October 12, 2016

Testing the Boundaries of Knowledge and Perception

by Mariah Brusatore

Douglas Huebler
Variable Piece #43 (Brussels), 1974/97

Conceptual art of the late 1960s and 1970s often included photography as artists began to investigate the medium as a way to critique, symbolize or explore reality. The movement asserts that “the idea itself, even if it is not made visual, is as much of art as any finished product,” as discussed by artist Sol LeWitt in his essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967)*. As a result, photography became a unique resource; it allowed for the exploration of the connection between conceptual ideologies and their resulting art objects in a reproducible, portable and accessible manner. By examining unusual subject matter and testing the boundaries of the art-making process, viewers were also encouraged to reconsider the conception of their own interpretations.

Douglas Huebler made use of conceptual photography as a method to investigate reality by testing the boundaries of knowledge and perception. He left behind a legacy of work which explored the relationship between ideas and the variables of chance, calling into question the status of the traditional art object and art-making process. He is quoted as saying, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more. I prefer, simply, to state the existence of things in terms of time and place.”** Huebler’s work often contained two separate elements: a photograph and a descriptive text that explained the underlying concept of the image. He made use of the camera as a tool to document, however, by integrating linguistic communication with pictorial representation Huebler also placed emphasis on the idea over the visual iteration. His oeuvre shows viewers innumerable of ways to represent the visible, demonstrating how an idea or directive phrase can be endlessly realized.


Douglas Huebler
detail of Variable Piece #43 (Brussels), 1974/97

Huebler’s photographs are chance operations. They consume the spontaneous nature of reality through the inclusion of randomness and variability, containing the presence of the spur-of-the-moment. These investigations were mainly explored in two series that Huebler worked on throughout his career. Although approaching differing subject matter, both series embodied Huebler’s aesthetic and spoke to his philosophical exploration of visual representation. With the Duration Piece series, the artist explored a specific idea for each work pertaining to a certain location during a set timeframe, as exemplified in Duration Piece #5 (1969). To create the piece, the artist sought to document the locations of distinct bird calls in Central Park over the duration of ten minutes. Every time Huebler heard a different bird call, he would point his camera in the corresponding direction, photograph it and proceed to walk forward on that course until the next song was heard. At that point, he would orient himself and the camera and photograph the direction of the new noise. The final form of the work includes ten photographs of ambiguous aspects of the park and a written statement that describes the happening. In this work and akin to the rest of the series, the photographs serve as a clarification of an event within a specific time, place and location captured in situ. Huebler’s work opens up the creative process through the removal of a portion of artistic control by embracing chance and variability. The visual component of the work consequently becomes the precursor to the explored concept, a relationship which is also found in Huebler’s other series, Variable Piece.

While both series similarly incorporate text with photography, Variable Piece seeks to document the existence of every living human being rather than enacting a specific ideology. Huebler works collaboratively with the individuals in the photographs and uses the textual accompaniment to explain the specificities of the encounter, as seen in Variable Piece #43 (Brussels) (1974/97). Showing in Rennie Museum’s Summer 2016: Collected Works exhibition, the work contains four photographs of a group of smiling, gleeful, young boys. The images feature close-up shots of the neatly dressed, bright-eyed children; happiness gleams from their expressive appearances as their playful laughter is captured by the camera. They are familiarly and affectionately embracing one another, an act that mimics the intimately close shots of their faces.

Upon initial impressions of the photographs, the viewer may perceive the production of the images to be more deliberate than their spur-of-the-moment origins. Their composition and delightful subject matter look comparable to a movie still, potentially taken from an inspirational moment. The boys look comfortable in front of the camera as if to suggest the photographer is familiar with them. However, reading Huebler’s textual accompaniment reveals the underlying spontaneity and genuine gaiety of the piece. The text describes an unexpected encounter with the group of children as the artist was passing by. Even though they spoke a different language, the artist expresses how he understood the children wished to have their photographs taken. He thus responds to the “playful spirit of the boys” and pulls out his camera “simulating the ‘quick draw’ manner of the gunmen seen in Western movies…”. Complimenting the light-hearted nature of the photographs through his excitable explanation, Huebler encourages the viewer to imagine the warm, chance meeting; he inspires his audience to compare their initial perceptions of the photographs with the optimistically written narrative. As a result, it becomes clear to the viewer that there are multitudes of ways to not only create imagery but to comprehend it.

