Snow, Michael (James Aleck)
- Elizabeth Legge
Updated in this version
Canadian painter, sculptor, filmmaker, photographer, and musician. Snow was born in Toronto, and studied at the Ontario College of Art. From the early 1960s he lived in New York, where he was associated with Jonas Mekas’s Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, returning to Toronto in 1972. Snow worked in film, video, photography, holography, painting, sculpture, jazz, and combinations of these. In 1969 the film theorist P. Adams Sitney said that Snow, along with other artists/filmmakers including Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Ernie Gehr, Tony Conrad, and Joyce Wieland, had established a new “structural film” in which overall shape took primacy over other concerns. Snow later said that his work was concerned with fundamental structural aspects of art, rather than “pictures,” and accordingly constructed the index for the “encyclopedia” of his work, Digital Snow (DVD 2002, website 2012) around “core principles,” which included properties abstracted from any particular medium (“transparency,” “duration,” “surface,” “language,” and “recto–verso”) as well as medium-based categories (“collage,” “photography,” and “painting”). These informed all his work.
1. Life and work.
One of Snow’s core principles was the “Walking Woman,” a fluid profile silhouette that he worked on from 1961 to 1967 in many media. While the seriality, vivid colors, and patterns that disrupt figure-ground relations in such paintings as Mixed Feelings (1965; Vancouver, A.G.) showed affinities with Pop, Snow’s template figure pointed to philosophical, phenomenological accounts of perception as bodily extension into the world. That the Walking Woman had no hands or feet, or, rather, that her hands and feet are perceived as extending beyond the rectangle given to our sight, worked as a metaphor for just such an extension into the world. In the photographs Four to Five (1962; Toronto, A.G. Ont.) and the film New York Eye and Ear Control (1964) Snow placed the Walking Woman cut-out in the “real” world—casting a shadow in the subway, meshing with the silhouettes of trees, placed in the waves—as if testing the ways figure and world are immersed in one another. Snow also made sculptures that he referred to as “Directors of Attention,” investigating a multisensory understanding of sight. The minimalist structure Blind (1968; Ottawa, N.G.) entices the viewer into alleys with metal mesh walls of different gauges, triggering a glittering moiré visual interference as she walks.
In New York, Snow made three landmark films addressing “camera movement,” and the relations of filmed movement to the viewer’s kinesthetic experience. In Wavelength (1967) a 45 minute forward zoom created an illusion of moving into depth, an effect aurally enhanced by a rising sine wave. <----> (Back and Forth) (1968) could induce dizziness with its intensifying, jarring, asymmetrical lateral pans punctuated by percussive sounds. In the three hour La Région Centrale (1969) a specially designed machine mount allowed the camera to move in a range of spiraling and panning movements within an almost 360 degree sphere, barring the “blind spot” of the machine’s base, as if literalizing the cinematic dream of an unfettered “camera eye.”
While many of Snow’s works addressed another core principle, “language,” the 270 minute long Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Denis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1972–1974) was a sustained exploration of language as spoken, written, gestured, translated, recorded, and forgotten, and as subject to the technologies of recording and the sound-image relations of the film itself. Informed by philosophy, psycholinguistics, and semiotic theory, its twenty-six sections ranged in tone from riotous slapstick and punning to elegiac mediation on creation. Elsewhere Snow attended to a particular aspect of language, deictics, or “shifter” words such as “this” or “you,” that point to a context lying outside language. In the witty text film written by Snow, So Is This (1982), the film addressed the viewer, “you,” in its discussion of itself, one projected word at a time: “This is the title of this.” Snow returned to deictics in the installation That/Cela/Dat (2000), now directed at the peripatetic gallery-goer (“reading while standing is unusual, isn’t it?”).
