It was something like 3 a.m. on one of those nights nobody knows how to end the first time I saw Cléo Sjölander’s exhibition Exuvie at Espace Maurice. Heaven knows it’s got to be bedtime, goes the song looping in my head all summer and into the fall. I’m disappointed to discover that I have the lyrics wrong, and the song “Ceremony”—one of Joy Divison’s last, and released as New Order’s first—apparently goes: “heaven knows it's got to be this time” (Ian Curtis never transcribed the lyrics and his vocals were muffled on the original recording, so I guess there’s a chance I’m still right). Besides, I think my mistake is poetic. The syntax reminds me of when Juliet, leaving to join Romeo in exile, says to her mother, “God knows when we shall meet again,” bidding her goodnight and, secretly, goodbye. I always forget which is the impolite thing to say—farewell or goodbye—the former implies you won’t meet again, but I tend to confuse the two.
I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in a while. I was at some studio where my friend was DJing. There was a tap on my shoulder and it was Paul, who was a good friend of a good friend, which meant we were friends already. Paul was explaining to me that he had turned a new leaf and has decided to grow up now that he’s thirty, so he packs himself lunch boxes and gives himself a 3 a.m. bedtime. I’m charmed by this reminder of parental care and amused at the suggestion that growing up means treating yourself like a child. It was at this point that the cops showed up, but our night had just started and nobody wanted it to end. So far, Paul’s curfew was hypothetical, and his friend Marie invited us to hers for a nightcap. In his essay on Kafka, Walter Benjamin jokes that children are afraid of going to bed because something good might happen while they’re asleep. But it’s true. That’s when everything good happens.
We arrived at Marie’s annoyingly chic studio apartment. Marie warned us to mind the art, and I wondered where I was, as she flipped on a light switch and I stepped over a short glass table, balancing on three ceramic legs that are unglazed and thorny and remind me of branches or claws—Sjölander’s Untitled, 2021. Before my eyes adjusted to the light, Sjölander’s sculptures cast shadows that recall those from the dead of a childhood’s night, when, by dark, you can’t be sure the umbra belongs to a monster or a table and chairs. Marie handed us each a glass of wine and gave a wired half-explanation about Sjölander’s show, which was the inaugural exhibition of the front half of her loft. Not in the state of mind for aesthetic contemplation, I came back two weeks later at a more sensible hour for their closing reception. For now, I just clinked glasses and called my new friends “babe” and kissed everyone’s cheeks (Goodbye) (Goodbye) (Goodbye).
Exuvie, the exhibition’s title, is a biological term referring to the exoskeletons that certain species, mostly bugs, leave behind when they shed. According to the curator Philippe Bourdeau’s exhibition text, the work represents a tension between a body’s inner structures and outer skin, and, by isolating the shedded skins, captures liminal moments, during a creature’s transitional states of regeneration. Or, to put biological terms in human—which is to say, spiritual—terms, the process of self-becoming. Unvarnished, the matte quality of these ceramics recall the clay’s earthen form. It makes them seem unfinished, exposed, like the unarmoured creatures the material represents. Because my sentimentality makes me averse to self-help, I find myself more interested in the skin left behind than the act of shedding it.