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Summer 2016
Installation View

Photography has always existed as a means to record; however, by pairing photographs with a written statement, Huebler impacts viewer’s perceptions of his documentations. The linguistic assertion is unexpectedly different from the aesthetics of the photographs, resulting in the alteration of the interpretation of the images. The artist shows that perception is malleable and the specificities of location, time or place affect personal experience much like how they affect the outcome of Huebler’s photographs. Therefore, rather than make finite conclusions, the written statement and its resulting photographs pose infinite potentials. Enacting out the concept is boundless. The artist’s practice thus confronts his audience, encouraging them to consider the images through Huebler’s lens and evaluation of the familiar within the everyday.

*LeWitt, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’. Artforum Vol.5: no.10, Summer 1967. pg. 79-83.
**Smith, ‘Douglas Huebler, 72, Conceptual Artist’. New York Times: U.S. online edition, July 17,1997.

August 31, 2016

To Reconsider the Possibilities of Image-making

by Mariah Brusatore

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Summer 2016
Rodney Graham
Fantasia Four Hands, 2002

Imagery is the main reality through which we come to know the world. Rooted historically as a mechanical recording device, the camera emerged as a tool to document; to capture the surrounding world, a fleeting moment in time, within a portable and intimate reproduction. Photography’s birth into the world and subsequent infancy can be understood as candour records or reflections. Perhaps the token origin of the medium is why we often consider the photograph to be genuine, albeit the artistic interventions that may be present.

If a photograph is staged, but appears to be natural, what does this suggest about the artistic intention? If a print has been manipulated either perceptibly with another medium, or subtly in postproduction, how does this change the way we see the work? How do multiple images within a series of photographs contribute to the overall message and aesthetic? These significant questions relate to many of the artworks within Rennie Museum’s Summer 2016: Collected Works, a group exhibition on photography.

Photography, unlike other artistic mediums, has the capacity to present fiction as fact, to suggest contrived and deliberate moments as natural ones. Artists’ imaginations or even irrationalities can be given the appearance of an objective reality, despite their staged or manipulated origins. Due to these subtle dualities, interpreting the work may be challenging, and thus encourage us to question content and context. What is presented to us within the image may, in fact, be a symbol, suggestion or reference; it may reveal to us artists’ own unique perceptions of themselves or the worlds in which they live.

Using photography to examine the self, Rodney Graham’s Fantasia Four Hands (2002) exemplifies this sentiment. Initially appearing as an inverted photograph, his diptych suggests a candid performance of two gentlemen playing a piano together. Despite these valid preliminary observations, the photographs actually contain multiple artistic interventions that bring humour and introspection into the work.

Graham, in the foreground, captures our attention with an intense, staring gaze. His dramatic hands prance upon the keys, matching the theatrical raise in his eyebrows. Donning a lighter coloured suit and glasses, the character beside Graham has similar features, but is looking intently at the instrument upon which his hands are affecting. Although only the profile of his face is shown, after a moment’s consideration, it is noticeable that both characters are in fact the artist— the photographs have been altered to include Graham playing the piano with himself. Graham, through staged manipulation, invites us to consider the interplay of these deliberate elements. Two opposing presentations of the self suggest that we could be looking at contrasting sides of the artist’s persona. Through direct eye contact, the persona in the front captures our attention and invites us into his performance. The artist appears in the spotlight of the public as a grandiose and exaggerated performer. Graham’s background persona deflects our gaze through differing body language, thus suggesting that we are encroaching on a secluded act. He is privileging us to witness the humble moment of the private self.

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Summer 2016
Installation View

The presentation of Fantasia Four Hands also emphasizes the duality of Graham’s personas. Appearing as a reflection of each other upon first impressions, the images mimic an inversion. Grasping our attention more intensely, we are thus viewing four performances by Graham’s four personas; two of which are making direct, theatrical eye contact with us. His bold expressions and dramatic playing accentuate the display of his public persona. Contributing to the satiric energy of the work, the artist’s four eyes stare attentively at us as we move.

