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Echoes

Ammonoidea
Ammonoidea

This work has been made of the fractured remains from inhabitants of our endangered world: shells and bones, nests, fallen branches and the delicate last vestiges of insects. Although these lives have unfolded and expired beyond our awareness, they’ve left a trace, an aura of memory, as final testament to their existence.

In the early 2000’s, artist Gillian Genser began working on a sculpture of the biblical figure of Adam that would transform her life utterly. She hoped to reframe a story of domination, subjugation and control as a narrative that explored the interconnected, symbiotic relationship we have with the natural world.

In the process of creation, however, the artist encountered destruction. Through the fine grinding of mussel shells that formed Adam’s body, Gillian was exposed to some of the very pollutants (arsenic, cadmium and lead) that plague our planet. It was a devastating injury from which she will never fully recover. In this fragile place, Gillian uncovered a profound empathy for the suffering and sorrow of the natural world that struggles and cleaves in the wake of human progress and consumption.

Out of this dark journey also came the gift of discovery…the sculptures that emerged from her struggle through poisoning were beautiful testaments to the interconnectedness of all life.

Gillian Genser with guest Echoes opening
Gillian Genser and Holly Venable
Gillian Genser and Holly Venable

“When something vibrates, the electrons of the entire universe resonate with it. Everything is connected. The greatest tragedy of human existence is the illusion of separateness.”

– Albert Einstein

Each work is a fractured vessel that splits wide open to reveal many layers within. Every surface detail and each removable component is a reliquary that holds the hidden story of the creature whose remains form its structure. They propel us toward discovery and carry the hope of amending our rift with the natural world.

Echoes is dedicated to the memory of Gillian’s brother, David Genser, who lived and died in isolation due to illness, and to all those who have been transformed by injury or chance who find themselves in need of healing and restoration.

Featured work

Adam

Ammonoidea

Echo

Hearts

Leaning Woman

The Pity

Lillith

The Seed

Wounded Bird

Untitled

Adam

Adam
Adam

...Remains

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it”

– Genesis 1:28 (NIV)

With God’s very first commandments to the human race, the foundation was being laid for total environmental ruin.

Mankind was to own, dominate, subjugate and control the entirety of the natural world.  To treat all other life as possessions to be forced into submission, abused or consumed at will.

So I decided it was time to remake the biblical figure of Adam.  He would be, instead, about a symbiotic and interconnected coexistence with the biosphere.

So it was not without irony, that the creation of this piece was to be my demise.

As I searched the natural world for the materials for his construction, I began to explore the evolutionary relationship of our anatomy to the primordial ocean.  Representations of our elemental structures revealed themselves everywhere, mirrored, in whole or in part, in the cast off remains of the shells and bones that I was collecting.

And for Adam, it was the beautiful striations and colours of the Atlantic blue mussels that were to so wonderfully replicate his muscle fibre.

But little did I know that the mussels were going to impart an urgent message, their last testament, and bequeath to me the agony of their doomed existence.

Gillian Genser looking at Adam
Gillian Genser looking at Adam

These poor little bivalves were filter feeders. Trapped in their polluted habitats, and forced to feed in our massively poisoned waters, they had bio-accumulated heavy metals.

And as I began to grind and shape the shells to form his body, I too began to accumulate.  Lead, arsenic, cadmium, manganese...  my injury was severe.

But perhaps I was just a fragile place. A rupture in the artificial barrier that separates humanity from the natural world, where the suffering of this fractured earth, an avalanche beneath our surface, broke through to make itself be heard.

Description

His structure and vital organs are represented by the remains of other living creatures, where we can find not only our symbiotic connection to the ecosystem, but also “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (Ernst Haeckel) — that our own cellular development echoes the history of evolution and that all stages of all life are contained within us.

Behind a delicate visceral cover made from sterling silver, garnets and topaz, are his lungs of nautilus, his bowel of sea worm tubes, and his liver is made from the hearing cochlea of the beaver skull that forms his organ structure.  A little shrew skull forms his bladder and his kidneys are from pearls.

His heart, made from a delicate brachiopod, contains an opal (symbolizing hope) and is seated where the shell’s inhabitant once resided, as the hopes and dreams of another creature now lost, merge to fill his heart.  His brain contains a butterfly pupa as he is transforming.  And his passion and our continuance is expressed when a key inserted in his rectum causes his penis to pop up in full erection.

Through his visceral deconstruction, he propels us onwards and inwards, as we make a subliminal descent to our primordial base, revealing our destiny, inextricably bound to all life on the planet.

