Stone, Boxes and EKG: an Interview with Thierry Delva
Thierry Delva is a Belgian-Canadian sculptor based in Prospect, Nova Scotia, whose hand-carved stone duplicates of ordinary things brought him to prominence in the 1990s. These early works forged a language of material poetry that opened the self-referential forms of Modernist sculpture to a broader critique of mass consumerism. In 1996, Delva produced a series of “boxes” in sand- and limestone, modelled on the packaging for various consumer goods — shoes, nails, a canary, high explosives, a flashlight — that solidified his position among Canada’s foremost contemporary sculptors. Ten works from this series are in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
A heart attack in 2005, followed by a pair of hip replacements forced Delva away from the physically demanding medium of stone. He turned his gaze inward, onto his own body, deploying medical imaging techniques and taking himself as his subject. For the ongoing series Drawings from the Heart, Delva uses an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine to register his heartbeat’s reaction to various external stimuli, including historical works of art. In their clinical abstraction of lived experience, these images show the artist’s body as an index of reality. They suggest that we, too, are containers of the world.
The following interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, took place at the Halifax Public Library on July 6, 2019. (Full disclosure: I was a student of Delva’s at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 2012.)
Your early ‘container’ sculptures created dialogues between various containers and their contents. How does that dialogue carry through into the ‘boxes’ from 1996?
TD: Part of it, with the boxes, comes out of the history of sculpture: the block, the cube. Going back to especially the 1970s, everybody knew what sculpture was supposed to look like — it was this big [he gestures] and it was square. But it wasn’t 1973 anymore. I wasn’t interested in just carving cubes or box-shaped things. After high modernism, after Carl Andre and people of that generation, the only place art could go was to reintroduce content. Because people like Andre and others had squeezed it all out. The bricks, the bricks, the brick — there’s no representation. Although, on another night I would argue there is [he laughs]. When I studied as an undergrad, that stuff was still very much talked about, it’s part of my history as an artist and someone who makes sculpture.
The boxes are a certain size because of what they either promise to contain or [do] contain. If you have a pair of Nike Air Baltoro size ten sneakers, the box is a certain size. It’s not bigger, because that is a waste of space, and not smaller, because then they wouldn’t fit. For me, carving that box is also carving the block — the block is the right size for carving the sneakers. Which will never happen.
It was the same thing with the other boxes. Two of them are Clearwater lobsters. One is boiled lobster and the other one is live lobster, and it’s the box that fits underneath the seat in front of you in the airplane when you go home and bring lobster for your mom and dad or your friends. They are a certain dimension for a certain reason. Or with the canary, you could argue that there’s space for the thing to move around. But that’s mass as well, right? Without that mass, even though it’s air, the thing dies.
With the early containers the content was there physically. It showed or is alluded to physically. With the boxes it was conceptual. There are sneakers in there, there are high explosives in there, there’s a sleeping bag in there, etc., etc. — there’s trust by the viewer, in terms of accepting the contents.
You mentioned minimalism — for me there is also a connection in your work to an earlier generation. I am thinking of Marcel Duchamp and the ready-made.
There is, in relation to Duchamp, the notion of nominating [objects as art]. Duchamp talked about nominating without thought — the chocolate grinder, or the bottle rack, or whatever — catching it in the corner of his eye and designating it as art. I make designations as well, because I use things that are in and of the world, but it’s not in the same way as Duchamp did, because the work isn’t about designating something as art. There is a transformation that happens within my work that doesn’t happen with Duchamp. He didn’t carve the snow shovel or cast the snow shovel, it was about the real thing.
Often my work has to do with combinations of things, like the combination of the boxes. You have things that talk about the profound, the romantic, about sustenance, the ordinary. Things that talk about little emergencies, things that you don’t pay attention to. A box of Kleenex most often is something one ignores but there are situations where it becomes a necessary thing. Every shrink’s office has a box of Kleenex in it because the patient may very well cry at some point.
I wonder if — and it’s OK if you don’t want to go there — we could talk about your surgeries. You had both hips replaced, there was a complication with one that resulted in nerve damage. How has your practice been affected?
It has changed my practice. I haven’t carved since. My body can’t handle just standing for that long, the physical efforts that are associated with that. But the work had already started — there were interests that took me other places. Like the EKG [electrocardiogram] things, which came out of the heart attack, which I think of as a seminal work. Especially the way the project that was done in Bruges worked out.
Which project was that?
For Drawings from the Heart, when I spent about a month or so in the Memling Museum (St John's Hospital) in Bruges, I got access to their collection and went around hooked up to an EKG machine, from painting to painting. The museum is of works predominantly by Hans Memling, a Flemish Primitive painter — sort of late-medieval, early Renaissance — but also it was a hospital, so it’s a hospital museum. It has all of these utensils and books and stuff.
It offered me an opportunity to go back to close to where I came from — I grew up about 50 km from Bruges and this Flemish painter, and it was the first time that I did a project within close proximity of my Belgian family, because I’m the only immigrant to Canada. And their coming to the opening. It was the year I turned 61 and it was the first time I had ever had a family member other than my kids [come to an opening] in my life.
The show in Bruges was kind of like going back. It was about here and there. It was a really important show for me. Not just because my family was there, which was a big part of it, but [because] it was about where I come from and the history of the place. One of the things that I would like to do is a reverse show, like a Canadian version. A curator friend of mine says, ‘You should put a reproduction of a Memling in Peggy’s Cove parking lot and do an EKG.’ That kind of thing. It’s sitting in the back of my head, but I don’t know if it will ever happen.
For details of Thierry Delva's works in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection online. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.