It is as if the artist is also amplifying his shameless performance by appearing to compete against himself. The duality of personas within the photographs looks as if they could be duelling; perhaps Graham is duelling the self four times over. Deliberate and subtle inclusion of differing foot placement gives away the guise, however, revealing that the work is, in fact, two separate photographs. The artist wants us to know the images are not what they initially appear to be, he encourages us to examine the work closely and to question what we observe. Graham, alongside the other artists within the exhibition, urges us to persuade our interpretations past initial perceptions.

Inverting the subject, recontextualizing the work of another artist, or adding text are some of the ways in which the artists in Summer 2016: Collected Works challenge our readings. David Claerbout progresses the dialogue further by redefining the boundaries of photography in Dancing Couples (after: Couples at square dance, McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940) (2007). In this single channel video installation, the artist’s distinctive work skips between the confines of a still or moving image. Leaving us in a state of pensive contemplation, Claerbout’s marrying of technique and subject matter invigorates us to reconsider the possibilities of image-making.

Much like Graham’s Fantasia Four Hands, Claerbout’s work also encourages a transformation of initial insights. Spending more than just a brief moment with Dancing Couples (after: Couples at square dance, McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940) reveals a subtle movement. The artist brings the work to life by manipulating the bold lighting. He slowly shifts only the illumination. Through this action, emphasis interchanges between couples as the light gives the appearance that they are moving; they are performing. By isolating and modifying a single detail within a still scene, the once stationary tableau takes on another, three-dimensional form. Can we still consider this a photograph? As Claerbout moves us away from traditional modes of photographic reception and consumption, it becomes clear that questioning our definitions of the work is perhaps one the artist’s intentions. By challenging the boundaries of the medium, the artist is inspiring us to reconsider our own relationships to image-making; he is encouraging the artist within us all to explore the photograph.

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Summer 2016
David Claerbout
Dancing Couples (after: Couples at square dance,
McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940)
, 2007

Involving us further within his work, Claerbout creates an exclusive experience as our eyes make contact with those of the gentlemen’s. The artist invites us into their impassioned dance as our eyes connect with the gentlemen’s brief expressions of surprise. As such, Claerbout is allowing us to move into the performance ourselves, feeling the emotions and movement of those within the tableau. The artist’s gesture thus challenges the physical boundary between us and the art; we become a part of the performance. Our focus is crucial for completing the work. Graham also utilizes the gesture of the gaze with Fantasia Four Hands but unlike Claerbout’s exploration, his audacious persona reinforces a physical distance between us and the work. Graham’s presence is commanding. His eyes grasp ours from the moment we enter the room, inviting us to physically step back to absorb the zealous energy the diptych is emitting.

Both Graham’s capturing of his artistic performance and Claerbout’s art of portraying a performance dramatically move away from photography’s initiation to the world. Graham and Claerbout, as well as the other artists within the exhibition, lead us on a journey of discovery. Not only are we exploring the realms of possibility within image-making in photography, but we are also able to investigate our own relationships to art and how this affects our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us.

August 19, 2016

[Newsletter] The Art of Philanthropy

August 5, 2016

The Importance of Asking Questions

by Darya Kosilova

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Summer 2016
Louise Lawler
Twice Untitled (B/W), 2004/05
Rennie Collection - Collected Works Summer 2016
Installation view

Popular culture is dense with information and images that over-stimulate and desensitize the viewer. The result of this has us skimming through large quantities of content but only fully processing a small portion of the information. We often find ourselves turning a blind eye towards the more uncomfortable aspects of everyday life because we have been taught to screen and sift information. This leads us to ask the following questions: just because we are looking at something does that mean we are truly seeing everything it has to offer? What if what we see on the surface is only the tip of an iceberg that requires further critique and investigation? The Summer 2016: Collected Works exhibition at Rennie Museum challenges the viewer to consider the ways in which they see and interpret images. The exhibition hosts 23 artists, who take the viewer on an unusual journey through the possibilities of the photographic medium. In such a vastly growing visual culture where nothing is new or shocking, it is common for the viewer to crave intensely stimulating and loud imagery. It is, however, sometimes the things which are the most modest and slight in their form that can be the heaviest in their meaning and perception. One such work in this exhibition is Twice Untitled (B/W) (2004/05) by Louise Lawler. Much of Lawler’s photography practice is around documenting the works of other artists within the context of their physical location— whether it is a museum, a gallery, or an art collector’s home thus raising a discourse fuelled by institutional critique.