The best parts of this exhibition are the traces of life tucked in every nook and corner. Stuff that, if the exhibition space were your apartment, should be cleaned up. vase spirale (2021) is a ceramic vase with its stem lined with curved hooks like the fleshy legs of a shell-less crustacean; tipped on its side, it would look like a six-legged bug. Dried flowers are inside, and fallen petals surround its base. I have a similar assemblage in my apartment. I can’t seem to muster the strength to sweep. funérailles d’une cigale (2021), is a cicada skeleton inside a crab shell tucked into the side of a power outlet. On a windowsill, a similarly leggy, vine-like spoon, cuillère (2021) cradles another cicada moult in its bowl. The placement of cuillère is clever, as windowsills are often where stray dead bugs are found anyway. soft whisper of the water (2021), araignée (2021), tige piquante (2021) all are would-be household objects that resemble the creatures lurking between them. There’s a similar illusion at work in both the paranoid and sentimentalist’s gaze. Superstition and symbolism tend to streamline perception (is the world revealing itself to me as meaningful, or am I projecting meaning here?). Those looking for a sign tend to find one. And your eyes play tricks on you when you’re afraid of the dark, or of bugs. Paranoia, counterintuitively, breeds gullibility. Paranoia encourages us to be on the lookout for what we fear, as does the sneaky placement of Sjölander’s assemblages. Every furnishing is sinister in the corner of your eye. It makes you jumpy. Oh, it’s just a vase! Oh, it’s just a fork! Oh, just a candleholder!
When I was a kid, I hated going to bed. Nightmares always took place inside the household. – I think because I was already afraid of it. I was scared of the dark, and of being alone. To ease my fears as I went to sleep, I developed a buddy system for my teddy bears: big ones next to little ones, and I had to kiss them one by one on the forehead and say “I love you goodnight bye see you later.” I requested that my parents say the same as they kissed my own forehead. Iloveyougoodnightbyeseeyoulater.
As an adult, I’ve been avoiding my bed again. I’m still afraid of all the same things I was when I was a kid, just less fantastically. I’m not afraid of monsters, but I do hate insects in my apartment. At night, I’m still afraid of being alone. Of being at home. I don’t like to settle in.
Different apartments I’ve had over the years have had things I’ve both loved and hated. My first apartment had a glass bookcase, but it also had mice. After the first time I saw one, I didn’t return home for three days. I was completely in love with my last apartment, but after finding a cockroach in my bed I walked for two hours in the middle of the night to my parents’ house to escape it. It’s strange to witness your own behaviour in states of panic. I’ve never considered myself much of a hypochondriac, but one night after moving to Montreal, I convinced myself that my new apartment had bed bugs. I have found that the trick is to make myself exhausted so that when I finally do have to sleep I am too tired to be scared. I say yes to every invitation and go to everything so I hardly have to be at home at all. The night I ran out of options and thought I would finally have to deal with my imaginary infestation, I booked a train ticket last minute to Toronto. Fear always takes you back home.
As I engage with the sculptures and prints in Exuvie, multiple images are evoked in my mind: the apartment I need to sweep, the dead fly on my windowsill, the way Sjölander’s sculptures, benign by daylight, remain haunted by their nighttime associations (“see? nothing to be afraid of”, one might console themself in still light’s calm), and still the incorrect New Order lyrics playing on loop. As art spectatorship involves engaging optics and perception, I’m glad to have accidentally encountered the work in dim light, when my wits were down, and phobias were drawn out by the work through a trick of the light. I would wager that the curation of Exuvie encourages an active mode of looking, as the strength of the exhibition relies on its hidden moments, the work that is tucked between power outlets, or else dangling between a radiator’s grates, as saline water (2021) is presented. araignée seems to slither out of the power outlet behind it. These curatorial gestures beckon close-looking, paying attention to detail. But, having viewed the show in the dark, that which lays dormant in the art, but which nonetheless remains such an evocative spirit in it—namely the suggestion of coming to life—found force through a different mode of spectatorship. The exhibition’s spirit was conjured in the peripheral gaze of an eye that hasn’t yet dilated, in the semi-conscious space before focus, before sobriety, before daylight. Drunkenness, Baudelaire says, is childhood recovered at will. In such a state, it's no wonder that those childhood fears and fancies that are tucked down into the unconscious, resurface at night, when we’re drinking, or when we’re dreaming.
