Sylvia Matas: Red Shift (solo exhibition at Mercer Union)
written by Jen Hutton

"At first there was nothing- then nothing turned itself inside out and became something." --lyric from Discipline 27 (Part 2) by Sun Ra, 1973

In any attempt to explain the nature of the universe, the 'how' is not nearly as complicated as the 'what'. As the story goes, before exploding and flinging matter hither and yon, the universe was a singularity, a tiny particle equal in mass to billions of suns. Over the millennia, the ensuing celestial mess mostly organized itself into rotating discs of stars. In other places, it yielded to collapse, forming black holes: nebulous areas that indiscriminately swallow matter into their invisible gaping yaws. For what purpose and towards what location this constant drain of matter is headed has yet to be determined– the 'why' is a different sort of science altogether. While the language of theoretical physics cannot always be expressed by brief and briefer treatises1 it is not science's intention to cloak or obfuscate the truth. In fact, the layman should desire a theory of everything2 just as much as the mathematician does. Sylvia Matas is not a scientist, but her predisposition to observe, hypothesize and test the nature of objects and subjects in the world align her practice with her more mathematically-minded peers.

A theory is a model of what we already observe in the world. The more straightforward the model is– that is, the fewer exceptions it permits into its elegant structure– the more reliable it is in accurately predicting outcomes on a variety of scales. In recent correspondence Sylvia Matas writes, "I like things that are visually minimal. I've always admired people who are able to say or express something with the fewest words possible."3 Matas' inclination towards the provisional is not unlike the strategies of the Imagist poets of the early 20th century. Among them, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams rallied against the florid interpretations and lofty themes of the Romantics by focusing on everyday experience.4 Their poems used an economy of language pared down to its bare bones in order to open up interpretation. This honesty is most obvious in Stein's frequently cited quote "a rose is a rose is a rose,"5 which, on the surface, reminds us of the cyclic, repetitive structures in Matas' work: the looping links in Chains, the helical strands of dental floss in Rope, and the concentric circles boring into a stack of sandpaper in Crater. Fully obeying this mantra is the ironically finite Ouroboros, rolling its tail of masking tape onto itself, impishly using its own stickiness to simultaneously consume and regenerate its circular form.

Matas writes, "When I make objects, I rarely start from scratch. They are usually the result of a transformation of a given material with its own pre-determined purpose." Not "starting from scratch" resonates with a general shift in contemporary art production where "raw" materials have been supplanted by the seduction of manufactured goods. Yesterday's stone and steel have given way to sandpaper and tinfoil, forming a lexicon of equivalents. We know that the properties of inanimate objects are fixed–tape sticks, sandpaper sands–but Matas engages in a type of quotidian curatorship, extracting the remarkable from the mundane. Similarly, for Michelangelo the act of the sculptor was to free the sculpture already inside the stone, and Matas has tapped into that same intuitive process. While they lack in physicality, her diminutive works hold a record of meditative work that alters the material along the lines of colloquial craft. The processes of folding, cutting, and spinning are restrained transformations that create objects that are analogous to the material's original function or appearance. Like Stein's musing on getting back to the "thingness of things,"6 these reinvented objects burrow themselves in their own circular arguments.

In as much as they are studies of the formal and functional qualities of everyday things, both as subjects and as objects, Matas' sculptures are models of things we can see or hope to see. No one has actually seen a black hole, but scientists can speculate on their existence by observing the space dust and light waves that are sucked into their inconceivable interiors. Save for a theoretical singularity at its very centre, a pinpoint of zero volume and infinite density–not unlike the one that existed before the Big Bang–a black hole appears to be nothing though its behaviour indicates otherwise. A grand unified theory, a basic model to unlock the mystery of the seen and the unseen, would confirm the hypotheses floating around these extreme states of matter, as well as the more tangible examples that exist here in our everyday experience. Paradoxically, in Matas' practice, it is the nothing–the familiar objects, the empty spaces, the invisible–that, through simple gestures, become something to articulate the virtually inexplicable.


1 Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time was published in 1988 and sold more than 9 million copies worldwide. In 2005, Hawking collaborated with Leonard Mlodinow to write A Briefer History of Time, as a follow-up to the first. It is an abridged version of the first book meant to explain most of the theoretical concepts "in a more accessible fashion." The scientific concepts presented here in this essay are based on information pulled from the latter.

2 Scientists are still a long way from formulating a grand unified theory that reconciles Einstein’s theory of gravity (general relativity) with quantum theory (that covers electromagnetic, strong, and weak forces), but doing so would help us uncover a lot more about the nature of the universe.

3 Email correspondence between the author and the artist, 2 June 2008.

4 Gail McDonald, American Literature and Culture, 1900-1960: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 138.

5 Gertrude Stein, Sacred Emily in Geography and Plays, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 187.

6 McDonald, 138.