Jan 11, 2023

What endures

Jim Shedden reflects on his 40-year relationship with the artist Michael Snow. 

Film still of Michael Snow performing in 1994

Film still, Michael Snow re-performing Right Reader from Michael Snow Up Close Collection, 1994. E.P. Taylor Library & Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Jim Shedden, 2016. © Estate of Michael Snow.

This week we joined the artworld in mourning the passing of legendary artist Michael Snow. Born in Toronto in 1928, Snow’s highly acclaimed and influential career spanned all media, but in the mind of filmmaker, AGO Manager of Publishing and friend, Jim Shedden, it’s Snow’s films that resonate loudest.

Shedden knew Snow better than many. Shedden was introduced to Snow’s work as a student at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s; their mutual love of film, art books and music brought them together many times over the next 40 years – as collaborators and friends. Shedden’s 1994 documentary, co-created with Alexa Frances-Shaw, Michael Snow Up Close, is available on Vimeo. The raw footage is available in the AGO Archives. 

We spoke with Shedden and invited him to share his personal reflections, anecdotes and remembrances of the artist. 

“I was 18, in my first year of university, when I first encountered Michael Snow’s work. I snuck into a film class that I wasn’t taking, and at the point that I walk in, there's this totally bizarre and anarchic film on the screen: hundreds, or maybe thousands, of hand-held shots, each punctuated by a loud bang on a snare drum. And I was dumbstruck. Mind you; I'd had very little exposure at this point. It was a film by Snow called Presents (1981), which is not the easiest film of his to take in some ways, but I believe now to be a kind of underrated masterpiece. I couldn't sit down. I felt out of place, but I couldn't leave. I just kept holding the door, intending to leave. But I couldn’t.

“…I was just over 30 when we made the documentary about him. It's a summation in many ways, or an extension, of the work I was doing at the AGO in 1994-1995, organizing screenings, performances and public talks as part of The Michael Snow Project.  It was a really amazing time. I can’t overstate how singular the scale of the project was – major exhibitions at the AGO and The Power Plant, four companion publications (one that I edited), Walking Woman banners designed by Bruce Mau’s studio throughout the downtown core, and complementary exhibitions and programs in various corners of the city from City Hall to the Glenn Gould Studio. All for one living artist. It’s something that we aren’t likely to ever see again. Alexa and I convinced Rogers Community 10 to let us use their editing suite every night after Ed the Sock finished taping, to compile the footage. We made it in hopes of pulling back the onion on his work. We tried to make an accessible container for work that is sometimes complex and enigmatic. 

“I got to know Michael in a different light when we both served on the board of directors for The Music Gallery, an artist-run centre founded by Michael and the other members of the CCMC (an improvisational music ensemble with whom Michael performed regularly for almost fifty years). They played there weekly, and even twice weekly, for many years so I saw them many, many times, not to mention so many other concerts of experimental and underrepresented music over the years. So I'm on the board, and Michael and I are friendly, and he says to me one day, ‘Is the rest of your body as hairy as your face?’ I said yes, it is. And he says, ‘Well, I'd like to draw you. I'd like to draw your body hair.’  And so I consented to being photographed nude in his studio. A year later, maybe even more, he says I want to show you what I've been up to. The original idea hadn’t worked – he couldn’t create the depth he wanted to with just the hair – but what he did was create a life-sized, double-sided, transparent portrait of me, a ghost-like, shimmering Shedden, with some bits thankfully smudged in Photoshop. The work was exhibited for several months at the Goethe-Institut when it was at King and University, so anyone waiting for transit might encounter me, for better or for worse.

“What was he like? He was always enthusiastic about his own work. He enjoyed the actual work of figuring out how to express philosophical notions, formal conundrums and sometimes biographical moments, in aesthetically gratifying ways. He was always playing, always playful, and I think this was the key to his enjoyment of his own work but also, let’s face it, to his prodigious and diverse output. I was happy to play a small part in bringing some of his work to life, and to various audiences over the years. I was honoured, for example, that we here at the AGO were able to be the publishers of My Mother’s Collection of Photographs (2022). 

“…I just recently screened his one-shot film Wavelength (1967) for a big crowd (at BAMPFA) at UC Berkeley. I told them about a Canadian art history professor who gave the class permission to walk out of the film if they couldn’t handle it. I told this audience to get comfortable: ’It’s 45 minutes. Don’t walk out. There is no problem with this film. The problem will be with your expectations of what a film needs to be. See it through.’ Of course, there were a handful who left early, but my mother-in-law didn’t. She and many others, who had no previous exposure to this kind of filmmaking, enjoyed it. 

“…I have at different times been engaged with the different manifestations of Michael’s creativity. The Walking Woman works, the photo-based works, and the public sculptures, for example. I count three of his books among my favourites of all time. I think he is a fabulously intuitive designer. I’ve enjoyed not just experimental music and sound art by Michael, but also listening to him play Dixieland jazz. The films, however, are what brought me to all the rest of the work, and I consider the rest of his work from the vantage of point of cinema: the dematerialization and the primacy of the viewer, as well the obsession with framing, with presence and absence, the moments of humour, the attention to the nuances of language, the element of surprise – it’s a very rich world that Michael has given us.” 

The AGO published a remembrance comment about Michael Snow on Friday, January 6, 2023. You can read it here.

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