Spread probes exsanguination’s meaning

by Gregory Beatty

Carmela Laganse: Spread
Sherwood Village Gallery
Until May 23

Dissertations have been written, I’m sure, on the cultural significance of vampires in Western society. Regina artist Carmela Laganse didn’t go that route. But she was sufficiently intrigued by the spurt in popularity that the mythical undead have enjoyed in the last 25 years or so to create this exhibition.

Spread consists of five furniture-like sculptures made of wood, fabric and ceramics. I say furniture-like, because while the objects do resemble things like chairs, ottomans and divans, it’s pretty obvious that they’re not designed for comfort like traditional furniture. The chair in “Jamonera”, for instance, has long legs that would leave anyone forced to sit in it dangling precariously several feet off the ground. As well, the pieces all contain ceramic inserts that function as basins and drains.

In a nutshell, Laganse designed the pieces to serve as supports for people who are undergoing exsanguination — a procedure to have blood drained from neck, arm, thigh and other veins. The pieces are all quite elegant — in an ornate, brocaded, Victorian kind of way. From a strictly historical perspective, the pieces also recall the medieval practice of doctors bleeding patients to cure them of “ill humours”. It’s pretty obvious that vampires were lurking in Laganse’s thoughts when she created the sculptures, though.

Dating back to pre-historic times, many cultures have had myths and legends about creatures who live off the blood/life force of other beings. The publication of Irish writer Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the height of the Victorian era in 1897, though, is generally credited with kick-starting our modern interest in vampires (with an assist to Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi for his portrayal of the spooky Transylvanian count in the classic 1931 Universal horror movie).

Stoker supposedly modeled Count Dracula after a 15th century Transylvanian tyrant named Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia. During his six-year reign, he reputedly killed between 40,000 and 100,000 political rivals, criminals and other ne’er-do-wells — most by impalement on sharp poles, which earned him the nickname “Vlad the Impaler”. But in Stoker’s time, the superstitious belief in vampires was deeply rooted in eastern Europe and the Balkans. So it made sense for him to set his novel there. And when vampire lore began spreading to western Europe, people there proved no less susceptible to hysteria.

Today, another form of hysteria exists around vampires. It’s not a fear of real-life bloodsuckers prowling in our midst, seeking to put the bite on us and consign us to the growing legion of the undead. Instead, vampires have acquired huge pop culture cachet with teen girls and young women in particular caught up in the romance of it all.

Ann Rice’s seductive charmer Lestat, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Stephanie Meyer’s Edward Cullen (as played by the smoldering Robert Patterson) in the Twilight series are all examples of that phenomenon. One that’s driven by a pretty idealized version of what being a vampire, or being menaced by a vampire, is like.

Back to the idea of dissertations for a moment. Psychologically, vampires embody a host of associations for us tied to death, desire, fear, sex and more. With Dracula, some scholars have even interpreted the tale through a Marxist lens — with the count emerging from his castle at night to feed on the peasantry below.

When Ann Rice rocketed to fame in the 1980s for her gothic novels which relocated the vampire myth to America, HIV/AIDS was very much in the news, with scientists discovering how the virus was transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids. Today, Goth culture is one factor driving the popularity of vampires. But considering the appeal vampires hold for girls and youngish women there’s got to be some third wave/post-feminist stuff happening too. Hell, there’s probably a whole dissertation in that, with chapters devoted to bad boys, kinky sex, eternal love and romantic seduction.

All of that, and more, is explored by Laganse in Spread. There’s even angles that aren’t vampire or blood-related, like the role furniture plays as a sign of wealth and status in our society. Laganse emphasizes that by decorating several of her inset ceramic basins so that they appear to be gold-plated. The fabrics are luxe too, and the wood is all finely crafted and polished.

As noted previously, one of the pieces is titled “Jamonera”. It’s designed to allow access to thigh veins, and according to Laganse, it takes its name from a Spanish term for a clamp that’s used to secure a leg of jamon serrano (cured ham).

Similarly, the other four pieces all have names that either reference food or the presentation of food. “Grenadine” is one example. It’s designed to expose an arm vein, and is named after a popular non-alcoholic cocktail syrup. “Scrag End” is another example. That piece is designed to expose the neck, and it’s named after a cheap cut of lamb or mutton.

Since vampires essentially feed on humans, I guess the allusion to food is appropriate. And while Laganse does not reference the human body directly in Spread, in publicity images that are present in the gallery models (one female, one male) are shown positioned on two sculptures as they would be if they were undergoing blood-lettings. Guided by the insight they provide, we can mentally insert ourselves into the sculptures as well, contorting our bodies into the proper position to have blood drained from our veins.

By who? Well, that’s a good question.