Me Me Me Wyn Geleynse

Wyn Geleynse is unwrapping a recent creation in his studio as I pepper him with questions, like, “just what inspires your creative process at the ripe young age of 74?” And I’m about to find out.  Except, as he reveals this viewer interactive piece The MeMeMe Machine I can’t keep from laughing, and laughing so hard that the question might now be considered… moot. 

MeMeMe Machine, Kinetic Sculpture with Audio, 35” x 7” x 17.5”, 2019″ Courtesy of the Artist and Trépanier Baer Gallery

As he plugs in his installation, Geleynse holds a serious tone in answering my questions.  

“If you want to know in a nutshell what all my work is about, what I’m about, it’s that I’m a hapless male, just trying to figure out what it means to be a man in our manly society.” 

Huh? What does he mean by that? Geleynse, the recipient of the 2018 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts for his innovative contributions in film and video loop installation work… hapless?  

Ostensibly, I’m in his studio to see – if you can call an immersion in virtual reality “seeing” – his VR piece called Believes.  

It was part of a three artists show last summer at Gallery Stratford called Side by Side that explored the possibilities of the fairly new medium.  But you don’t actually need art gallery walls or space to view it: just strap on the Oculus visor headset and grab the hand controllers. Except, the Oculus is not quite ready just now to present Geleynse’s first foray into VR art. It has to go through a software update first. Hmm.  

In the meantime, while we await the update, Geleynse pulls the cover off a toy truck on a table, the way a magician reveals a rabbit out of a hat.  He goes “ta-da”, and presents The MeMeMe Machine. It’s your everyday work truck, but the truck has a flatbed, and that is where the magic resides: a Meccano set-like tower of metal spindles that support a rotating speaker high above, à la something the Wurlitzer Leslie speaker was famous for in the 60s, at the top. 

What’s this all about? What comes out of that speaker?  

All of my laughing aside, this piece is more than just for kicks, the comedic delivery. It has a very serious side of satire of the online “me” culture, the endless self-promotion everyone seems to be engaged in these digital days, be it branding on Instagram, TikTok or Facebook or Twitter. And this is Geleynse’s “tweeted” response to it all: “Me, me, me, me, me, me.” You see, the viewer has his portrait on display on the base of the speaker tower, and then the viewer is prompted to say “me me me me me” endlessly into a microphone, with the participant’s voice transmitted and slightly digitally altered through the tower’s rotating speaker, spreading the narcissist’s declaration for all to hear.  

The MeMeMe Machine is reminiscent and perhaps an off-shoot of his City Services Truck series, some of which are in Museum London’s permanent collection. The entire lot of the truck series were displayed at DNA Gallery in London about seven years back, the large toy trucks modified by Geleynse to an acerbic and witty purpose. Those toy trucks carry various payloads that speak to his, well, perhaps to an earlier age, when a truck might be used for political sloganeering, advertising, or crowd control agendas. The internet has replaced most of that, but Geleynse is still intrigued by things from his childhood past. And it’s a charming set, these City Services trucks. One wishes they’d come back in some form. I’d be more than happy to have a life-sized version of The MeMeMe Machine dropping in on cultural events at Victoria Park , I think it goes without saying.   

I throw more questions at Geleynse in his studio, trying to figure out what makes his creative spirit, heart, tick. I get various digressions. 

“It doesn’t really matter whether you believe in art, it’s what your own experience is. What you bring to the art.” 

What does he read? “Various books, other artists, it’s a communal thought process and I don’t know where it will lead to.” 

Your favourite artist? “James Ensor from Belgium. I’m presently obsessed with a portrait of a masked subject.” 

Hmm. We’ve all been wearing masks lately in COVID, so okay.  

“I can’t define art,” he says. “Anything can be art, shapes, experiences. Perhaps an old automobile one sees cruising down the road.” 

But, I say, the protean German filmmaker Werner Herzog says, very oddly, that he doesn’t ascribe to the category of art, that he doesn’t believe in “art”. What do you make of that, I ask? 

“I can’t define it,” he says, “It’s what you the viewer makes of it. Almost anything can be art. Car design. A cat tree.” 

I’ll return to the Herzog statement but for now Wyn doesn’t seem to care what defines art, nor where his ideas come from, that is, assuming “art” exists at all.   

I go on to suggest that might be a very healthy way to be as a creator. On the other hand, you don’t want to be a Picasso who, in his later days, may have been an artist for hire.  

Wyn laughs. “Salvador Dali signed his autograph on blank sheets of paper for a dollar.“ 

And then I ask him: what did you mean by saying you’re a hapless male, exactly? 

“I created a character in my film work who is a hapless male. That reflected a point in my life where I felt that the concept of maleness in society was somewhat overwhelming. I think throughout my career that the work I’ve done has reflected on where I was at that time, as I was aging.” 

