Media cemetery for ghosts of TV past
Montreal Gazette
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Page: E10
Section: Culture
Source: Freelance

Anne Lewis has been a CTV newscaster in Montreal for more than two decades and has become, in the public eye, a "personality" with high recognition value. Less well known to many viewers is that Lewis is also an artist, a career she began even before broadcasting.

Now, in a fascinating one-woman show at the Galerie de la Ville in Dollard des Ormeaux, we get Lewis's multi-faceted perspective on the media and on the role of art in a world filled with human misery.

Unlike most TV programming, Lewis's artwork takes risks, in terms of aesthetics, appeal and deeper meaning. "I like to work with the stretch between art and the media," says Lewis, a petite, unpretentious dynamo of a woman.

The title of this large show, The Field Hospital, suggests Lewis is not serving up visual glad tidings. Indeed, the ominous militaristic ranks of standard grey and black videocassette boxes, 290 in all, that fill an entire gallery wall do not inspire thoughts of springtime in Paris, but rather some kind of military barrier - or, perhaps, a sacred vertical shrine. This installation, just one of a series of works by Lewis now on view, suggests obsolete memories, a media cemetery. This evocative piece de resistance is sardonically titled Knowing Too Much.

The boxes are, or were, containers for TV tapes that Lewis was allowed to take home with her when she went on maternity leave in 1989. Lewis had designs on the tapes for a then-unspecified art project. As she explains it, such "tapes are almost holy, and a prime rule is that they never be removed from the TV studio and taken out. So, when I got them home, I wrapped them in layers of plastic. Years later, when my daughter reached 16, I began to think there was life in those boxes. Yet, it would not be the journalist in me that would do the birthing."

In this latest art birth, the sacred aura surrounding the tapes - and, for that matter, the ultimate contemporary holy of holies, commercial television in general - is exuberantly assaulted. The boxes, occasionally with lids flapped open and contents brazenly expelled, have been submitted to all kinds of treatment - painted, smudged, dipped in plaster, splattered with mud, bandaged, wired, taped and, in one instance, crushed under a speeding 16-wheel truck.

Also, with the latest broadcast technologies, these plastic objects, boxes and tapes alike, are antiques - as obsolete as vinyl records.

Adding a measure of patina to a few of the containers are original labels and last-minute instructions, sometimes scribbled. In one breath-taking instance, we read "Heart Transplant," followed by a chilling message for the cameraperson who, according to Lewis, had arrived at the last minute: "Patient is in OR and the bone cutting has already started." Before Lewis went on leave - she was, and is, CTV's medical reporter - she was doing a series on heart transplants, and her team was in a hospital for a shoot.

The tape itself has been painted over, so that its former informational function has been overridden by its new role as a semi-abstract visual icon.

The plastic boxes invite us to ponder the fact that the filmed events are in the past. In other words, the boxes are, in a sense, remnants - the tangible grave-sites of old TV "stories," themselves as intangible as any notion of the human soul. Incidentally, the heart transplant patient, as Lewis recalls, a late-middle-aged dockworker terminally out of breath, survived.

In the case of some boxes, the real news story is not on tape but carefully smeared on the plastic surface. Returning last year to Northern Ireland - Lewis's birthplace, where as a girl she witnessed several killings - the artist revisited her father's grave. It is dirt from this site that provided the odd crust, an abstract relief map, on a few of the boxes. What is personal, sacred ground is sprinkled on the once media-sacred containers, themselves plastic coffins for old TV footage.

For Lewis, it seems, the notions of container and contained, format and subject matter, outside and inside, profane and sacred, banal and unique, are open for questioning. Yes, the medium is the message - but exactly what medium would that be? TV footage, dirt, art, bodies, plaster or plastic? At its best, Lewis's art turns feeling into thought, thought into art.

The Field Hospital is on view at Galerie de la Ville, 12001 Salaberry Blvd. in Dollard des Ormeaux, until Nov. 12. Go to www.centreartdollard.com or call 514-684-1012, Local 298.

Illustration: Colour Photo: ANNE LEWIS / Knowing Too Much, an installation by newscaster Anne Lewis, consists of 290 videocassette boxes that have been painted, smudged, dipped in plaster and assaulted in various other ways.