Twice Untitled (B/W), the smallest work by scale, is hung beside Marlo Pascual’s Untitled (2010), which ironically is one of the larger works in the exhibition. Despite its humble physicality, Lawler’s Twice Untitled (B/W) anchors itself conceptually as one of the most critical and thought provoking works in the show. As one leans in to investigate the black and white photograph, a simple, yet highly intentional composition is revealed. Sitting on the floor are two carefully placed frames against a white wall with their backs turned to the viewer. The only thing separating the frames from the concrete floor is a rag-like material that protects them from harm and simultaneously suggests that these are objects of value. The composition is divided directly in the middle of the horizontal plain, the top half consisting of the white wall and the bottom half taken up by the two frames and floor. The far edges of both frames are cut off from the viewers’ sight, making this photograph appear as an abstract composition upon first glance. The small labels on the back of the frames remain the only detail identifying the objects: they are photographs by Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

With Twice Untitled (B/W), Lawler denies her viewer the privilege of seeing Gonzalez-Torres’s works, but rather utilizes this instance to unveil a different kind of truth. By showing the viewer the backside of Gonzalez-Torres’s works, she is showing the “backside” of the art world; revealing to the viewer things that they may never see or hear about behind the closed doors of a museum, gallery, or an art school. An art institution will always strive to uphold the public image of their cultural capital. It is important for an art organization to be thought of as the home of intellectual knowledge and creativity that transcends the messiness of the everyday politics of life. However, below the surface lies an extremely complex web of personal, political, and financial relationships that act as the support beams for what the public experiences on a day to day basis at these institutions. In reality, not all of these relationships are as romantic in their exchange as you would expect from the creators and facilitators of culture. In 1969, the artist Takis attempted to physically remove one of his sculptures from an exhibition at MoMA in New York as protest against certain policies that the museum had at the time. His actions led to the creation of the Art Workers’ Coalition, an organization whose influence still lingers in the way the public experiences art at museums.* It is because of the AWC that today’s museum goers, for example, can attend a museum, such as the MoMA, free of charge once or twice a week. These events in the history of modern art make up for half of the driving force behind the institutional critique that Lawler addresses in Twice Untitled (B/W). The other half is rooted within the personal history of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Torres, who was openly gay, passed away in 1996 at the age of 38 from AIDS, following the AIDS related death of his partner, Ross Laycock, in 1991. The frames allude to two gravestones, memorializing their deaths.

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Summer 2016
Christopher Williams
Tenebrionidae, Asbolus Verrucosus,
Death Feigning Beetle, 1996

Just a few feet away from Twice Untitled (B/W) is Christopher Williams’ Tenebrionidae, Asbolus Verrucosus, Death Feigning Beetle (1996), which yet again engages the viewer with hidden messages and quiet happenings. Upon first glance, the work appears to be of dead insects lying on their backs. The pristine sterile environment in the photographs is reminiscent of a morgue where an autopsy would be performed. One puzzles for a moment as to what makes these dead bugs so special and deserving of our time and consideration. The viewers may not realize that what they are actually seeing is a grand performance. For the beetles are not actually dead, they’re playing possum. Similar to a great actor, the beetles convincingly stage their own death as a survival mechanism; fooling their predators into thinking they’re nothing more than an unsavory carcass. Our gluttonous consumption of images on the day-to-day has turned us into predators of visual culture. As consumers of visual culture, especially with the rise of photography based social media platforms such as Instagram, we inhale images like air. Rarely do we stop to think and ask ourselves what any of these images mean, where they come from, and what they’re trying to say. Whether it is what is heard on the news, taught in a classroom, or seen at a museum there is always further investigation that needs to be conducted. With this playful manner, Williams manages to break our clouded gaze, similar to the way our parents taught us to never judge a book by its cover, and challenges us to question everything we see at all times. Nothing is ever what it seems at first glance.

If the current exhibition at Rennie Museum can teach us one thing, it is just that: question everything because nothing is what it seems. Photography is a two-dimensional medium (with certain exceptions) but it is certainly not something that should be accepted for its face value. Behind every image captured there is meaning and intent. It is our job as viewers to then follow up with the question: why? Louise Lawler and Christopher Williams are two of the more cryptic artists to decipher but, rest assured, not a single work in the Summer 2016: Collected Works exhibition will surrender its meaning upon first glance.

