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Filmmaker and sculptor Michael Snow, who ‘demolished boundaries’ of art, dies at 94

TORONTO — Interdisciplinary artist Michael Snow, known in Canada and internationally for his abstract painting, public sculptures and the experimental 1967 film “Wavelength,” has died.

The Toronto-born artist died Thursday, said Tamsen Greene, senior director of New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, which represented Snow. He was 94.

The National Gallery of Canada said in a statement that Snow was a “formidable ambassador” for the art world whose work challenged and changed perceptions.

Some of his most recognizable projects were public artworks, including the Toronto Eaton Centre’s geese installation “Flight Stop,” created in 1979, and the Rogers Centre’s “The Audience,” a sculpture of excited fans that was revealed as part of the SkyDome’s opening in 1989.

Snow experimented with various media throughout his artistic career, including film, paintings, sculptures, photography and music. Still, for many cinephiles, he may be known best for influencing the name of Wavelengths, the experimental film program at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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TIFF chief executive Cameron Bailey called Snow’s work transformative in the visual arts.

“Quietly, he demolished boundaries,” Bailey said in a statement focused on his contributions to film.

“His staggering attentiveness to the specifics of time and space led to masterpieces such as ‘La Region Centrale’ and ‘So Is This,’ the film that opened my eyes to new possibilities in experimental cinema.”

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Bailey added that “Wavelength,” noted for its 45-minute camera zoom, “remains his most potent gift.”

An interview with Snow as part of the “TIFF Uncut” podcast series in 2017 outlined his teenage interest in art and how a few chance encounters offered him incredible opportunities.

Snow said he began playing music in high school and not long after made his way to Europe, where through a period of the 1950s he spent time “trying to find myself, looking at art and hitchhiking around.” He also spent those years sketching, a practice he embraced more fully upon his return to Toronto, where he enrolled in the Ontario College of Art, now known as OCAD University.

An exhibition of his work at the University of Toronto’s Hart House led him to meet George Dunning, a Canadian film producer and director who would go on to make the Beatles’ 1968 animated film “Yellow Submarine.”

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Dunning was years away from that psychedelic project, but he was taken by Snow’s early work, telling him that “whoever had done those drawings was someone who must be interested in the movies.”

Turns out, Snow wasn’t. He says he “very rarely went” to the cinema, but he was intrigued by the notion of applying his knowledge to animation and accepted a job offer from Dunning to learn how to animate.

“My introduction to film came that way. I didn’t have any particular interest in it and it came from being introduced to the mechanics of it, what it is frame by frame,” Snow said on the TIFF podcast.

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Snow moved to New York during the 1960s and was exposed to Manhattan’s experimental film world.

He would return north to present at the 1967 Montreal Expo a series of silhouette sculptures inspired by his Walking Woman figure, an ongoing series of projects he created throughout the 1960s.

The same year, he screened “Wavelength,” a 45-minute short film which takes place entirely inside a loft apartment as the camera slowly zooms in on a window frame, interrupted four times by events that play out on screen.

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Early on, two women listen to John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and shortly after they leave the shot, a man staggers into frame and falls on the ground, seemingly the victim of a murder. The zoom continues until he’s out of the camera’s view, eventually finishing with a woman who enters the loft and calmly phones a man to report that she’s found a body.

“Wavelength” won the grand prize at the Knokke Experimental Film Festival that year, exposing Snow to new audiences and encouraging him to further explore making experimental films.

Snow wouldn’t ignore his other artistic passions in the years that followed.

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In 1970, he was featured in a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale and in 1974, he was a part of the Canadian Creative Music Collective, an improvisation group that founded Toronto’s Music Gallery.

He continued making experimental short films too, while exhibiting some of his other works around the world, including at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Christopher Cutts, owner of the Christopher Cutts Gallery in Toronto, said in Snow’s later life, his influence in art and film was paramount.

“Now was he making new work? Not as much, but he was a busy guy flying all over the world,” he said. “I remember sending his works to Barcelona and the Guggenheim Museum.”

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Cutts has exhibited Snow’s work at his gallery, namely his “Power of Two” installation in 2005.

He said despite Snow’s small stature, he remembers his towering presence.

“He was special,” he said. “We lost one of our icons, for sure.”

Snow was awarded the Order of Canada in 1981 and upgraded to a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2007.

In 2000, organizers at TIFF commissioned him alongside David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan to participate in “Preludes,” a series of short films marking the 25th anniversary of the festival.

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