Exhibitionists·In Residence

This artist can transform ordinary objects and it's the closest thing to real magic you'll ever see

Magic's not real, but if there's anything in the world that comes close, it's art and imagination. That's the belief at the heart of Martin Messier's work.

After seeing Martin Messier's work, you'll never think of a sewing machine the same way again

Martin Messier performs Field. The Montreal artist is this week's Exhibitionist in Residence. (Vimeo/Martin Messier)

Magic's not real, but if there's anything in the world that comes close, it's art and imagination. Martin Messier thinks so, and on Sunday's episode of Exhibitionists we're featuring clips from three of the Montreal artist's performances — works that he's toured extensively around the world (including a recent performance of Field at Toronto's In/Future Festival in September).

In Projectors and Sewing Machine Orchestra, for example, Messier transforms everyday objects right before your very eyes. In Field, he appears to conjure and sound and lightning out of thin air.

Martin Messier on art: “I guess it’s about something magic I’m searching for — in life and in the world." (www.martinmessier.com)

But unlike some so-called "magician" (no apologies to David Blaine), Messier's all too happy to reveal his secrets — and why he creates these works in the first place, pieces that combine sound and electronic music, light and highly physical live performance.

"The idea is to create something new with what is already there," Messier says, explaining the common link between all his projects. "It's about being imaginative."

"I think it's a super simple idea — it's a basic thing," he tells CBC Arts, but that's what gives the performances such clarity. There's so much around us that we only take at face value, he says. "We can be more creative with what we have."

"There's never just one level of understanding something," says Messier. "We can actually do things, create things, with what's around us."

Take a sewing machine, for instance.

A scene from Martin Messier's Sewing Machine Orchestra. (Vimeo/Martin Messier)

Most of Messier's projects begin with selecting an object. It should be recognizable to an audience, he says, but it could be almost anything. In Sewing Machine Orchestra, it's a collection of vintage Singers. The thunderous music that chugs and stutters throughout the piece is actually coming from those antique gadgets. Messier's recorded the sound of their motors, manipulating the whirrs and clanks via computer — turning the dusty old sewing machine you remember from grandma's house into a powerhouse of a musical instrument.  

Ta da!

Creating something musical out of collected sounds is nothing new, he notes. It's carried over from his studies in electroacoustic music at the Université de Montréal. While he was there, he explains, he began thinking about how he could take the technique and bring it to live performance.

"It's often more about what could be seen than what will be heard," he says of his art. How can he physically manipulate — or interact with — something in a way that'll make you understand it differently? In the case of Field, the question of "What can I do on stage?" becomes even more interesting to answer.

For me, these things, when I can make them work, I would say the magic happens.- Martin Messier, artist

Instead of transforming an object into a musical work of art, Messier taps into something that's all around us but is nevertheless invisible to the eye: electromagnetic fields. Through the whole piece, Messier's on stage, plugging and unplugging from two grids (connection patches), head-banging as he completes a choreographed sequence that produces the thunderous sound of pre-recorded electric signals, shadow and, eventually, bolts of light — the cords themselves illuminated.  

Monday, Jan. 23, his latest performance, Corp Mort (or Dead Body) premieres at Montreal's Theatre Lachapelle. The piece involves three human dancers who interact with eight chairs — furniture that's been rigged up on pulleys so they rise and fall throughout the show. The chairs are meant to symbolize the human body "or our shell," he says.

Just like the three pieces airing on Exhibitionists, Messier says his work is always striving for the same thing.

"I guess it's about something magic I'm searching for — in life and in the world," he says.

"For me, these things, when I can make them work, I would say the magic happens."

Just watch.

See more of Martin Messier's work on his website and on the new episode of Exhibitionists. Watch online or Sunday at 4:30 (5 p.m. NT) on CBC Television.

Want to see your creations on CBC Arts? Just send us an email! You could be an Exhibitionist in Residence this season.

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