*Rochette, Anne and Wade Saunders. “Takis”. artinamerica.com. Art In America, 04 May. 2015. Web.

June 14, 2016

[Newsletter] New Rennie Collection Exhibition Summer 2016: Collected Works

April 15, 2016

Will a Motherfucker Ever Die?

by Karina Hjort

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Winter 2015
John Baldessari
Camel (Albino) Contemplating Needle (Large), 2013

Gesture and political impact throughout history are at the core of the themes explored in Rennie Museum’s current Winter 2015/2016: Collected Works exhibition. While their practices are diverse, the 41 artists featured in the show have a few things in common: they all ask questions about what life has shown them. They don’t accuse, rather, they tell stories. They do not propose an answer to the issues but tell what they see. Trying to get an overview of all of the works can be overwhelming. Looking at each work separately, one realizes that the works comment on our everyday life and how we treat each other. Above all, the exhibition sparks a conversation that each visitor can continue after leaving the museum.

Entering the museum, one is struck by an odd cityscape: a large white camel. It is by John Baldassari, Camel (Albino) Contemplating Needle (Large) (2013). Following the camel, we find a more familiar set of objects: two light boxes that glow like an adver-tisement at a bus stop. Dating 2003, the two light boxes make up one work. A similar artwork, this time in the form of a mirror, hangs beside them in the corner of the room. Both artworks made by Jota Castro, a French-Peruvian artist, and share the same title: Motherfuckers Never Die. On each of the works, there is a list of names that we may not immediately contextualize. Further research shows that one light box lists successful corporations and their CEOs, the other lists a set of names involved in terrorism, and the mirror has a list of prominent art collectors.

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Winter 2015
Jota Castro
Motherfuckers Never Die, 2008

So why put names on a list? Why light boxes? These are the first thoughts that come to mind when viewing Motherfuckers Never Die (2003). Light boxes are already widely displayed in the city. They are most commonly placed at transit stops or metro stations for commercial purposes. The strong light from these boxes efface everything around them. It draws the attention to the “product” on display. Light boxes glow with pride, begging to be noticed at every hour of the day. So what is Castro trying to sell us? It is unclear. Here, the product seems to be a set of names with the title Motherfuckers Never Die, which is not something one comes across every day. The strong light also reminds us of a movie screen, whose purpose is to keep our attention. The list can also be compared to film credits, which shows all the people involved in a production. Being credited is a way of being memorialized: your name will always exist on that list. If we see a great movie, we remember it. We might forget the names of the actors, producers, or directors, but not the title of the film. The same goes for Castro’s names. These people will be remembered forever, perhaps not by name but through their actions.

The black light box is a great example of how people are remembered for their actions. The top part of the list consists of people involved in the Israeli/Palestine conflict, many of whom were involved in bombings. Following these names are those in-volved in terrorist acts against the US, including the 1993 World Trade Centre bombers and the 9/11 hijackers. At the bottom of the black light box, it says “To Be Continued”. This phrase reminds us that a terrorist is either jailed or will die through his or her ac-tions. Therefore, new recruitments are necessary for that list to be maintained. Since 2003, many names could have been added to that list.

The purple light box is a list of companies who produce consumer goods. The familiar names span from Walmart, Exxon-Mobile, General Motors, General Electric, Siemens to AOL Time Warner. It is striking how much the list looks like Fortune Global 500, a list published every year. When compared to the Fortune 500 list, it is interesting to note that Castro’s list does not include insurance and financial groups, which he might have added if the work had been completed following the 2008 market crash. Since 2003, some of the listed CEOs are still in their seat, some have retired and some have been fired for various reasons. But the companies Castro has represented are still amongst the highest grossing organizations in the world.

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Winter 2015

Jota Castro
Motherfuckers Never Die, 2003

Castro has chosen to use the official typeface of the United Nations, which has a resemblance to the widely used Arial typeface. The choice of typeface connects these lists to every country in the world, because everyone is affected by the decisions made by the UN. In theory, the UN is supposed to be a positive influence on all of us. But are they? And are we aware of how many decisions they take each and every day to try and “help” us? Does it matter? Castro’s works makes us consider that the decisions made by each of the named individuals are global in scale, and therefore affect all of us.

