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Catalogue Essay from Scratching the Surface: The Post-Prairie Landscape at Plug In ICA
Written by Steven Matijio


The purportedly “limitless” horizon of the Prairies is stretched as much by geography as myth, extending across plains and provinces into the storied realm of Canadian folk tale. As the corresponding legends accumulate into a near-infinite whole, awe disguises a complex constitution where smaller, more inconspicuous elements gather. Inspired by the revelatory potential of this unsung nuance, Sylvia Matas engages the mythical Prairie expanse from a miniature perspective. Surveying vast territories through their smallest details, her humble work evinces humble aims – inverting the grandeur of scale to savour its subdivision. In so doing, Matas combines the child-like innocence of Dueck, the archaeology of Kazu, and the meticulousness of Klimack in objects that marry poetry and craft. By isolating the building blocks of elemental forces such as rain, water, and snow, politics also enter her practice as she parcels an environment man has long sought to control. Between land developers, agricultural industrialists, impetuous children and their equally capricious attempts to “tame” the world, Matas travels the unresolved territory between colonization and case study. Keeping the “divide & conquer” directive at bay (as well as the opposing pole of existential smallness), she wanders microscopic ground where details whisper. With a delicate touch and material economy she traces their course through the fractions of nature’s province – celebrating the secrets inside imposing aggregates.

Her endearing attempts to harness the magnitude of these primordial elements reflect the simultaneous idealism and excess of man’s relationship to the environment. With a conciliatory combination of humility, empathy, and respect, Matas yields the pretence of dominion to assume a more modest position in nature’s workshop. Combining craft materials (such as paper, clay, and watercolour) with youthful wonder, she fashions meticulous objects whose imperfections speak as much to ambition, as absurdity. Whether constructing a piece of lumber from pipecleaner tips, weaving a rope from silken dental floss, or building a coral reef from dollar store merchandise, her work marries moments of intimacy with submission to the sublime. In this alchemical arena, By Now (Longtime Timer) (2003) reduces the archetypal workings of the water cycle to human scale. Reduced to the size (and innocence) of infant hands, this timer consists of a small, open-mouth glass bottle filled with water which is left to evaporate between a pair of marks. Where the water began and where it will end are left a mystery, but between an unidentified line near the neck of the bottle and one labelled “by now” further below, there is innate poetry in nameless passage. In conversation with the imperfect science of the sundial and hourglass, this is time-keeping without accompanying purpose – measured carefully outside any form of practical application. Forgoing explicit function in favour of meditation, By Now moves beyond itself; living quietly as a lens upon every moment outside start & finish.

The modesty and framing entwined in this gesture reflects Matas’ acknowledgment of her (at least partial) authorship: imbuing organic forms with human dimensions that change nature via perception. Focusing upon shifts affecting the storied expanse of the Prairies, a pair of recent works manifest proliferating populations as the new “storm” sweeping the land. In this context, in the demographic shift from rural isolation to accelerating urban density, her atomization of water casts elements as crowds, and ecology as man. Pale blue ceramic raindrops congregate like a mountain range in the work Puddle (2003), extracting and isolating that which so “naturally” lives as aggregate. In the process, every individual drop is frozen in an amorphous constellation upon the floor; lingering in a state that precludes evaporation as well as unison. Its melancholic fracture is nonetheless tempered by the fragility of formation: poised coolly on the precipice between icy ossification, domino-like collapse, and the fortitude of numbers. The ambivalent permanency of the latter informs the sister work Snowbank (2002-), where Matas piles thousands of hand-cut, paper snowflakes against a wall like the detritus of society. More suggestive of dust than the snow we have grown accustomed to piling in winter months, Snowbank obscures the individuality of its constitution to linger as an abject mass. In so doing, this tentative sculpture brings her work full circle – spanning every state of water to find meaning in its shifting constitution. No answers are forthcoming in this meticulous theatre of de/re-construction, but its temporary pauses are cause for marvel; giggling softly at the comfort (and conceit) of finding niches within nature.