Traces Left Behind: The Art of Bill Vazan


Bill Vazan, Scorpion at Base of Mount Sinai (January 2001), chromogenic print framed, 180.5 x 150.4 cm; 179 x 138.7 cm. Gift of the artist, Montreal, 2009. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: Serge Clément. © Bill Vazan

The goal to be reached is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary.

— G.W.F. Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)

For over five decades, Canadian artist Bill Vazan has created an impressive and varied body of work. His practice includes conceptual works that engage with maps and investigate the relationship between the borders and boundaries that guide our understanding of the globe (Worldline Project). It also includes monumental land-art projects and large engraved stones, as well as more intimate pieces that speak to the artist’s personal experiences of being in the world (Subway Rides, Soundings). There are a few constants, however, including a significant relationship to materiality, and a questioning of what it means to exist in a particular place, at a specific moment. 

Based in Montreal, Vazan is perhaps best known for his ephemeral landscape interventions in such remote places as the Nazca Plains in Peru, the Theban mountains in Egypt, and the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, which he documents in large-scale photographs. Vazan’s land-based projects, which are grand in size, exist only for a short time — and sometimes even begin disappearing as soon as they are captured on film. In these works, Vazan explores our relationship to the vastness of the landscape, and to our history within it. He alters the land in a variety of ways, using formal parameters that include etching lines, making piles, digging holes, and displacing material.

Another facet of Vazan’s production in outdoor environments involves the engraving of large stones with motifs inspired by the land and its histories, by the creatures that inhabit it, and by the forces of nature. Two of these monumental stones, entitled Black Nest and Water Planet, are installed in close proximity to one another in the National Gallery’s sculpture garden. Sinuous lines have been painstakingly etched into the granite, recalling the natural forms of snakes or flowing water, as well as ancient patterns or scientific visualizations of the structures of living matter. The surface of Black Nest might be seen as a container for writhing serpents, or the stone’s volume as Earth, and the figures as interwoven telluric forces at work in its outer layer. In Water Planet, the overall serpentine patterns evoke the movement of water, reminding us of its power, the primordial role it plays in our lives, and our precarious relationship to it.


According to art historians and critics, land-based art stems, in part, from ideals about humanity, and a response to consumerism that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s: a reaction to social upheaval, and a desire among artists to find alternative connections to broader audiences through the creation of work outside the formal spaces of museums and galleries. These grand themes resonate with Vazan’s own ideas about working on and with the land, although his particular explorations take the form of a very personal journey.    

Vazan travels extensively for his work and, while visiting various parts of the world, he gathers samples of local sand and dirt. Over the decades, he has amassed an impressive collection of such specimens. This gesture of collecting has led to his lifelong Soundings project. “Taking a sounding” involves measuring the depth of water or a hole with a lead sinker and line: a process that also brings up adhering bits of matter. It is further defined as a way of investigating or seeking information through indirect inquiry.

Bill Vazan, Soundings # 040, touzigoot, Arizona (1983), copper tailings (suspended in acrylic) on board then mounted on canvas, 90 cm x 90 cm. Photo: Serge Clément. © Bill Vazan

According to Vazan, the Soundings project began haphazardly, without any initial plan or form in place. As Vazan explained to me in a June 2014 email, “Early gatherings of place material resulted from my emotional responses to mainly received valuations of civilization and human history. Further on, with the conceptual framework basically in place, the amassing of detritus reflected the ideation of the work itself: trip matter collected — no matter the voyage’s goal.”

By the mid-1980s, Vazan had developed a process and a template for the Soundings project. Instead of simply displaying the inert material in glass containers, he mixed it with water and gel medium to create a fluid mixture that he would then pour onto a paper support. He also established certain parameters and constraints: the 90 x 90 cm size of the paper and the consistency of the mixed liquid, for example. Added to this was his intervention in spreading out the material in a way that emphasized its organic qualities, while also providing a sense of movement and giving expression to the material’s inherent life. Water thus became a vehicle as well as a counter-element to earth, both of which are essential to the planet and to our existence.

In another email, Vazan wrote, “My ‘soundings’ are mixes of earth material and water, with acrylic medium added so that the whole of the splashes, pourings and bloomings adhere to the cardboard and canvas support. The watering of the arid, the fixed (measure, fact, quantity and proof) allow for an augmentation of visual pleasure, fantasy and imagination.” Vazan’s works can thus be understood as stains of the material: traces left behind as the matter glides over the surface of the substrate.


Bill Vazan, Soundings # 070, dachau, Bavaria  (2004), natural black earth (suspended in acrylic) on board then mounted on canvas, 90 cm x 90 cm. Photo: Serge Clément. © Bill Vazan

The resulting Soundings vary greatly from deep russets and mahogany reds, to earthy and chestnut browns, to puce and beige, to charcoal, to every other colour and shade in between. They are both material and, as the artist suggests, abstract expressions akin to paintings or drawings, in that their incidental contours and patterns can spark the imagination in a way similar to a Rorschach inkblot. Viewers not only engage with the works’ materiality, but also with the beauty of the abstract shapes resulting from Vazan’s dripping and pouring. In this way, each Sounding has its own expressive qualities that evoke, like many of the artist’s works, the process involved in their making. 

Be it earth, sand, large stones, or documentation of his physical and conceptual interventions in the land through photography, drawings, and writing, Vazan’s use of materials is key to gaining a better understanding of his multifarious practice. In many ways, these organic materials are the content of his works, and lie at the heart of their meaning. They not only remind us of our time and place here on Earth, but also of their own existence, and the fact that they will remain long after we are gone. In this sense, Vazan’s projects can be considered within the tradition of the memento mori, and serve as reminders of our own mortality.

There are more than 30 works by Bill Vazan in Canada’s national collection. Two of his stone sculptures can be viewed in the NGC sculpture garden behind the Gallery on Nepean Point.

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