One of the strangest things about leaving and then returning home is the mixed feeling of dislocation and familiarity that accompanies most daily activities. There is so much about the place that we do not know—and yet we know it.
Nelson Henricks made Montreal his home in the early 1990s. He has been living and working in the city ever since, developing a body of work that has been exhibited across Canada. It’s fitting that his first mid-career retrospective is taking place at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery at Concordia University. Although the show is not an exhaustive overview of his oeuvre, it covers a great deal of ground and is comprised of a careful selection of video works, multi-channel projections and installations.
Henricks’ work has to do with memory, personal history, the passage of time, and the disparity between what we want to say and our ability to say it. Symbolism and metaphor are frequently used devices in the videos. Vintage recording equipment, telephones, candies and dice appear on the screen while time-lapse photography, narration and domestic props create immediacy. His single-channel works are well placed within the lineage of video art. In particular, pieces like 1995’s Shimmer and 1998’s Time Passes elucidate existential themes while toying with the relationship between language and visual experience. In both films, Henricks explores the impact of words on imagination and memory through his investigation of the notion of home.
Henricks’ work demonstrates an interest in the structures employed by conceptual artists such as John Baldessari. The point of departure for 2002’s Happy Hour is a found photograph in which a 12-year-old Henricks poses under his family’s Christmas tree, surrounded by gifts, and displays a new digital alarm clock. The installation, comprised of video and found objects, includes two more photographs in which Henricks reproduces the original scene. He poses under the tree, clock in hand as if no time has passed. We see him transition from childhood to adulthood to middle age while the time remains the same—12:44.
One of the most striking pieces in the exhibition, the new work Unwriting, combines text, performative gestures and still photographs into a four-channel video. In it, Henricks examines our desire to communicate. As with many of his works, the soundtrack is especially important, using both specific sounds (clapping hands) and abstracted noise (such as hums and drones). Rhythmic editing and the skilful use of montage give the work a genuine momentum while close-up shots of fingers typing and light bulbs igniting alternate with images of typewritten text. The film is about an author grappling with creative inertia, a curiosity at the root of much of Henricks’ extensive production.