Adam by Gillian Genser 311
Adam by Gillian Genser 523

Remains...

I continue to search for the cast off remains of our endangered natural world, with which to make my art.  More thoughtful now, of their existence.  More careful now, with my approach.

But as I continue to create work about our endangered natural world, I also go forward with great hope.

Because the piece that emerged from this darkness is truly beautiful.

And because Adam, my Adam, is reborn....

Ammonoidea

Ammonoidea
Ammonoidea

Looking Inwards

I find myself alone, so often now, even amongst others…

My injury transformed me, and I find I must often take an introspective journey to explore the world around me.  It is reflected in my pieces, which must invariably be experienced through deconstruction — by looking inwards.

But an inward journey can reveal the entire universe…

Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2
for n>=2, F0 = 0, F1 = 1

Contained within the fossilized ammonoids that form the buttocks of this beautiful piece, is a blueprint from the universe: the Golden Ratio, Phi.

Derived from Fibonacci’s famous sequence of numbers, this mysterious ratio is manifested everywhere in the wonderful formations of nature.  From the swirl of our galaxy and the unfurling of leaves around a branch, to the curl of a fetus forming in the womb, and of course, to the beautiful spiral of the ammonoid.

But while the visual manifestations of Phi are easily evident, I often wonder if the very nature of our thinking, the unfolding of our destinies or our connections to the past may also follow the pattern of this extraordinary sequence. That as we look deeply into ourselves, the proof and comprehension of our very existence, our physical, social and emotional ontogeny, may be discovered through a kind of recursive descent to our primordial beginnings.

When we examine the internal structure of Ammondea’s buttocks, it reveals this wonderful spiral growth of the cephalopods, recorded by the increments of each newly generated cell.

The ammonoid uses a siphuncle, that threads through each and every chamber, to control its buoyancy, by either letting in air or water to its historical chambers.

And perhaps, just as each old chamber is sealed off and forever carried, so it is that our own threaded histories are walled off, but forever a part of us.

Perhaps unfurling according to the rules of Phi, we navigate our destinies, rising and falling as we tap into the wonderful and sometimes terrible past that forms the magnificent structure of woman.

Ammonoidea
Ammonoidea
Description

Her torso, formed from a steenbok skull, has been breached on one side, with the organs exposed.

Her liver (Chama coralloides), has slipped out from the safety of her abdomen and sunk down into the cradle of her hip. Lifting open its silver door a little pearl gallbladder lies hidden in the folds.

The front of her body displays a tiny beaver skull for her reproductive system. Fallopian tubes of silver attach to the ovaries (hearing cochlea) as the nasal passages form the vagina with a ring of silver for its entrance. The orange incisors nicely form her labial slit and underneath, from behind, we can just make out a silver urethra.

Depicted as treasure and adorned with sterling silver, the amusement that her ‘Beaver’ is a beaver, is overshadowed by the realization that her flesh has been torn open from the top of her legs, exposing the vulvar region and laying bare the injuries of what must have been sexual violence.

Opening the small silver hatch on the back of the uterus, reveals a tiny fragile heart (brachiopod), developing inside.

Within it, resides a tiny beetle larva. It is Diamphidia Nigroornata — prized by traditional hunters in parts of Africa for the making of poisoned arrows.

This little heart has been poisoned. And although she is giving birth to love, it is now pierced by her suffering and sorrow.

But she is irrepressible and dancing, as wonder and delight illuminate her passage and transform the anguished pleading of her outstretched arms, into the graceful movement of a courageous choreography.

Through the opening in the arch of her back, we can explore the internal organs.

The urinary tract is constructed from sterling silver and the bladder is also a little bell — because she “tinkles” and because the parts of her that are both delightful and delicate, remain in spite of her injury.

Her esophagus, stomach, pancreas and spleen, constructed from pearls and sea worm tube, can be removed as a single unit.

Behind it, her heart is nestled between her lungs. Inside, amidst fragments of the cast off larval shell of the Diamphidia Nigroornata, in the form of a beautiful opal, she cherishes her hope.

“…she is irrepressible and dancing, as wonder and delight illuminate her passage and transform the anguished pleading of her outstretched arms, into the graceful movement of a courageous choreography….”

Echo

Echo
Echo

“When something vibrates, the electrons of the entire universe resonate with it. Everything is connected. The greatest tragedy of human existence is the illusion of separateness.”

Albert Einstein
Echo
Echo

The sculptures that emerged from my journey through poisoning were beautiful.

