Zachary Ayotte is bad at math. But he’ll always remember his Grade 12 math teacher explaining the concept of an asymptote, a graphed line that forever approaches — but crucially never intersects — its axis. The idea of infinitely narrowing space between two things has shaped his perspective as an artist ever since.
“I realized how valuable a metaphor it is for looking for answers that you’ll never quite reach, or pursuing something, but understanding that you’ll never fully uncover it,” he explains. “One of my interests is understanding the invisible forces that that steer us, and recognizing that I’ll never quite understand what shape those take.”
Invisible forces were in full effect on a trip Ayotte and his husband, Jordan, took in 2016. They stopped in a small town in eastern Nevada, to break up a long leg of their journey. As Ayotte parked at the hotel and prepared to check in, he suggested Jordan wait in the car and that, if anyone asked, they should claim to just be friends on a road trip. Jordan agreed. “Nothing happened,” Ayotte says. “But I still think about it.”
The woman at the front desk was pleasant, and no one else seemed to notice, or question their relationship. Ayotte felt silly. After unpacking and washing off, they each laid on a bed — separate, but “close enough to photograph.” So he snapped a shot of still-nude Jordan laying forward, looking at his phone.
After returning home, Ayotte looked at the trip photos, saw that shot, and again questioned his emotions and decision that day in Nevada: Why there? What did we perceive that led us to put distance between each other and the people we met? And was there truth to it?
An Instagram geotag search of the area later showed that Ayotte’s instincts weren’t far off — bigots use smartphones, too. But, by then, that was almost beside the point. The questions, Jordan’s picture, and the ever-present metaphor sparked something that led to his first solo book, I Wish U Were Here, a collection “made by re-photographing images from our trip and distorting the original image using light modifiers.”
The photos-of-photos are dark, even haunting. They bring us on a narrative that seeks to deconstruct the symbols and visual language that bombard us every day, in order to understand how they shape perception and invite us to pierce our own. Some subjects are instantly identifiable, but most are cryptic and opaque, forcing us to take a longer look and see past the space between. And, because Ayotte is one of those enviable (and annoying) artists with both visual and literary ability, it ends with an essay that doesn’t so much explain the preceding images as it does provide context, so that when you see them again, you’ll have yet another perspective.
A trip that covered thousands of kilometres leads to a non-event in an unremarkable town, leads to an intimate moment captured on film, leads to a work of art that asks the artist new questions: How do we sink into our perceptions? How do we find our way out? As with the asymptote, Ayotte doesn’t have hard, quantifiable answers. But thanks to the metaphor that struck and stuck with him, he knows exactly where to look.
The book is self-published, with the help of Edmonton Arts Council. It’s available at Hideout Distro
If you can get vaccinated before the end of summer, will you consider going on vacation?
19%In Alberta only
50%Rest of Canada
14%A far-flung adventure
10% Staying at home
This article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of Edify.