Vanessa Paschakarnis sculpts ‘shadows’ for humans

By STUDY28|Violette Stepaniuk with Vanessa Paschakarnis


Images courtesy of Vanessa Paschakarnis

Above and directly below: Vanessa Paschakarnis | Shadows for Humans | purple grey Cape Breton marble | installation dimensions variable | 2003 – 2004 | National Gallery of Canada, purchased 2013
Last image: Shadows for Humans (detail)

Shadows for Humans sculpture by Vanessa Paschakarnis at National Gallery of Canada 2
Shadows for Humans sculpture by Vanessa Paschakarnis at National Gallery of Canada (detail)

Shadows for Humans

Vanessa Paschakarnis
purple grey Cape Breton marble
installation dimensions variable
2003 – 2004
National Gallery of Canada, purchased 2013

What can we learn from this work?


Three large rocks resting on a gallery floor – to the uninitiated it’s more of an ocean-side scene or a rock specimen than a sculpture; likely too abstract and intimidating to engage more than a passing glance. So, how do we engage with a work of art such as Vanessa Paschakarnis’ Shadows for Humans?

“Sculpture is a medium that allows you to have a one-on-one experience with an object,” explains Paschakarnis. “It is about experience as opposed to information. The three components of Shadows for Humans are installed directly on the ground. There is no pedestal or glass case that separates you from the sculpture. It is part of real space, the same space that you as a viewer occupy.

“Because of this you have to engage very differently with a floor bound sculpture than with a painting on the wall, for example. Your own physicality is part of the experience of a sculpture.


The artist uses large scale pieces to help us connect with her work on a physical level.

“The work Shadows for Humans works on a one-to-one scale with the viewer,” says Paschakarnis. “Scale is an important issue in regard to sculpture. If you consider figurative works, a life-size figure on the floor opens up to a very different relationship than a small-scale figurine on a pedestal.

“With this sculpture, I want you to first connect on a very physical level with these objects because then you have to try and figure out what the material might be and how it relates to the human body. You will start to ‘feel’ your way around the work before you start wondering why these objects with this specific title came into existence. They are made to be viewed in this neutral gallery space in order for the viewer to establish a relationship.”

The idea of evoking a feeling or getting us to experience something, as opposed to providing us information about something, is in line with what we have already learned about abstract and semi-abstract works.


Why stone and not other medium?

“Stone is usually referred to as a traditional medium, but you don’t see it much in North America in contemporary art,” says Paschakarnis. “It is a medium that demands skill and labour and in turn will reward you with the possibility of receiving a durable object with a strong presence. You can create form. This is a kind of power and a heavy responsibility.

“Today, I feel I have a lot of advantages with this material because most people don’t even recognize it as they don’t expect it in contemporary work. So it is a medium with many possibilities for me, especially when you start to use the many different colours of marble that are available.”


“Abstract is not abstract,” says Paschakarnis. What does she mean?

“These works are not abstract just because you can’t define an image,” explains the artist. “In fact, they are not abstractions of known forms but inventions of sorts: they are made to look like something else. So it would be better to call them amorphous forms (forms that have no clearly defined shape).

“Abstraction is a term that is often misused because it is used as a synonym for everything that is not recognizable as an image; however, there are different levels of expression possible within the world of sculpture. This is the exciting part of ‘creating’ form that you are responsible for as a maker.”

Christine Nobel’s painting Between the Melt helps illustrate what Paschakarnis means by her sculpture being more of an invention than an abstraction of a known form.

Between the Melt is an abstraction of a known form – an end-of-winter landscape – that Nobel created based on her observation, or study, of a landscape over six months.

Her painting is also an abstraction because we cannot recognize the image of a landscape in the painting; we can only sense the melting snow, and the vegetation and other elements poking through the snow or having been layered into it over time.

Shadows for Humans, as Paschakarnis explained, is a work created from scratch, if you will, invented, not based on specific shapes, not abstractions of any particular shape or collection of shapes.


So, what’s in the title? So far, we have large rocks, directly on the floor, ‘invented’ forms, and an invitation to experience something, to form a relationship. Where do shadows fit in this combination?

“Most people seem to think that shadows are something two-dimensional. I don’t agree with that,” says Paschakarnis. “I think shadows are three-dimensional. They come into existence when a body, an object obscures light. They inhabit a three-dimensional space and are our most direct confirmation of ‘being here’.

“Usually they are referred to as something negative, the other side of things, the dark side, but shadow protects from too much sun and it occurs only during the positive encounter of light. Shadows are more true to reality than a reflection because they don’t turn things around (mirror image). But they obscure things, distort a shape.

“So in this sense, I created shadows out of marble that looks like a dark matter, grayish, meat-like, in a surface that is like a worn skin. The shapes shadow you, as you start walking among them. A relationship starts.”

The artist has created shadows…for us…humans.

Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014
Until March 8, 2015
National Gallery of Canada
380 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario
Google Map

Monday: closed
Tuesday to Wednesday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Thursday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday to Sunday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The exhibition Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014 showcases a selection of the works the National Gallery of Canada recently added to its Canadian Contemporary, Indigenous and Photography collection. More than 80 works, in a variety of media, by 26 artists from across the country are on display, including Vanessa Paschakarnis’ Shadows for Humans, which the gallery purchased in 2013.

Vanessa Paschakarnis

A two-time Canadian Sobeys Art Award semi-finalist Vanessa Paschakarnis works internationally as a German-Canadian artist and exhibits her work in solo and group exhibitions in Europe, the United States and Canada. She holds a Masters degree from Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weissensee, Germany and a second MFA from NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

She has also taught sculpture in Canada and abroad. Her work in stone, usually large-scale, is represented in public and private collections, including the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario.

Learn more about Vanessa Paschakarnis and see more examples of her work:

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