nominated by Jennifer Macklem
(Visual Artist and Assistant Professor, Sculpture, Visual Arts Department, University of Ottawa)
For the past thirty five years artist and Professor Emeritus Michel Goulet has generated a remarkable output of creativity that spans sculpture, installation, two dimensional work, theatre and opera set design, outdoor permanent projects and small ephemeral works. Some highlights of his career include representation of Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1988, his Merz Varietes installation-theatre at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1994, his retrospective at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal in 2004 and his current mega project for the opera staging of Bluebeard’s Castle, by Bartok, in Geneva. His impact has been felt nationally in part due to teaching in Ottawa for twelve years, and in Montreal for another fifteen. He has shown his work all over the province of Quebec, and with a record of exhibitions in New York, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Paris, Lyon, Berlin, etc., he has accomplished what few artists from Quebec manage to do – travel widely in multilingual, culturally diverse sectors of Canada and abroad.
Although he is fundamentally self-identified as a sculptor, it is precisely the range and scope of Michel Goulet’s capacity to cross disciplines and to nourish each one through innovative risk taking that sets his life’s work apart. He often seems a step ahead of the prescriptive norms of a given cultural moment. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, when western sculpture was coming to terms with the erosion of puritanical minimalism, his work explored materials and their associations, delving into a scrutiny of the art-making process itself. In his case the process of making became part of the content, and his process was unusual, hands-on, intimate and direct, packed with meaning and fragmented stories. His extraordinary sculptures at the Venice Biennale, twenty five years later, are still surprising through their crude materiality and the complexity of ideas that are raised. In Venice he exhibited, among others, motifs/mobils, a metal sculpture that conflates the public realm of spectators with the personal eros of the bed; an intentionally awkward juxtaposition where the private space of dreaming and intimacy is colonized by the suggestion of an audience. The psychological and sociological implications of Goulet’s work are still relevant, confounding and uncomfortable. The ubiquitous chair, incorporated into so many of Goulet’s public works – explores a variation on a theme; variations of line, design and structure – while insisting on the presence or absence of the individual. At times the chair offers a literal site for contemplation, a space that embodies an intersection of civic and private boundaries.
Michel Goulet’s early participation in multi-disciplinary, collaborative work is another example of setting a new pace and remaining at the forefront of cultural change. While so much ink was spilled over the autonomy of specific disciplines such as painting and sculpture, and a value placed on consistency, Goulet had moved well beyond this constrictive dilemma. New horizons for his work evolved when he aimed the force of his intellect and artistic vision towards theatre. It is here that he participates in ambitious cultural exchanges with leading stage directors, conductors, musicians and actors. It has taken a while for institutions to catch up, to shed their biases against artists who operate in an expanded field. Twenty years later, new cross disciplinary faculties are cropping up at Universities all across the country, combining music, theatre, visual and new media arts. Michel Goulet’s artistic choices have been governed not by a sense of opportunistic careerism, but by intense curiosity. In the fertile, international space of scenography and theatre, Goulet has found deeply challenging opportunities, ones that provoke expansion and transformation, and that have resulted in extraordinary success, shocking the international media and the public with unprecedented visual impact. His scenography work employs enormous mechanical structures, kinetic lifts and devices, where location, stage, figure and ground become fluid and shifting. He has been awarded numerous prizes for this work, and for his artistic contribution in general, he was recognized with the prestigious Prix Paul-Émile Borduas in 1990.
He has always fought for the language of sculpture to emerge from a conceptual foundation of ideas; concepts and associations are expressed and investigated while pushing the physicality of materials into unforeseen directions. Goulet is not driven by a desire to be at the forefront or avant-garde per se. He is compelled to be creative, to try new things, to create unfamiliar and audacious work. In short, his goal seems to be about creating and provoking a sense of genuine wonder – a tall order indeed, but one that he brilliantly excels at.
Through visual rhythm, repetition, colour, the transformation of ordinary objects derived from our quotidian routines: such as garbage cans, luggage, shelving, books – Goulet’s sculpture suggest ideas around consumption, domestic space, learned languages, public presence and absence. A recent sculpture – circus is in many was as playful as its title, where visual and tactile materials play off of each other, revealing their specific qualities in counter distinction to each other; all of them creating a circle, playing with the word circus (circle) itself. A graphic work Vivre sous plusieurs bannières/ living under many banners, first shown at his retrospective at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, raises pointed questions about the reductionism of nationalist identities. By juxtaposing international flag banners with other banners – labelled with personal mind states such as ennui, impurity or conscience for example, he again confronts viewers with thought-provoking contrasts. The personal and the political are combined, reminding us that we must consider both; that perhaps psychological human experiences such as exile, nostalgia, and anxiety carry as much significance as political or state affiliation. The work addresses complexity; we are defined not only through the external world of borders, passports and nationalities, we are also citizens of an internal flux of affect and emotion.
He meets the self-imposed challenge of contributing something new to an artistic practice by opening it up in unexpected directions and by an astute awareness of historic precedence. He is not satisfied making art that reiterates customary practices established by others. For example, in a recent discussion he described his contribution to the Geneva Opera project. After inquiring about the various floor levels that descend above and below the stage, used primarily for storage, he asked if any other stage designers had incorporated the full span of height from the lowest basement to the ceiling. None had, so he gained access to the various levels of underground storage that together equal the height of a three-story building. He reveals a vast open pit in front of the stage and makes it visible to the audience. During the first act it remains a dark and disturbing void. In the second act, supported by hydraulic lifts, a glowing stage rises slowly up from the depths, leaving the audience gasping. At the close of the opera, it sinks back again, into the abyss. This is not the only component; other interventions confound expectations, such as a circular glass wall that rotates on a silent motor, shifting the visual perception of space as rippling glass bisects the viewer’s focus of vision. Innovative, daring and spectacular. This is Goulet’s realm, and his audacity is matched by his sensitivity.
In the area of public sculpture, Michel Goulet has produced thirty-three projects in sixteen years. This prodigious outpouring of creative activity is unrivalled in Canada, in sheer numbers alone. His permanent pieces have been installed in Toronto, France, Vancouver, Montreal, New York City and in many locations throughout Quebec. This work always reveals a site-specific awareness, an understanding of context and public use. Conceived for human involvement, the work engages viewers with their expectations (that are sometimes intentionally thwarted) and invites them to experience their spirited bodies in a given place and time. Goulet is not the only artist making public sculpture that integrates viewers into overall piece – yet he has been doing that from the beginning. His emphasis is on the variable dialogue between the work and its spectators; in his hands this becomes a generous sort of awareness, far removed from the perils of “plop art”.
Finally, Michel Goulet has made an enormous contribution to teaching new generations of emerging artists. For 30 years he taught scores of students, constantly reinventing his classes and assignments to keep them dynamic and challenging. In Montreal at the Université du Québec à Montréal, where I completed my Master’s degree, he was the most sought-after Fine Arts professor. Not due to his legendary charisma and kindness, or his extreme availability – which was generously offered to everyone who was lucky enough to work with him – but due to his rigor, his honesty and his wild freedom. As a truly independent thinker, Michel Goulet encouraged the same quality in his students: question everything, trust your own judgment, be fearless. One could not ask for more, and his message was passed in the way most profound messages are: through the force of example, unspoken energy, trust and encouragement.