Another image this work seems to recall is Gregor Samsa, the insect of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. One interpretation of the Metamorphosis suggests that the story is about a fear of uncleanliness—one of many instances in which vanity is mistaken for morality: cleanliness, they say, is next to godliness, whereas dirt, waste, dust and pests locate us in the biological realities of our mortality. A fear of dirt means fixating on surfaces and appearances. Consider the pandemic’s hygiene protocols, especially in its earliest onset, when fear dictated public health mandates and it was encouraged to sanitize every surface. This new bug, it was hypothesized, could live on surfaces. The bug in the story was locked in his bedroom. After Gregor Samsa mysteriously turns into an insect, his family's disgust prevents them from properly caring for him, despite their initial vain attempts. Over time, they see him less as a son and more as a pest. Finally, they abandon him. His family’s breakdown and eventual sacrifice of their son to the god of cleanliness can be read as a metaphor for their avoidance of life’s messiness. Although some translations and analyses of The Metamorphosis fixate on what kind of bug Gregor turns into, Kafka requested that The Metamorphosis never be illustrated. The creature’s ambiguity is a function of the story: his inability to conform to a category is part of his perceived hideousness, part of why his family locks him away, and, when they have to enter his room, avoids looking at him. They demand their household appear neat and tidy. But tidy does not mean the same thing as clean, just the appearance of it, in the same way, that nice does not mean the same thing as kind, just the appearance of it. Returning my thoughts to Sjölander’s crustacean assemblage, funérailles d’une cigale, I find it charming that a crab leaves its shell and starts fresh after every 12 to 18 months like it's an apartment lease. Moving appeals to the avoidant dream of a fresh start, a clean break, a new lease on life (the Samsas move at the end of the story), and also to the cliche that you can’t run away from yourself. In our homes, we find our own sort of exuviae. Just for instance, our household dust is made up of shedded skin.
Some goodbyes have haunted me. Both the terrible ones and the casual ones, like see you later, have a good day. (God knows when we shall meet again.) The exuviae which remain are sometimes horrible in their banality (a utility bill in the coming mail) or grotesque in their romance (a stray hair in the bedsheets). We intuit some kind of bodily unease—like the creepy-crawly feeling you get at the mention of mites—when traces linger and people get under your skin. But no matter how irritated, you’re told to ignore it. Don’t scratch or pick at scabs. Don’t open old wounds. Sweep it all under the rug. Tuck it away. In Metamorphosis, Gregor’s family eventually stops cleaning his room. They leave the mess and cram old furniture in with the creature, locking the door, and telling themselves they don’t have a son anymore. However unfair, we associate pests with dirt. In the story, they’re both mixed up in the same room. Is this a fear of death (dust as dead skin, parts of us that have died—in psychoanalysis, our waste is considered a metaphor for death and decay)? Or a fear of life (pests as signs of life)? Undoubtedly, cliches of a doom aesthetic are present in Exuvie, signalling to its audience a certain vogueishness or cool factor. The current taste for such gothic aesthetic tropes and apocalyptic imagery, coupled with our climate’s phobia for that which is perceived as unclean, reminds us of that close association of life and death. Certainly, pandemic protocols of the past two years have promoted, propagated and encouraged a (perhaps already-present subconscious) association of uncleanliness with illness, death and decay.
A week after I viewed Exuvie at Êspace Maurice, I saw Sjölander’s work again in a group show at Project Casa, a beautiful house that the owners have repurposed as a gallery. Their work makes so much sense when it interacts with actual lived-in interiors because placing the artwork amongst homeware recontextualizes the furnishings and endows them with the same double-take qualities and imbued meaning present in Sjölander’s artwork: it animates that which lies dormant, like what happens to furniture in your imagination at night.
There’s another Kafka story, “Children on a Country Road,” about a city where nobody goes to sleep, “Because they never get tired.”
“And why not?”
“Because they’re fools.”
“Don’t fools get tired?”
“How could fools get tired!”
That song is still stuck in my head although it's been almost a year and heaven knows it's got to be bedtime. I love you. Goodnight. Bye. See you later. I love you. Goodnight. Bye. See you later. Iloveyougoodnightbyeseeyoulater.