* * * 

I’m wondering if Wyn considers himself a Regionalist. After all, he was nigh on the heels of Greg Curnoe and Tony Urquhart, Jack Chambers… who, amongst others in London’s art scene that landed on a Times magazine cover in the late 60s… surely he is a part or by-product of that unique local art history? Those dudes championed the idea that art doesn’t only have to happen in the big black holes, like New York City. It would only make sense that Geleynse is a product of that time and history.  But instead, I ask him what he remembers of his first … well, memorable artwork he ever made.  

Wyn’s first art work that appeared in public came to be when he won a design competition when he was in Grade 6. He’d designed some large candy canes that were featured in the Victoria Park Christmas display. Next, he won the competition for a Hamilton Road window display for an annual neighbourhood parade. 

What was on display in the windows doesn’t matter. The childhood Wyn was on his way. 

* * * 

Back in his studio, Geleynse gets the Oculus/ VR software for the Believes piece update figured out, and I get my first taste of virtual reality art. It is a little unsettling at first: the studio disappears, and in the goggles, a museum-like room comes to life, as it were. There are some images, four portraits, floating in air, but it creates a close-to-reality space that is compelling. More disturbing are lines of text that are seemingly floating in air in the middle of the four “walls” that contain them, that speak to the artwork’s title, Believes.  

I believe in a universal basic income 

I believe street art is pointless vandalism 

I believe it is better to be scared of everything than scared of nothing 

I believe that the most dangerous people believe that only they are right 

There’re many more lines, which may or may not correspond to the faces, portraits of people like Stu, an image we will see in another show later. The text corresponds to various political and ideological sloganeering we’re all aware of from the various stripes of the conversational spectrum, and they are slightly colour-coded accordingly. But there are also statements coming directly from the artist’s heart: 

I believe democracy came very close to disaster 

Intriguingly, as you walk through the texts in the virtual space, the texts tumble away, as if you’ve knocked over a stacked line of dominoes. The effect speaks to the fragmentary and unstable nature of many people’s current “beliefs” in an era of fake news, the shifting opinion on what is true and factual, the science and pseudoscience in a pandemic – to whether an election was stolen or not.  

This is Geleynse’s first attempt using the new medium and technology, and one wonders what possibilities await in future. This may be more than a gimmick: the artist can set up a self-generating art work where the observer, like in Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment, helps create or destroy the art. It speaks to Geleynse’s tradition found within his conceptual art pieces, like his WhiteBox Miniature Gallery from 2004 which, even though it was only a few square feet in dimension, contained curated miniature art works by various artists inside, and the WhiteBox itself would be displayed inside other galleries, such as London’s Michael Gibson Gallery. That piece is now in the hands of Ontario College of Art and Design, where they use it for student installations.  

WhiteBox Miniature Gallery, installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Trépanier Baer Gallery

It’s hard not to think that Geleynse conceived of Believes as a personal response to the trials we’ve been through since the beginning of COVID days, and the most unsettling events of January 6, 2021, at the White House. I can recall shuttling between the local news on the virus, and CNN reporting on whether democracy, as Geleynse ponders, could’ve been lost.  

I mention to him that Believes reminds me of those ‘choose your own adventure novels’, or that play from the early 90s where you entered a house and had to pick which room to start in, which drama you wanted to follow in the many rooms. Or, Brian Eno’s 77 million Paintings. Endless art, with the viewer guiding his own experience with the work.  

Perhaps it’s always been this way when we are interacting with art? We all take away our own interpretations and perceptions, as with all great art — and not just great art — going back over millennia. But, here, the possibilities in Believes… or any VR creation, seem endless.  

“I think the most interesting thing for me working with VR” says Geleynse, “is the liminal experience between the real world and the virtual world, the simultaneity of the two, and being able to transition from one to the other.”  

True. In virtual reality, you can get right up and super close to images, like the portraits he’s placed here. So close, that I tell Geleynse there’s some minute branding text on the Ray-Bans, and he wasn’t aware of that. There’s an invisible wall one can slip in and out of, where you are emerging, in Believes case, through and behind a portrait only to appear in the artist’s studio on the other side. You can walk through a painting like a ghost? A ghost in the machine? 

It was an almost hallucinatory event, somewhat akin to what happens when you can pull off a lucid dream… sliding from the state of reality and back into the virtual representation of reality.  

Still, Geleynse is a tad skeptical about its place in the future of visual art. He says he’s dabbled with creating new VR works but that he’s been frustrated at getting the technology to do what he would like. 

