Western Living Magazine
Of Mice and The Man
by Harry Flood
Inspired as much by Bugs Bunny as by Brancusi, warrior artist Jeff de Boer plays fast and loose with culture and myth. Say cheese, Mister Galahad.
What do you say about the world's first line of historically accurate, fully functional suits of armour for mice? If you're a tenured art history professor, you say, "A tragi-comic take on man's crude imposition of his own socio-institutional codes on the natural world." If you're any of the rest of us who have seen the work of Jeff de Boer - there's a major survey show of it this month at Calgary's Muttart Gallery - you say, simply, "cool." (This is an actual art-crit term: even Adam Gopnik has used it once or twice.)
They are cool. Fashioned of polished brass, bronze or silver, the tiny armour suits can take up to 60 hours to complete and sell for between $500 and $2,000. "And that doesn't include materials," says de Boer, who calculates with some pride that his labour cost is only about half that of most automakers'.
They are art, but you can touch them if you want, checking out the way the tiny helmet visors turn on their hinge-pins, the way the body plates fold together like the leaves of a vegetable steamer. You can even catch a field mouse and put him inside the armour and prop him up in front of your cat, but the animal rights people will probably picket your house if you do. De Boer's tiny suits of armour for mice, rats and cats aren't actually designed to go on the animals. It's enough that they could.
"It's all about potentiality," says the affable 31-year-old Calgarian. "You can imagine these things being used, and that makes them art. If you were to actually put them on an animal they'd just become objects - a fashion statement for your pet."
Which isn't to say de Boer has never tried. Last year, the producers of a Japanese TV show about the world's most unusual occupations got wind of his work. Figuring he'd slide gracefully into the lineup between the snake tattooist and the pet orthodontist, they sent a film crew to shoot him in his studio. They even brought their own stunt cat. "But that cat didn't cooperate so they had to ship the armour to Japan so they could find a better stunt cat there," de Boer remembers. "The cat there didn't cooperate either. Cats aren't crazy about wearing armour."
For much of his prairie childhood, de Boer was the classic outsider, a kid who built models, alone with his reveries and a growing fascination with all things medieval. By Grade 11, he'd made his first full-size suit of armour from scraps he found in his tinsmith father's metal shop. But it wasn't until his second year as a jewellery design student at the Alberta College of Art that he hatched his chef-d'oeuvre, the mouse, which would quickly become his signature piece. It worked on every level - even as a kind of personal metaphor. "The weak really are my symbol, because I suppose I started out life that way. So building armour for a mouse seemed like the natural thing to do. It was the one image that was correct."
But it was also the image that pigeonholed de Boer as the mouse-armour guy. Happily, just in time for graduation from art school in 1988, he found another big idea. For the year-end exhibition, he showed up in a polished bronze mask with oriental features. It was the "helmet for saving face in business transactions," a fin de siècle spin on the Japanese shogun - here reborn as lone corporate warrior, keenly investing his way to global superiority. "Instead of sending an army to conquer the enemy," de Boer explains, "now you just send one guy with a briefcase." Business as war is not a new concept, but the mask was an elegant application nonetheless. De Boer knew he had hit the nail true when an overwhelmed guest at the grad show kissed him full on the metal mouth for luck.
Running with the "corporate chivalry" motif, de Boer invented chain mail ties, of which he has sold 100 or so. And he will develop the theme further this month, unveiling a hand-built, historically accurate catapult that launches . . . fax machines. "I want to roll it down the 8th Avenue Mall, with a guy dressed up in Roman armour whipping a few business executives, and handing out invitations to the show," he says. "The fax machine is a catapult, really. It's a siege machine. So I figured, I might as well bring out one that's real."
The Muttart exhibition (cleverly titled "Articulation") will pull together all the threads of the de Boer oeuvre, including some more recent pieces - the oddly anachronistic rocket ships, the abstract "exoforms." Most of the 100-plus pieces have been borrowed back from their owners for the show, which will travel beyond Calgary for at least two years.
The opening also marks the launch of an accompanying book - an elegant coffee-table catalogue of de Boer's work, illustrated with photos by fellow Alberta College of Art grad Ken Woo, and boasting an introduction by sci-fi author William Gibson, who has hailed de Boer as a fellow pilgrim to "the other side of the bridge."
Peeled mice in heavy cream will not be served at the reception.
The Edmonton Journal
Introduction by William Gibson
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