Christine Davis, Tlön (2003)

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All facts

Photo Album

(4 photos)

Slide projector on screen of Morpho butterflies Installation view of the exhibition Slide of cosmos Slide of human figure

Interviews

Christine Davis Video

In the following video clip, Christine Davis discusses viewers' perceptions of Tlön (2003) as well as the importance of Tlön's equipment.

Artist's Biography

Christine Davis was born in 1962 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and now lives in Toronto, Ontario. In 1984, she completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at York University (Toronto), where she also studied dance and mathematics.

Davis' installations combine various media, such as photography, slides, and natural materials (for example, butterflies, flowers and feathers). Often inspired by literary works, she is interested in systems of knowledge and scientific naturalism. Her artistic practice explores the manner in which art and dance can articulate thoughts and emotions in ways that cannot be expressed in words.

Davis' artwork has been exhibited across Canada, including the Presentation House Gallery (Vancouver), the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (Ottawa), the Power Plant (Toronto), the Mois de la Photo (Montreal), and the Biennale de Montréal. Davis is also the co-founder of the international and multidisciplinary magazine Public.

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Christine Davis Video

In the following video clip, Christine Davis discusses her interests and her development as an artist.

Artwork

Davis' Tlön or how I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history is a slide installation. Two slide projectors simultaneously project cross-dissolving images of cosmic phenomena (with the exception of one image of a human figure) onto a screen composed of butterflies. These images come from cameras using advanced x-ray and gamma-ray technologies capable of capturing images of nebulae, quasars, and supernovas. Davis covered the screen with black velvet and affixed hundreds of blue Morpho butterflies to its surface in a grid-like fashion. Each butterfly is unique, however when assembled, the butterflies seem to form a whole.

Davis' inspiration for Tlön is based on a short story by Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges entitled Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940). The story recounts the discovery of the planet Tlön that was invented by a secret society in Europe during the Enlightenment. Presented as non-fiction, Borges describes the culture, languages, and history of the planet.

Davis wrote the first half of the artwork's title, "How I held in my hands," in reference to capturing a butterfly in one's hands—a virtually impossible task. The second half of the title, "a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history," is a quote from the Borges story.

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Slide projector on screen of Morpho butterflies

Christine Davis
Tlön or how I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history
2003
Slide projector on screen of Morpho butterflies
143.5 x 216 x 7 cm (frame)
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Purchase, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts' Volunteer Association Fund
Photo MMFA, Christine Guest

Behind the scenes

In this section, we will unveil details about the butterflies that Davis uses in Tlön as well as installation specifications and the computer programming used in the artwork.

Equipment and Conception

Tlön includes the following materials:

  • 2 slide projectors (KODAK EKTAPRO);
  • Flash memory cards with cross-dissolve program;
  • Dissolve control unit;
  • Cabinet in which the slide projectors are placed;
  • Blue Morpho butterfly screen;
  • 23 slides of cosmic phenomena and 1 slide of a human figure;

In one second of film, 24 frames occur. Davis is interested in what happens between frames in a film. By showcasing these 24 slides, Tlön demonstrates the abundance of possibilities that can transpire within this second.

Butterflies

Morpho butterflies come from tropical forests in Mexico and South America. Davis orders the specimens that she uses in Tlön over the Internet. The butterflies are injected with hot water in order to be manipulated. Instead of mounting the butterflies with their wings spread unnaturally as butterfly collectors do, Davis prefers to mount them with their wings open only three-quarters, as if they were about to fly off the screen.

Scientific mystery surrounds the essence of the Morpho butterfly's blue tint. The butterflies are not pigmented blue, but rather have iridescent scales that refract light. The cosmic images projected onto the screen are difficult to discern, because the light from the projections becomes blurred when reflected off the glittering butterfly wings. Tlön is exhibited in a dark room, and the projections are the installation's only light source. This light source thus reveals the butterflies' refracted blue colour.