Motherfuckers Never Die (2003) may use a product advertising format, but the work has a strong political undertone. Castro himself has said about the works: “These light boxes list the names of personalities that I especially loathe. Since there exists no official definition of what a “Motherfucker” is, the list is therefore very personal.” * Even though Castro might say the lists are personal to him, these works become personal to us as well— most of us are familiar with the actions of these people. Castro reminds us that motherfuckers never die, because someone is always ready to take their place. His focus sheds light on an extensive subject matter that we might not notice in our daily life. Showing us his opinion does not provide any solution. Castro urges us to start asking questions that will create change. The change starts with you and me.

*Sans, Jerome and Frederic Grossi, eds. Jota Castro. Paris: Paris Musees, 2005. Print.

March 29, 2016

[Newsletter] Exhibition Extended Through May! Winter 2015/2016: Collected Works

March 8, 2016

Displaced: finding ‘here’ among the chaos

by Whitney Brennan

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Winter 2015
Installation view

In the Rennie Museum’s current exhibition, curated around the theme of chaos, there’s a sense of continuous conversation; of bringing together different experiences, perspectives and artistic voices. The viewer is instantly overwhelmed and confronted with the issues that lie beneath our everyday. The exhibition includes 41 artists from just as many contexts, making it difficult to distil the works into one single concept or thematic thread. The artworks seem to connect to one another through the creation of a conversation in the museum space. Rather than simply hosting the works, the walls, plinths, and floor space become the instigators of a dialogue, both between its spectators and between each work. The works speak to issues and injustices from across the world. Chaos becomes the most appropriate term, and rightly so. The works form a dialogue that speaks to the chaos that surrounds and connects us all. This was the first exhibition curated by collection principal Bob Rennie, and the first to include such a long list of artists. Along with provoking topics, the works also speak to Rennie’s own prerogative in collecting art. The collection’s themes of injustice, appropriation, identity and social issues have never been clearer.

Walking past John Baldesarri’s imposing sculpture of Camel (Albino) Contemplating Needle (Large) (2013), we see the glow from a large, neon work from the end of the hallway, leading to the back of the museum. Visually disorienting, it isn’t initially obvious what the shattered words say. Fragments and partial letters are sprayed across the black wall, as if an intact neon sign had been dropped from above. Half-blinded from the intensity of the lights, we can just make out Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan’s piece I Belong Here (Exploded) (2011). The work brings together issues of belonging and the constant question of who belongs where, when the ‘who’ and the ‘here’ are not always certain or necessarily defined. Suddenly, we’re reading the phrase two ways; declaring our own right to belong, and acknowledging the right of others. We’re also made to question the ‘here’ the work speaks to. Where is here? Is it Vancouver, or Chinatown, or the museum, or a larger, more global context? As Strachan emphasizes, our conception of ‘here’ is in constant flux. Notions of displacement and migration are brought to the surface, and in the current refugee crisis, have a particularly affective significance. The shattered neon phrase, made of tens of feet of convoluted neon tubing on a black wall, works doubly as illustrating the visually ‘exploded’ words, and also representing the diverse structures and properties of glass itself. Glass itself has a duality, a potential strength or breakability. Similarly precarious, a person’s strong sense of ‘here’ can be uprooted by forces beyond their control, and become a place where they may never return. The materiality of glass reflects Strachan’s issue with the word ‘here’; its ability to feel certain or concrete, or look solid and bright, and yet its political fragility, like the delicate material of the glass surrounding the neon. In this way, Strachan is commenting on the internal fragmentation, or dislocation that occurs when one migrates far from home: the feeling of existing with and without oneself, feeling incomplete and yet whole. Without having experienced a long-distance migration or displacement, it is hard to conceptualize the feeling of needing home when it perhaps no longer exists, or you are unable to go back. This migratory sentiment is what informs Strachan’s practice as a Bahamian immigrant now living in New York. His work often ties together seemingly disconnected geographies and contexts, like his 16-piece contribution to the 2013 Venice Biennale, which drew together Nassau, Venice and the North Pole. In an interview for his Biennale exhibition he said, “I’m fascinated by the idea of being in two or more places at once, and exploring difference that way,”* and that is no less true about I Belong Here (Exploded). While not overtly political, the work functions as a call to arms to claim our space in the world and to acknowledge the right of others to belong as well. It also points out the problematic nature of dualities; thinking of here and there, you and I, light and dark, black and white as separate, irreconcilable concepts that keep the world divided. Looking at the contrast of the neon against the black background, the stark illumination that sheds light on issues faced by migratory populations, we’re left questioning how long we’ve been standing in the dark, blind to issues outside our own ‘here’.

