Spectacular Speleology

by Liz Wylie

From the exhibition publication, Kristoff Steinruck: Crystal Cave 1(Kelowna Public Art Gallery, Kelowna, B.C., 2012).

It is wrong to assume that art needs the spectator in order to be. The film runs on without any eyes. The spectator cannot exist without it. It insures his existence.
– Jim Morrison

Visitors who try to enter the Kelowna Art Gallery’s Mardell G. Reynolds gallery space during this exhibition will be surprised when they are confronted at its door by a barrier built from smooth sheets of fresh drywall. Looking down and to their right, they will see a hole bashed into this temporary wall, through which – if they bend down – they can peek in at Kristoff Steinruck’s installation. There is something both voyeuristic and awkward about this act of looking at something through a low, small opening, but in this case the visitors are given no choice if they wish to see what has been set up in the space. Once people do look in, they will doubtless be truly amazed at and fascinated by the half-scale reproduction by the artist of the underground so-called Cave of the Crystals at Naica in Mexico. One of the most impressive aspects of this room-sized work of art is the high degree of verisimilitude Steinruck has achieved using only the everyday materials of brown paper and white polystyrene slabs. It is by means of his painstaking care and precision in the treatment and assembly of these elements that he has created this magical quality.

Steinruck was shown images of the Naica cave on the internet a couple of years ago by a friend who knew of his enthusiasm for weird, other-wordly places. He was instantly intrigued by the colossal selenite crystals that have grown in the largest formations in the world, due to the specific conditions in the cave, which include extremely high heat and humidity. It wasn’t long before he had the idea to recreate the cave, knowing it would be next to impossible to visit it in real life.

Kristoff Steinruck is a classic intermedia artist – intermedia being a term developed in the 1960s but used widely in the 1980s when the notion of dispensing with media-based distinctions in art was much bandied about. Having worked first in drawing and painting, he completed his undergraduate degree in English literature in 1999. He began exhibiting mixed-media work and photography, but moved from these to installation as well. Some of his early interests and projects explored in photography were in taking pictures of people posed splayed on the ground as though they had fallen from a great height; and then as monks in sublime scenery, one of his homages to the Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. He had long been interested in places on earth that look non-earthly, and in mise-en-scenes that were fictive, but had every appearance of being real. He began to further complicate his work by looping back to confound his own premises, and thereby provide multiple readings of and points of entry to his art for a viewer.

In one conversation with the artist about this approach, Steinruck and I discussed the newest theories in physics, in which a postulated explanation for the apparent existence of the same particles in more than one place at the same time is that of parallel universes. So science has now travelled along a moebius strip upon which it meets up with science fiction. It is this brave new theoretical world that Steinruck wishes to embrace in his fantastical emulation that looks fictional, but is actually a fairly faithful reproduction of a real place on this planet.

Crystal Cave 1 is Steinruck’s most ambitious work created since finishing his MFA at the University of Guelph in 2009. He used it first in 2010 as a setting for his first work in video (that piece used several actors and is currently still in post production). It was after he finished the shooting for the video that he had the idea of relocating the cave set as a stand-alone installation piece somewhere else. What will viewers make of it, knowing nothing of its background, as they stoop down to look through the hole in the wall, like Alice, too big to fit through? Perhaps, even for just a brief moment, they will be returned to a child-like state of tantalized wonder, in which we did not ask why, or what does it mean? As children, we just marveled at the wonder of any impenetrable mystery, life itself being a prime example, of course.

Liz Wylie is Curator of the Kelowna Art Gallery.