Installation

Davis created Tlön for a specific exhibition space at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), which set the standard for many subsequent exhibitions. Tlön is exhibited on its own in a small, dark room. Viewers enter the room from the single entrance and immediately face Tlön's screen. As their eyes adjust to the darkness, viewers become aware of Tlön's elements, such as the projectors and the screen's details. A bench is also placed in the room, inviting visitors to sit and contemplate the artwork. The projectors are placed in a waist-high cabinet to limit the excess light emitted from the top of the projectors.

Computer Programming

Tlön functions using specific slide projectors controlled by a computer program. Saved onto a flash memory card (which is then inserted into a dissolve control unit connected to the slide projectors), a cross-dissolve computer program controls the timing as well as the luminosity and dissolve movements of the images. Davis has yet to find another technology that can regulate the luminosity and dissolve movements in this way.

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Slide of cosmos

Christine Davis
Tlön or how I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, 2003
Slide of cosmos,
Photo MMFA, Christine Guest

Installation view of the exhibition

Christine Davis
Installation view of the exhibition
Tlön or how I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, 2003
High Points: Selection from the Collection of Contemporary Canadian Art
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
June 9 – October 3, 2004
Photo MMFA, Christine Guest

Conservation challenges

The conservation of Davis's Tlön is complex due to the delicate nature of the butterfly screen and the use of technologies threatened by obsolescence.

Butterfly Screen

The screen on which the cosmic images are projected is covered with 256 Morpho butterflies pinned to a black velvet sheet. Butterflies too damaged to be considered specimens (for example, a noticeable tear in the wing) must be replaced. The MMFA has a limited number of spare butterflies for this purpose.

To ensure long-term conservation, the fragile butterflies require special attention. Davis and Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), are in the process of discussing a chemical technique to better restore and conserve the butterflies. As an interim solution, scotch tape is used on occasion. Davis has also given the butterfly supplier's contact information to the MMFA should more butterflies have to be purchased.

Projectors and Slides

Davis has specified the exact slide projector model for Tlön's exhibition – the KODAK EKTAPRO. This model is the only type of analog slide projector able to run Davis' cross-dissolve computer program. The MMFA currently owns two of these rare and expensive projectors and is looking to purchase two more as future replacements. Slide projectors are an aging technology that many companies have ceased to manufacture. As these projectors begin to break down, it will become increasingly difficult to repair or replace them.

Davis agrees that digital copies of the slides would be a useful long-term conservation strategy in order to multiply the slides' sources of storage. However, should the slide projectors cease to function, she would not use the digital copies in the artwork itself. Analog has a greater range in light than digital, and Davis does not believe that a video projector presenting a DVD of the digital copies of her slides would be able to capture the subtleties of the cross-dissolve computer program. Slides are projected photographs with light shining through them, while video is made up of pixels.

To Davis, the slide projectors and cross-dissolve program are integral parts of the artwork. These components are as important as the butterfly screen and projected images. Davis sees the projectors and the screen working together as a unit or a machine. If the slide projectors were replaced by digital technology, Davis considers that the result would simply be a spectacle of what once was.

Davis has stated that the screen and the sound of the slide projectors also suggest breathing: "The screen is something that breathes. That's the paradoxical thing for me: I'm using these fixed, still images, but by the process of animating them, it's like you're breathing life. And I think that the sound of the projector […] is like breathing. The sound is very important. If you convert to DVD, do you convert the sound? Well, that's just like putting a respiratory on – artificial breathing!"

Documentation

In the case that the slide projectors fail, Davis prefers that the artwork cease to function rather than updating Tlön's equipment. Davis has recommended that the MMFA use 35 mm film transferred to high definition to document the manner in which Tlön functions. Tlön will then only remain in the form of documentation – just like a performance piece.

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Slide of human figure

Christine Davis
Tlön or how I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history
2003
Slide of human figure
Photo MMFA, Christine Guest

Slide of human figure projected onto screen

Christine Davis
Tlön or how I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history
2003
Slide of human figure projected onto screen
Photo MMFA, Christine Guest

Christine Davis Video

In the following video clip, Christine Davis discusses viewers' perceptions of Tlön (2003) as well as the importance of Tlön's equipment.