At the core of the exhibition is a new work that considers air as a carrier of ideas, focused on Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev’s conception of a periodic table of the elements in the late 1860s. Canell’s interest lies in capturing the manner in which the revelation was formed. After days and nights of re-arranging the elements on cards, in search of a pattern, it is said that Mendeleev drifted off at his desk, and on waking the elements suddenly fell into their respective place, in sequence of atomic weight. With this moment in mind, Canell, and collaborator Robin Watkins, traveled to St. Petersburg to collect a small quantity of air from Mendeleev’s study. While capturing the specific conditions of the preserved 19th century room still housing his personal belongings, desk and books, the endeavour evokes the idea that some residue of this amalgamation of thought might remain in the locality – or air – in which it took place.
Consisting of an apparently empty glass vessel, the transparency of the work requires a certain degree of belief (both for the artists and audience) as it subsists on the fuel of our imagination. Not unlike the sensation of a dream dispersing into wakefulness, the elemental composition of the air from Mendeleev’s study easily escapes perception, but is nevertheless trapped and encapsulated in front of us. Steven Connor has suggested that we could imagine thinking itself “as a kind of atmosphere” or air, “both there and not there”; an intermingling of process and material which often manifests itself in Canell’s work.
Elsewhere in the exhibition the antenna of a domestic radio (Into the Eyes as Ends of Hair, 2010-2012) is extended and sensitized with scraps of cable, metal wiring and nails, registering disembodied electrical leaks within its vicinity, as occasional subtle sparks. In Waver (2010) a vertical column of tuning forks appears out of (or disappears into) the wall near the ground, while Words Fallen (2012) employs congealed air as its material. In Telepath (2010) a 2000 Volt current is drooped over a copper pipe of equal length, languidly defying the singularity of a predetermined route suggested by its conductive support.
In many of her works Canell has employed the evasive and connective properties of immaterial energy, matter and thought, “opening up the mind and senses to adopt the existence of bonds, which may or may not exist outside of human perception.” Her sculptural assemblages often allude to a quiet and constant state of transformation. Electrical currents, luminescence, sound waves and vapourised droplets become sculptural components, which in the artist’s own words “reach out and fill the empty space between objects and bodies.”