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A & E ART | Bigger & Bolder

Svava Thordis Juliusson interferes, and interacts, with the world around her

BY Tor Lukasik-Foss

Svava Thordis Juliusson is sitting on one of the fancy public art benches on James North, checking her phone and waiting for me. She doesn't look nervous and she doesn't look tired, but nonetheless there is a kind of hard light in the back of her eyes that you see sometimes with artists who have been pushing and working and exhibiting without a break for a sustained period of time.

In Juliusson's case, she has staged a kind of aggressive occupation of Hamilton in the 11 or so months that she's been a resident here — a sustained introduction of her work to the arts community. This year alone she has installed a large project for the TH&B2 warehouse exhibition last April, been part of a three-person exhibition at b contemporary this past August, had a solo exhibition at the Central Library's Gallery on 4 and, at the time that I interview her, is two days away from installing what might be the biggest work of her artistic career — a network of curved ropes measuring 40 feet wide and 30 feet high, presented as part of this year's Supercrawl.

"I need someone to videotape the installation, because either it will be spectacular or a disaster," she says, and then proceeds to describe the fairly convoluted plan to hang the sculpture. The grey checkerboard side wall of 118 James North (the former Dominion Furniture Store recently renovated by Thier and Curran architects) is challenging because nothing can be attached directly to the wall or roof of the building. To hang the work therefore means establishing a platform on the roof weighted with buckets of water, from which cables can be draped through PVC tubes over the side. Juliusson's rope work is too cumbersome to be carried up the back fire escape (she also hates heights), so it will get assembled on the ground and then be hand-cranked and hoisted up against the wall.

Snjóflóð/Réttir (Avalanche/Corral) is the name to an ongoing series of work, of which this Supercrawl installation is to be the biggest iteration — a draping maze of safety-orange marine-grade nylon rope stitched with plastic cable ties. The bright colours have been deliberately chosen to interfere with the neutral grid-like order of the wall; orange also speaks to the kind of state of emergency that attends a natural disaster.

The sculptures in this series are all constructed from nylon rope and plastic, yet they somehow become organic, revealing patterns that are random yet true to an internal logic. All of the bits of rope are roughly the same size in relation to each other, and the loose ends of the zip ties poke out at uniform length and interval, like prickly hairs.

"This work has been ongoing for over a year now. It started when I came across a map of my hometown in Iceland, Siglufjordur, which showed an avalanche flow over top. I was compelled to want to draw this somehow, to capture the flow of material over a landscape, an avalanche of material. But I also didn't want complete chaos; I wanted a little control over the composition."

Juliusson works in a tidy, high-ceilinged studio two floors above Mixed Media on James St. North. She shares it with Andrew MacPhail, another notable Torontonian. Sharing space with MacPhail makes a kind of sense, seeing as both artists have a fondness for repetitive handiwork that redeems banal materials, and which frequently results in monumental declarations.

"After grad school (Juliusson finished her MA in 2010) I was really exhausted, my brain hurt and I wanted to be able to go into my studio and work without it being so conceptual and thought-through. So I made a rule to force me to play with materials I already had, one of which was a box of cable ties. Once I started working with them that was it. Here was a material that was so ubiquitous people barely even notice it, the polar opposite of a precious material. And yet, it allows you to work and sculpt without any equipment or technical needs. You don't need a forge or a foundry or a woodshop…and there's no tradition attached to the material. If anything it connects to women's work, to craft, a kind of humble work you do with your hands."

As we finish the interview Juliusson follows me back out to James Street, she lights a cigarette and fiddles with her phone to touch base with her children. I tell her that if she needs help during the install, I'll be working a few blocks away and she can call for an extra pair of hands. She looks up the street and I imagine she's already running through more details, maybe secretly wishing for it all to be over.

"In Iceland, there is a word Spennufall, which does a nice job of describing the feeling of deflation you have after you have gone through a long period of high stress and high productivity. I can only imagine how it's going to hit me after this installation. I just hope to be hung over when it does."