And perhaps it is when we listen quietly to the hurts within our bodies, and the pain within our hearts — when we call into the abyss of our deepest selves, that we may hear the voice of the natural world and the universe will answer.

The experience of “reconnection” to the natural world is at the heart of this piece.

Her brain is formed from the remains of a poisoned wasp nest. Life was only just beginning to emerge when the nest was devastated. Amidst the cells, the light of the universe still shimmers through the embedded black star sapphires.

She hangs her head in sorrow, even as she contemplates the call of the ocean, through the lovely shell fixed upon her ear. Another shell is affixed to her back, as the call of the ocean also resonates through her womb.

Her bladder and, behind panels, her kidneys, are formed from sterling silver. Her womb is a beaver skull, and inside the vagina is a single “toxic sperm” which contains mercury. In her womb is a cicada and a depiction of the Little Dipper with the North Star.

Her stomach, pancreas, spleen, heart are formed from roots and mushrooms and a single geode forms her liver.

As each hidden layer speaks and then propels us onwards to the next, we are taken on a thoughtful journey, as we are, on every level, reminded of the interconnectedness of all life, and as Einstein suggests, of everything, everywhere.

An Echo in the Shell

“I plunged my hands into the earth, and brought close to me,
last vestiges of life from our natural world, absorbing what remained of their memory.

Clutching an abandoned shell, I opened my lungs to the biosphere , and holding it to my mouth, I blew, declaring our existence.

Through the empty chambers, our lonely voices echoed, amidst the sound of distant waters that faintly called “come home”.

But the ocean in retreat had swelled, rushing back with a deafening roar, and I was splintered by the force.

Through the cracks of my fractured body, the vibrations of the natural world began to seep - sharing wonder and sorrow and the whispering of doom….”

And from within our own abandoned shells, where our lonely voices echo through the hollow of our hearts, perhaps the rising tide may yet return and fill an emptiness in the heart of all humanity.

Hearts

Hearts
Hearts

The Transplant

I found the remains of these hermit crabs being sold at a garage sale.

They had been transplanted from their natural habitat — excised, from the oft mutilated body of our natural world — only to be grotesquely reattached to a dirty tablecloth, as old unwanted trinkets.

It was profoundly sad…

Torn from their distant habitat, they had been deprived of their purpose and their place. Indeed, these lonely hermit crabs had been rendered insignificant.  Their deaths were empty.  And meaningless.  And probably cruel.

Hearts

But life is also born from transplant.  It is a gifting of seeds to the soil or sperm to a womb.

Beautiful and terrible, it is a most vital instrument of the ecosystem. We ingest the lives of others to preserve our own existence and we give of ourselves and take from each other — sharing sustenance and heavy loads.

And so, we become a part of each other — sustaining our communities and our existence, until the cycle of life offers one last gift and we are transplanted back into the body of the ecosystem.

The poor little crustaceans, that had come to lie upon my work table, understood this more than any.

Their survival once depended upon perpetual transplantation. They lived by readapting their bodies into the remains of other creatures that had been passed on to them by the provisions of their habitat.  And ever mindful of their communities, when they grew beyond the limits of their itinerant exoskeleton, they would meet to share their refuge with other crabs in need.

Hearts by Gillian Genser 3
Hearts by Gillian Genser 2
Hearts by Gillian Genser 1
Play Video

But it was hard to understand why these hermit crabs had ever come to be here in the first place.

Perhaps it was a confused act, borne of our own wretchedness, that ripped these little crustaceans from their aquatic Eden, and turned them into trinkets in an artificial hell.

So, as they lay before me, I began to make some art, for the sake of all our healing.  And possibly contrition.  And give them one last shelter in the form of human hearts.

And perhaps, through this final gift of transplant, their remains might fill an emptiness in the heart of all humanity.

Leaning Woman

The Leaning Woman
The Leaning Woman
Description

She is Mother Nature, bent with sorrow and yet serene in her grief, reflecting upon a devastated world.

Her brooding hair is made from the remnants of a wasp’s nest and her breasts are starving birds (partridge), mouths open, looking to her to feed them.

Her legs are formed from eland horns and her body, from the skulls of two slaughtered lambs.

Wasp paper and silver cover her pregnant belly and inside we find her fetus.  Formed from part of one of the lamb skulls, its umbilical cord reaches up to attach to her heart.

But her heart is deteriorating and a beautiful but terrible little heart has begun to form inside.  It has been infiltrated, and inside of it a tiny beetle larva resides. It is Diamphidia Nigroornata…..