“I’m enthralled with the possibilities virtual reality offers; however, at this stage I find that the software has limited possibilities that preclude any advancement for the visual arts. A more creative artist than me might work within the limitations and come up with really interesting work. “ 

After the studio visit, there is Geleynse’s most recent show grouped with London artist Kim Moodie at the Satellite Project Space: Ink, on paper, on the walls with accoutrements. Tellingly, the combined artists’ statement mentions a Roland Barthes essay on the importance of playing with toys as a kid… and as an adult artist?  The show’s title pretty much speaks to what you’d see. A wall full of drawings, portraits by Geleynse that do include those little round metallic pins all the hipsters have clipped to their lapels, bags, etc., (hence the “accoutrements”). Geleynse places actual pins he’s collected over the decades as badges on the portraits of people, some drawn from life, some imagined. Here we have Stu, a drawing he included in the Believes VR piece. Stu, replete with real Ray-Ban glasses seems to be an icon of sorts for Geleynse, but I can’t tease it out of him. 

Stu, Mixed media on paper,12” x 9”, 2019. Courtesy of the Artist and Trépanier Baer Gallery

“What I do is to never tell people what to think about what I present,” he says. “What I try to offer are possibilities. It’s a matter of potential narratives rather than a specific, directive narrative. Most of my work is about potential narratives which one then hopes the viewer brings their own experiences to the work.” 

One might note a similarity in Geleynse’s drawing style in these portraits to Tim Burton’s illustrations and film work. There’s something slightly off-kilter, but something also playful, witty and yet macabre at the same time.  

I pose one more question. 

I mention that I heard the film maker Werner Herzog say in an interview that he doesn’t believe that art exists, that the constructs behind it, I suppose, don’t hold up anymore. I don’t know what he meant, but. Bizarre that he would say that as he’s a contemporary film artist extraordinaire. What do you make of that? 

“Art? I think since the advent of the language around feminism in the 70s, which lead to the influx of critical theory, the French philosophical influence around language… it lead to, well a good acquaintance of mine did a doctoral thesis where he described contemporary art as having taken ‘a linguistic turn.’ And so, art is no longer a reflection of a Western European dominance. Art… is no longer as it was.” 

* * *

Last summer – if only travel were possible – we could have caught Geleynse’s Shelter at Trépanier Baer Calgary, a work that even the artist is at a loss to fully explain. He conceived of this, what, a miniature homeless shelter with approximately 90 beds as the object of our…desire?  And along came COVID. Essentially a take on the need for shelter, whatever our situation, the pandemic only added more layers of resonance to this work where there are all these beds lined up, military fashion. That being said, if we are in need of care, Geleynse’s imagined sanctuary, shelter beckons, and I’d gladly seek care within. Or… with COVID, would I? No one wants to be in the ICU after all. But here, Geleynse manifests that whole thought process with this piece. It’s a work that is both deeply disturbing, and yet, very optimistic, heartwarming almost: shelter is a potential, possible, for all lost souls? It may be that Geleynse is way more optimistic than the rest of us that have struggled through the past few years of stress in the pandemic. And now endemic. And yet, this artist is posing hope? Shelter is still…a thing?  

Shelter, Mixed media with Audio, “Dimension Unavailable”, 2018/19. Courtesy of the Artist and Trépanier Baer Gallery

* * *

pièce de résistance in Geleynse’s career might be An Imaginary Situation With Truthful Behavior, on display at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. None of us were there to see the installation unfold over the 26 days of the events. And even if you were there, since the installation video projection took a full 26 days to unfold, you likely didn’t see it completely. As I understand, Geleynse had encapsulated a man in a glass house scratching away at the wall facing 11 other similar houses, and he breaks through to the next side, every third day at a time, but ever to be met, tormented perhaps, with the next day’s barrier. Yet another pane of glass to etch, carve through, surmount. 

An Imaginary Situation With Truthful Behavior, Mixed media Installation with looped 16mm Film Projection, 1988: Photo by Douglass Curran

On the final day of the Olympics, when all is said and done in the competitions… the little homunculus within Geleynse’s imagination breaks into the… sanctum. The pedestal. Or… has he?  A hard-working man that may represent his father, and all hard-working immigrants in the nation. And at the end of the competition, the prize awaits; yet another glass box, enclosure. 

* * * 

You could be tempted to cast Geleynse as essentially a conceptual artist. Nearly every work of his points to something beyond the object. You could argue that they are fewer objects to look upon than, say, projections of ideas, literally and figuratively, of his childlike curiosity and wonder. Thought machines perhaps. They provoke thinking and consideration outside of the physical. Is that being hapless? Maybe so. No matter. At the end of the day, Geleynse is still going to tinker with whatever it is that provokes his own curiosity and insight, and in turn, will most likely provoke ours.  

Baudelaire argued that great art, artists, are “never for a moment without the genius of childhood…. Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” 

Wyn Geleynse, even though he qualifies for a senior citizen’s discount, is still mining that childhood playfulness and inquisitiveness. Perhaps he meant to say he was a hapless child… still is. The secret of being an artist?   

 Keep being a kid at heart.    

Vincent Cherniak is a writer in London, ON 

View Wyn Geleynse’s website to see more of his work. Click here.

To see a video of the work at Gallery Stratford, click here

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