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Winter 2015
Dan Halter
When the Bag Tears the Shoulder Gets a Rest, 2011

Strachan’s work speaks to a number of other works in the exhibition, perhaps none as appropriately as the piece in closest proximity, Zimbabwean artist Dan Halter’s When the Bag Tears the Shoulder Gets a Rest (2011). Halter currently lives in South Africa, and draws his inspiration and materials from his current home as well as his birthplace of Zimbabwe. This piece is one of many works Halter constructed out of large checkered-patterned, woven plastic bags. Worn and tattered, the bags seem to hold a visceral history, a broken past that left them discarded and destroyed. The title is written in embroidered lettering on the bag’s front, blending in with the fabric’s gridded pattern. Drawing on his own background, and his own experience as a refugee fleeing civil war in the 1990s, Halter’s piece speaks of the same internal dissolution of identity and sense of belonging that Strachan examines. The bag is often used by refugees or people who have to “travel with a lot of luggage in a hurry”**. . He employs the language of craft and curio, examining issues in a fine art context, and using familiar objects and fabrics to bring attention to larger issues. His particular interest in materials that are ubiquitous to South Africa, and to Zimbabwe, reflects the frayed relationship he has to a place that has been devastated by civil war, and a home he can never return to. Like his own past of fleeing a war-torn country, the bag’s own fabric is a fragmented version of its former self. Many visitors have commented on the bag’s damage as a symbolism of the torn or broken spirits of those experiencing isolation and degradation as refugees. Others have noted that while the bag in Halter’s context comes from South Africa and Zimbabwe, the bags are seen all over the world. Many recognize them from their own neighbourhoods or everyday uses. This familiarity is a focal aspect in Halter’s work. Using common, intimate materials to discuss broader political issues, it brings the problem very close to home. What happened to this bag when it was taken from its home could just as easily happen here, it seems to say. Although the bags are mass produced, factory-made objects, their recognisability is undeniable.

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Winter 2015
Hank Willis Thomas
Intentionally Left Blanc, 2012

The feeling of being displaced is persistent throughout the exhibition. Each room brings up issues of racial discrimination, terror bombings, and the prejudice of language that doesn’t always tell the entire story. This disorientation appears to be an intentional consequence of exhibiting such a global diversity of artists together. As a viewer, your own perspectives are brought into question, as well as values and how cultural backgrounds and learned histories construct our existence in the world. With the works of Hank Willis Thomas, Brian Jungen, Kerry James Marshall, Mircea Cantor, Rashid Johnson, and the many others who question our place and our perceptions of the world, we are left feeling like there’s been a world of chaos we haven’t been seeing properly, if at all. We’re left discombobulated, dissected, and unbound from a sense of a cohesive world we thought we’d understood. Tavares Strachan and Dan Halter give us a glimpse into the fragility of human existence. Their stories echo through the exhibition, and resonate with many of the museum’s visitors. The Winter 2015/2016: Collected Works exhibition brings our own place in the world to the fore, and in doing so, allows for a change of perspective, a different vantage point from which to assess the chaos that surrounds us all.

* Viveros-Fauné, Christian. Interview with Tavares Strachan. Art Review. 2013. Web.
** Mansfield, Susan. “Art in the Bag”, September 28, 2010. The Scotsman.

