Carving Whilst Drinking

There’s an ongoing story surrounding Scott Rogers’ Meanders Into Nonesuch Place. At the center of this story is Jan Welzl, an Arctic explorer, locksmith and inventor whose life reads like an epic saga.

Welzl spent his life traipsing around the world, lived in a Siberian cave for 30 years, wrote a bestselling book, and eventually settled in Dawson City to spend the later years of his life building an elaborate perpetual motion machine inside his home.

It’s clear that Welzl’s story has been a driving force in Rogers’ project, on display this month at the ODD Gallery in Dawson.

Rogers has gathered materials for the show in the same way one might gather materials to build a shelter in the wild, picking up whatever is at hand and testing it for its strength and efficiency.

Together, the works in the exhibition behave like a kind of raconteur—a storyteller you might meet by chance in the street or in a bar.

In the retelling of the tale, Rogers has become so entwined with the story that its two central characters—Scott Rogers and Jan Welzl—start to blur and merge together, becoming indistinguishable from one another. Scott Welzl. Jan Rogers.

Inside the gallery, there’s an array of objects, images and documents, each carrying its own piece of the story.

The floor is scattered with detailed line drawings traced onto small fragments of paper and secured to the ground by a casual constellation of pebbles and coins.

Some of the drawings depict perpetual motion machines. Other drawings are traced from vintage cartoons depicting unnecessarily complicated, over-the-top machines designed to carry out simple or ridiculous tasks.

There are far more electrical sockets installed in the room than necessary, and each of the drawings has been placed on the ground in front of one. The result produces a dull teasing effect, as if to poke fun at the machines and their impossibility and impracticability.

One side of the room is occupied by a wooden structure reminiscent of the machines depicted in the line drawings.

A twine runs through a series of precarious mechanisms to attach to a bottle of Czech beer. It’s unclear whether this machine has a purpose, but it seems as if it wouldn’t take much to set “Drinking Buddy Emulator” into motion and trigger a clumsy series of chain reactions.

Nearby is an unfinished wooden carving whittled away from a chunk of limewood. It’s beginning to take on the shape of a man. Rogers declares that the statue depicts Jan Welzl and will be whittled throughout the duration of his lifetime.

The same statue features in one of a pair of video works looping on a television monitor placed on the floor.

“King and Fifth” shows the statue of Welzl sitting on the grass, supposedly at the former site of the adventurer’s late residence just up the street. Any trace of the house has now disappeared, and the figure sits motionless in a pile of futility and long summer grass.

The other video in the loop, “New Siberia or Thereabouts”, shows a sink filling with water into a wooden box containing Jan Welzl’s book, floating.

Wooden tabletop. 

Hanging on the wall is “Legend”, a circular rubbing of brown pastel on newsprint. There’s something resembling text scrawled all over the shape, but it doesn’t show up too clearly.

It pushes you away and pulls you back again. Perhaps it’s trying to tell you something. One moment you think you’re discerning a word or a sentence, and the next moment you’re lost again.

On the opposite side of the gallery is a round wooden tabletop without legs—the object of the rubbing.

Hand-carved into its surface are the lyrics of a shanty song—the kind you’d sing while toiling in a mine or out at sea, a tactless drinking song that’s somehow sobering in its sincerity, a simple, honest rhythm to plug away to, the kind that helps to soften hard labour. A song to whittle to.

It’s clear that Rogers treats his thinking and his materials in much the same way. He’s taken tracing paper and drawn over situations, stories, recorded and unrecorded histories.

The more time you spend with this work, the more you become aware that the marks left on the page are something entirely different from their original object.

Meanders Into Nonesuch Place is filled with messages that aren’t afraid to be open-ended and implicit. The work presents us with the traces of something rather than the actual thing, because the actual thing is impossible to see when you’re looking directly at it.

Carving, drinking, carving, drinking.

Meanders Into Nonesuch Place is on display in the ODD Gallery in Dawson City until July 27.

Read Andrew de Freitas interview with Scott Rogers here.

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