mm found footage gets overlapped in varying densities and taped to clear leader into different positions. An animation results from reshooting the collage on an optical printer while running the film at constant speed. Scenes that were not meant to convene are assembled together over the flying carpet of the celluloid strip, unmatched juxtapositions in the stream of consciousness.
The concept of rebuilding from what is broken or left out also resides behind Vermette’s Black Rectangle (2013), a film that relates to Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square (1913). The Kiev-born artist adopted the cracked, non-representational, geometric form as a “refuge” for the cultural and social revolts that would lead to the October Revolution. Both protecting and hiding, in Vermette’s film black rectangular sections adhered to transparent celluloid act as barricades or curtains. The placement of each element within the frame is marked by the white spacing that surrounds or cuts them, as in 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s theory of espacement between words on a page (Poem. A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance, 1914). Thanks to these delimitations, clusters of similar materials manage to show their own singularities. A closer visual connection comes from Marcel Broodthaers's interpretation in 1969 of Mallarmé’s poem, a translation in graphic forms: black blocks substitute the words, their width stretching in relation to the original type size. In Black Rectangle, the obstructing shapes take over the optical track field of the 16mm frame, and create an ominous, seemingly destructive, popping and cracking sound when they travel through the gate of the film projector. Ideas of place and absence translate into visual and audible breaks in the action through rhythmic repetition or silence, an idea developed in Jacques Derrida’s chapter Différance (Margins of Philosophy, 1972): “An interval must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself, but this interval that constitutes it as present must, by the same token, divide the present in and of itself... this interval is what might be called spacing, the becoming-space of time or the becoming-time of space.” Vermette’s body of work pushes this theory towards a feminist perspective: what matters is not the story that gets repeated as believable, but who is allowed to talk and what their silences speak to.
Indexes of power, the quick images’ shallow depth is brought into the open in Vermette’s work by aggregating layers, both in space and in improbability. The shards of celluloid she brings together from inside the frame or the sprocket hole area, and the sequential cuts, being sharp or dissolved, shed light on materiality and memory. Similarly, the sounds mixed from different sources and at equal volume levels interfere intelligibility. Vermette’s web of sounds mirrors the frustration and aggressivity that take place in communication. Wavering from high to low, and from left to right, sounds have the effect of implacable, movable wind around obelisks of Babelian misunderstanding. By shifting hierarchy among sounds, Vermette may baffle expectations of inattentive listening. A different approach to perceiving sound allows for the creation of new expressions and, therefore, new ways of thinking. Existentially and syntactically, tacit subordinations (“the way things are”) have no part in the calligraphy and cartography of the artist’s work. Constructions are, ideologically and formally, torn down—the beginning and the end of disbelief.
It is inevitable to associate Vermette’s interest in structures, or her detachment, with the Structural/materialist film movement. The repeated use of contrasting patterns and geometric shapes at different exposures and focal lengths speaks to a methodology in which time affords dimensionality. The most important aspect of the presentation of an image is its framing and the passing time between moving parts: the entr’acte. The process and its artificiality are the film. The square or rectangle that surrounds the image is the same of a window, of a house’s wall, the artist’s room, and the flat table she works on. Vermette is interested in what those spaces permit, and how they can be animated through scale, perspective, duration, and imagination. She challenges materials and constructions, and breaks them down to chaotic configurations that, in turn, become a vindication of basic forms. Through fixed camera-pointing, loops, and transitions, perspective gets displaced. “Only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is,” we hear in Vermette’s film Les Châssis de Lourdes (2016), made with footage the artist’s father had shot in their family home. The quote is from David Byrne in his film True Stories (1986) after his band’s concert, Stop Making Sense, and regarding the nature of the chronicles published in tabloid newspapers at the time. His narration is a fitting and cohesive explanation of the metaphysical concerns that ignite Vermette’s work: the evolution of aspirations through time and experience or, what is the same, the pursuit of life after catastrophe.
Vermette’s work as a whole is neither experimental nor documentarian or fictional, but something mutable that brings together elements from all those categories, a kind of multi-media architectural settlement of the mind where ruins and reigns collide. For Vermette, the film frame is not a cage or rigid container, but one of those homes whose structures are capable of swinging during earthquakes, adapting to the changing phases, morphing and readjusting, moving along. This is reminiscent of Japanese building design, but also of Italian Carlos Mollino’s work, which Vermette has studied for many years, and served as inspiration for her films Turin (2015) and Domus (2018). Reflecting on a utopian architecture, and with the versatility that mixing 35mm, 16mm, Super-8mm, black and white paper copies, and negative film affords, Domus frees itself from plots, maps, and models. Vermette recites stanzas that channel the free spirit of her subject, inspired by artist Al Jarnow’s time-lapse, stop-motion film Celestial Animation (1985):
In this space, divided by time, defined by light, we wait. Through what filter does a dream emerge instrument of precision a constructive proscenium for a perspective of vision waiting by night in the shadow of its frame a darkness crowds the landscape and crouching behind this cold partition born from memory and new to my language he comes.
Vermette utilizes cutter knives to craft line-based compositions on celluloid the way Mollino used pencils to sketch his buildings. Mollino had a Surrealist eye, and the dream-like two-room apartment he designed and built in Turin, the Casa Miller, was the set to stage his photographic work. He manipulated negatives, prints, and Polaroid film to achieve, if nothing else, at least his conceptual desires. An image of the interior entrance of this apartment became the front cover of the leading architectural journal Domus in 1937. In his photographs, the arrangement of furniture, fabrics, shapes, and bodies highlights what his vision as an artist was about: the creation of spaces that bring closer material architecture and sentient beings, shelters to be sentimental shells meant to last. Vermette sees this same potential in the malleability of celluloid, its organic ability to transcend. Connection and progression do not happen naturally, though. They need to be conjured, repeatedly, and often incited by failure. That is the case in Tudor Village: A One Shot Deal (2012), a film where Vermette explores the town’s sounds, and her experience trying to capture with her camera a lunar eclipse. Embracing mistakes and defeat, her meticulous work reflects on those aspects of the artistic process that are outside control. The deviations and strangeness of derailing lead the way to wider reach and depths.
In search of that place that resembles the trace of the heart, Vermette’s work draws a consistently evolving trajectory. Now in preparation of a scripted film with an all-female crew, she questions her familiar modus operandi, switching the order and routines of her creative process, the labyrinth’s corridors and itineraries. Actors and performative acts further the implications of art as destruction, testing models of command, pushing the artist’s creative walls, and expanding the terrain as in a panoramic shot. The art of architecture in film is no other than light projected in the darkroom of the mind, a sensorial space for the construction of other words, worlds, and politics, those beyond the burned house in the time of rebirth.
The Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, will present the special program "Enfolded Space: The Work of Rhayne Vermette" on March 20 with the artist in attendance.
Under the title "Armed Woman at Desk," this piece will appear in a forthcoming collection on the work of Rhayne Vermette, edited by Stephen Broomer, and published by Sightline Books.
The Very Eye of Night is a series of columns on nonbinary and female avant-garde film and video artists. The title refers to Maya Deren’s last completed film.