The Pity

The Pity
The Pity

This piece is filled with beauty and sorrow.

It is a depiction of Mother Nature — upon her knees and cradling her own dying body.

As she holds in her organs that are spilling out from her visceral cavity, her collapsing lungs, formed from the nasal passages of a slaughtered lamb, breathe out a last faint plea for resurrection.   In her uterus resides the remains of a bee as the fertility of the earth lays dead in her womb.

A tumorous lump lies upon her shoulders where her head once protruded.  Instead an ethereal head leans from outside of her body and looks upon herself with compassion and pity...  la Pieta…..

…The Pity

But perhaps she is also all of us, looking with pity and sorrow upon the injustice and cruelty perpetrated within the body of all humanity.

And perhaps she is each and every one of us on our solitary journeys to find a little compassion for our own painful wounds as we hold ourselves in and together.

This piece was constructed from the remains of life and finality — from bones and shells and the delicate last vestiges of wasps and bees — but it is also beautiful.

But perhaps it is amidst  death and destruction all around, we may still find our redemption.  Perhaps If we let the experience of beauty direct our focus,  we may glimpse truth, and clarity and fill ourselves with wonder and with hope.

Lillith

Lillith
Lillith

“He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith.  Adam and Lilith began to fight.  She said “I will not lie below,” and he said, “I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while am to be in the superior one.”  Lilith responded, “We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.”  Afraid he would overpower her, Lilith pronounced the Ineffable Name of God and flew away into the air.”

Ben Sira

Which came first? The chicken or the egg?    Lilith was the first…and she is made from eggs!

As I created this sculpture, I had been reaching back into antiquity to explore the ancient characterizations of woman.

And Lilith was the first…and she was wonderful!  She was fragile, yet powerful, and she embodied the strength and humour of women.

So it seemed only appropriate to construct her entirely from egg shells.

Her outer case is made from ostrich and emu shells.  There is a small key in the lock.  Later revealed to be her clitoris, it must be delicately held and turned on more than one occasion, through the exploration of this piece.

Lillith

Upon the opening of the case, Lilith’s many parts are revealed.  And as they are removed and pieced together, we are able to experience the reverent journey, of the reconstruction of ‘Goddess’.

She is an artefact. Her gilded form was constructed from chicken, turkey, pheasant and quail eggs, and displays an exposed spine that has the appearance of mummification.

Her voluptuous breasts are doors and they irreverently serve as an Arc of the Covenant, sheltering scrolls that tell the Lilith story.  That the source of the holy writings, and our spiritual nourishment, flows from the most primary source of nourishment — women’s breasts, is further reinforced, as one must first pull on her nipples, to release the spring loaded locks and remove the fragments of her narrative.

The scrolls may then be unrolled as they reveal the story of Lilith in Hebrew.  Made from sections of quails eggs, they are designed to appear as fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls.

Lillith
Lillith

As a woman, her head and heart are intrinsically connected and can be lifted out as a single unit.  The head has been formed from two pheasant eggs — one carefully carved to depict her hair.

Her heart, when detached, can be opened: once full, it is now empty, containing naught but a single tear shaped drop of blood.

Her belly is a threaded cap, which when unscrewed reveals her egg case (quail egg).  And upon opening this little egg, we discover multiple eggs in many stages of cell division, and formed from pearls and silver.

Her vulvar region has been depicted as treasure, with a beautiful fish made of silver. The clitoris once again, functions as the key and must be gently turned, to persuade her to open.

Once she is unlocked, the reproductive system can be removed as a single unit.

Her vagina (quail egg) can then be unthreaded from the uterus. It is depicted as a pomegranate (formed from glass), with all its inherent erotic mythology.  From Aphrodite’s beautiful fruit and Persephone’s transgression, to Eve’s first bite of the forbidden fruit (most probably a pomegranate).   But nestled amongst the luscious seeds, we discover teeth.  Vagina Dentata.  And in this case specifically, they are wisdom teeth...

The uterus (chicken egg) displays the Fallopian tubes of silver with ovaries made from small finch eggs and the cervix is depicted with four small hinged doors.

Finally deconstructed, her parts may be returned to her case and locked shut, by the clitoris.

The Seed

The Seed
The Seed
The Seed and Gillian Genser 753

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it”

Genesis 1:28) (NIV)

With God’s very first commandments to the human race, the foundation was being laid for total environmental ruin.

Description

This piece depicts mankind, contemplating his own toxic impact upon the planet.  The head of his penis is a bird skull (partridge) and in its mouth appears to be a worm.  It is instead, a “toxic sperm” made from silver and pearl and mercury.