Snow addressed the properties of many media, alone and in combination. For the DVD, WVLNT (Wavelength For Those Who Don’t Have The Time) (2003), Snow divided the 45 minute film Wavelength into three equal segments and then superimposed them, to create one 15 minute “film” in which each frame contains a past, present, and future moment of the original film. It was as if the “duration” of film had to be folded over onto itself to fit into the compressed format of the DVD. In See You Later – Au revoir (1990) Snow addressed the capacities of super slow motion video technology to expand a 30 second incident to an 18 minute film. The film’s terse dialogue (“Goodbye,” “See you later”) summarizes the illusion that we see a recorded image as if in the present, while in fact it is always “later.” Snow also investigated the properties of photography with rigor and wit. These included transparency (Powers of Two, 2003), recursion (Authorization, 1969; Ottawa, N.G.), seriality (Venetian Blind, 1970; Ottawa, Canada Council Art Bank), two-dimensionality (Press, 1969; Ottawa, N.G.), light (Speed of Light, 1992); trompe l’oeil (Midnight Blue, 1973–1974; Paris, Mus. N. A. Mod.), the still (Flash! 20.49, 15/6/2001 2001), and enlargement (Fish Story, 1979). The textless book, Cover to Cover (1975) addressed the “recto–verso” principle, as the two-dimensionality of the pages works against the spatiality of the photographic image. The photo narrative spins paradoxes, as it inverts itself, and, at the end, returns to its beginning, as if the book’s contents were not materially bounded by its covers. Photography was an element of Snow’s public art sculpture Flightstop (1979): in the glass-roofed galleria of the Toronto Eaton Centre sixty fiberglass Canada Geese, clothed in tinted scale photographs of their plumage, are stopped in flight as if enacting a stop-motion photograph.
Snow was also a musician. From 1974 he performed and recorded with the Toronto-based improvisational free jazz ensemble, the CCMC. Snow combined music and sound with his visual work, notably in his films, but also in such works as the video installation Piano Sculpture (2009).
2. Critical reception and reputation.
In 1967 Snow’s film Wavelength won the grand prize at the Knooke-le-Zoute festival of avant-garde film in Belgium. In 1983 So Is This won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Independent/Experimental Film and Video. Major scholars including Hubert Damisch, Julia Kristeva, Jean-François Lyotard, Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, and Thierry de Duve engaged with his work. Snow’s work in many media was represented by major exhibitions internationally, including the Venice Biennale; the Cinémathèque Française and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; Centre national de la photographie, Paris; Anthology Film Archives, and Museum of Modern Art, New York; L’Institut Lumière, Lyon; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona; the Power Plant, Toronto; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; and the Musée d’art contemporain, Montreal. He has been a visiting professor at Yale University, Princeton University, and at the Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris.
Among many honors, Snow was awarded the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (Film) (2000), and made Companion of the Order of Canada (2007). He received honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, the University of Victoria, Brock University, and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He was made Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres, France (1995), and received an honorary doctorate from the Université de Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne (2004).
Toronto, A.G. Ont., E. P. Taylor Research Library and Archives, Michael Snow Fonds.
- The Collected Writings of Michael Snow. Foreword by Louise Dompierre. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994.
- Dompierre, L. Walking Woman Works: Michael Snow, 1961–67. Kingston, Ont., Queen’s U., Agnes Etherington A. Cent., 1984. Exhibition catalog.
- Reid, Dennis, ed. Michael Snow Project: Visual Art 1951–1993. Toronto: Knopf, 1994.
- Shedden, Jim, ed. Presence and Absence: The Films of Michael Snow 1956–1991. Toronto: Knopf, 1995.
- Fleischer, Alain, and Damisch, Hubert. Michael Snow: Panoramique. Bruxelles: Société des Expositions du Palais de Beaux-Arts, 1999.
- Legge, Elizabeth. Michael Snow: Wavelength. London: Afterall, 2009.
- Michael Snow: Photo-Centric. Essays by Adelina Vlas and Michael Snow. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2014. Exhibition catalog.
- Langford, Martha. Michael Snow: Life & Work. Toronto: The Art Canada Institute/Institut de l’art canadien, 2014.
- Moure, Gloria, ed. Michael Snow: Sequences: A History of His Art. Barcelona: Poligrafa, 2016.
- Digital Snow: http://www.fondation-langlois.org/digital-snow [works in all media thematically curated by the artist, edited by Peggy Gale, including excerpts of music and film, interviews, and texts] (accessed Oct 21, 2018).