A tiny, colorless mouse lies alone in an ashtray; it’s clear, however, that he isn’t just taking a nap but has been laid waste by polymerized gypsum. This is a detail in Liz Magor’s sculptural installation The Mouth and Other Storage Facilities. The cast mouse sculpture and those of his fellow woodland creatures—a raccoon and a deer, or rather, a deer’s head—have a mythical, if disconcerting, presence in the installation’s tablescapes, along with the wreckage of an ostensibly dreary banquet: packs and butts of cigarettes, bottles of whiskey, chocolate-bar wrappers, small piles of tweed and leather jackets, and stacks of dirty metal plates. You can almost smell the staleness. Some of the items are real, such as the candy in blue foil and the cigarettes, which had been smoked, we are told, by the artist herself; but most of the objects are not real, including the tables. Like the animals, they’re synthetic replicas, closely observed and painted to fool the eye.
For more than four decades the contemporary Canadian sculptor and photographer—best known for her participation in international exhibitions (Documenta 8 in Kassel, Germany, as well as both the Venice and Sydney Biennials)—has been examining the boundary between what is real and what is fake, probing the edge of our “human knowledge” through commonplace things. In 2009, a year after she completed Mouth, she turned to a new piece titled Corner Mouse. It’s composed of a two-and-a-half-foot-high corner cabinet made of wood, the top shelf of which displays once again a mouse in an ashtray made of polymerized gypsum.
Contrary to the musings of one critic or another, Magor’s recurring motif of mice deceased doesn’t speak to nature’s destruction at the hands of humans. At least, the artist says, not in “a tragic sense.” Instead the bodies of the animals “speak to a higher order of waste . . . tracking the trajectory of attraction and desire.” She draws a parallel: “Just as the shift from life to death is extremely simple and natural, but exceedingly mysterious, I see a similar profundity in the way some aspects of the material world will temporarily assume an irresistible allure.”
 Jen Hutton, Interview conducted via email with Liz Magor, included in the exhibition catalogue for What It Really Is at Red Bull 381 Projects (Toronto) January 2009.
Additional sources: Catriona Jeffreis gallery; Nicholas Brown, “Liz Magor,” Hunter and Cook magazine; E.C. Woodley, “The Art of Liz Magor,” Border Crossings, No. 1, 2011; National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa).
(Image: Ashtray/Mouse, detail from The Mouth and other storage facilities by Liz Magor, 2008, cast polymerized gypsum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)