His oyster testicles weigh a fragile beginning of a wasp nest on one side, against his own beautiful sperm, formed from a black pearl and silver, on the other.

His hair is formed from so many tiny fish that died probably, from toxic algae bloom and washed up on our shores.  Behind the branches that form his rib cage in the back are his lungs and heart, stomach and spleen, formed from driftwood and roots, along with a small liver of eroded stone, found amidst the many fish upon the beach.

The Wounded Bird

Wounded Bird by Gillian Genser 192

A Self Portrait

In 2015, it was finally revealed that my art practice had been exposing me to some of the many pollutants (lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium….) that contaminate our natural world. I suffered a devastating injury.

I had become this little bird with a catastrophic wound. But then, in exchange, so many other things were to come into focus. And I learned the value of my calamity.

Wounded Bird

Her back is torn completely open, her organs are exposed. And she has lost her feet…

Inside her head, is a little nest.   A tiny broken egg that was her brain, takes refuge in the bottom, while overhead, another egg, a new brain coming, is just beginning to hatch…

When her body is lifted from the base, a small silver and sapphire feather in her back begins to quiver, as she quietly trembles in fear.

She may then be opened and her organ structure, based on a raccoon skull, lifted out for closer examination.

Wounded Bird

When the little fish that contains the trembling feather is removed, her tiny seashell kidneys are revealed on its reverse.

A digestive pathway leads from the crop at the top, through some red snapper teeth, and on to a gizzard  represented by some barnacles.

Her lungs have been constructed from two eroded and carved cowrie shells with delicate sterling silver mesh and garnets, reflecting their fragile internal structure.

And her reproductive system is devised from a little seahorse, locked tragically in servitude.  Her primary ovary produces little pearl eggs and a hatch on the side may be opened to reveal a single larger egg (black pearl) on its way through the system.

Wounded Bird by Gillian Genser 03

But it is from her heart that flows her painful message.  For it was formed on and around an actual spent bullet that was once given to me by a hunter.

The heart’s vessels extend over the burst lead and brass surface of this cruel source of her injury, as she tells us of pain, sorrow and bitterness, and how what hurts us can sometimes become all that is left of our hearts…

Regret

But, while she was originally constructed as an expression of my own painful experience, through the making of this piece, this little dying bird was to reveal yet another gaping wound in the body of our beautiful biosphere — one which was to fill me with great sorrow, grief and regret.

She was constructed from fish gills. I found them in the herb shops of Chinatown. I saw them stuffed in a jar and trusted that somewhere, a fish had been eaten and the gills set aside for medicinal purpose.  But when I tried to ask which fish they came from, the lack of any common language left my queries unanswered..

It was some years later that I stepped back into the shops and found the gills were no longer available. They had become CITES listed.  My heart sank. What had I participated in?  It was a difficult research as I had only the gills to make identity. But with the help of an ichthyologist, and the context of the purchase, we were able to determine that they were probably manta ray gills. I was broken hearted.

These poor, majestic creatures were being fished to extinction for the sole purpose of providing a treatment considered dubious, even from within the Chinese Medicine community.

And so it was also true of the little seahorse whose remains were now bound to form the structure of her reproductive system.  Indeed, these poor little sea monsters were being annihilated for their perceived value as a kind of Viagra.

=My little dying bird that is all of us, was now being defined by the decimation of the manta rays, with the pleasure of our own procreation, based upon the unpardonable destruction of seahorses.

But next to this wounded bird lies a single egg.  Inside, from a pearl that was created by an oyster’s need to defend its fragile body, lies a path to redemption:  for a new, more beautiful heart is just beginning to form….

Untitled

Untitled piece at the opening of Echoes by Gillian Genser at The Lyceum Gallery
Untitled piece at the opening of Echoes by Gillian Genser at The Lyceum Gallery
Untitled by Gillian Genser 185
Untitled by Gillian Genser 141
Echoes Opening Night Untitled by Gillian Genser 663

Dedication

Remembering David Genser, who lived and died in isolation, due to illness and who produced, in his short lifetime, hundreds of remarkable drawings and designs.

Displayed here are only a few surviving images, as his life’s work was irretrievably lost with his passing.

This show is dedicated to him and to all the beautiful stars, whose lives and bodies, uniquely transformed by illness and  injury, or simply by chance, have become hidden from our view.

Their beautiful light still travels, and may finally reach us, even long after they are gone.

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Canada Council for the Arts logo

Exhibition photography by Marina Dempster

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