David Tomas, Speech and silence — Vincent Bonin

[Fall 2021]

By Vincent Bonin

Invited by Ciel variable to follow up on the reassessment of works by the artist and anthropologist David Tomas (1950–2019) started in the recent exhibition Moving Through Time and Space,1 Vincent Bonin offers a broader survey of Tomas’s intellectual trajectory and reflects on the presence of silence in some of his installations.

David Tomas was a member of the first small cohort of artists who decided to pursue their academic studies to the doctoral level in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when there were few points of intersection between disciplines remote from one another. In 1979, dur- ing a solo exhibition at Galerie Optica, in Montreal,2 Tomas read a communication titled The SX­70 (1972): A Machine for the Critical Examination of Context, dealing mainly with the attributes of the Polaroid instant camera.3 In his lecture, Tomas described the invention of the internal mechanism that reduced the moment of latency between image capture and automatic appearance of the print. Tomas associated this technical advance with the reorientation of a rite of passage. The exhibition also included works based on various representations of physical phenomena invisible to the human eye. The transfer of this type of theoretical research into the field of art was still an unusual event. Tomas illustrated his spoken discourse with diagrams that were superimposed on each other, adding, layer by layer, a semiotic complexity to the liminal observations.

Extending the premises of his 1979 presentation with the series of installations Experimental Photographic Structure (1980–82), Tomas condensed the cultural space-time of the production of images to a continuous period of time in a single place. He programmed stroboscopes, chronometers, and automatic shutters that were connected to cameras so that Polaroid shots emptied of content (“raw, ideologically complex photographs”) were captured in a determined sequence. Between these components, he placed a closed-circuit video and a miniature train set. In one of the installations, he ob- served a part of the environment around him via a camera lucida (a nineteenth-century drawing tool, involving a prism and a lens, that projects a faint image of an object onto a sheet of paper). As a loco- motive crossed a bridge, triggering a flash, Tomas made a mark on a substrate. The black square resulting from this action, the tactile indication of a perception of blinding light, constituted the positive inverse of the white negative shots from the Polaroid cameras, generated without human intervention.4


See the magazine for the complete article and more images: Ciel variable 118 – EXHIBITING PHOTOGRAPHY