January 14, 2016

[Newsletter] New Rennie Collection Exhibition: Winter 2015/2016

December 16, 2015

Lara Favaretto’s Rich Arte Povera

by Abbey Hopkins

FIAT Nuova 500
(image source: Wikimedia Commons)

As an artist working out of Turin, Italy, Lara Favaretto creates artwork that relates to the cultural history of Turin while maintaining global significance. This is due in part to her material reference to arte povera, an art Italian movement, and to her usage of industrial materials specifically found in Turin. Her artwork navigates a post-war world, where ideas of the global and local are constantly clashing, creating a specific need for local histories to be preserved while maintaining relevance on a global scale. As art historian Courtney J. Martin outlined in her public talk at the Wing Sang building in July 2015, while Favaretto’s Italian art historical importance may be easily skimmed over by those unfamiliar with its references, her work remains inherently Italian. The exhibited works at Lara Favaretto: Selected Works reveal the link between Italian art history and Favaretto’s use of materials. When talking about arte povera, a quick history of post World War II Turin is useful to contextualize the historical and cultural societal changes occurring at this time. Turin is located in northern Italy and has had a unique cultural history. Following World War II, Italy went through what is called the miracolo italiano, or the Italian miracle, a period of rapid industrialization and subsequent economic growth. The industrial north of the country saw mass migration from the poorer southern regions. Consumerism was promoted and accessible to all, as indicated by the introduction of the FIAT 500, an automobile considered universally affordable to the middle classes. Made in Turin, these automobiles provided a strong industry for the working class.

By the 1960s however, this economic boom began to cool down, and social tensions were rising. Student and worker uprisings around Europe at the end of the decade made for a sceptical atmosphere. General questioning of innovation and economic progress led to the critique of bourgeoisie lifestyles within capitalism and leftist social theory was circulating and spreading in academia. Artists who were familiar with social theory began to employ critical thought to their artistic practices, which resulted in the formulation of many conceptual art practices. At this point, Italian artists would have seen the preeminent art movements, namely pop art and minimalism, through art fairs and biennales. They critiqued the privilege that pop art gave to consumerist imagery, as well as the favouring of form by minimalism. Interested in more organic and humble materials, artists such as Pino Pascali, Alighiero Boetti, Jannis Kounellis and critic Germano Celant began exploring artistic ideologies that would eventually become classified as the arte povera movement. Arte povera directly translates to “poor art”. With our English associations and assumptions, ‘poor’ may denote a use of ‘poor’ materials—a sociological critique of consumer culture, but Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev defines it as, “the concept of impoverishing each person’s experience of the world; this implies gradually freeing one’s consciousness from layers of ideological and theoretical preconceptions as well as from the norms and the rules of the language of representation and fiction”*.

Arte povera’s mandate is often also attributed to Germano Celant’s 1968 manifesto in the then-newly developed FlashArt magazine, however, there was never a cohesive group operating self-consciously under the name “Arte Povera”. Arte povera was, in essence, a freeing from convention: working with post-structuralist thought, semiology and sociological theory while maintaining sensitivity to artistic practice. An historical survey of arte povera artworks reveals that the body of work is largely heterogeneous; there are no discernible traits that define an artwork as arte povera.

Lara Favaretto - Twistle, 2003

Lara Favaretto
Twistle, 2003

One can see the influence of arte povera on the works currently exhibited at the Wing Sang building, starting with the most awe-striking artwork Coppie Semplici/Simple Couples (2009). Installed in pairs, these bright and cheerful carwash brushes spin in a dance with each other, evoking personalities in each brush. Even the use of the word “couples” in the artwork’s title points to a humanistic characteristic in each of these upright brushes. As one visitor mentioned, their beauty and splendour distracts you from the filth upon the brushes’ edges. As they spin, the plume of each brush enlarges, conveying emotion and personality. Comparable to human couples, some spin with equality, while some seem to momentarily outshine the other, eventually balancing each other out while they dance in tandem. Besides their personalities, these carwash brushes are also indicative of Lara Favaretto’s Turin home base. Turin, as previously mentioned, is the home of FIAT automakers. FIAT remains an important cultural motif for Turin’s culture, especially during the period in which arte povera emerged. By utilizing such signifier and by evoking distinct personalities, Favaretto subtly acknowledges Turin’s artistic and industrial history.

Twistle (2003) is another example of a nod to arte povera, this time achieved through the scale and physicality of the work. Standing at the rear of the first floor gallery, Twistle is a compressed air tank that continually inflates a party favour between unpredictable intervals of time, until the air tank is depleted. The initial response of viewers indicates that they are startled by the sudden inflation. This response is usually followed by a cathartic giggle acknowledging the absurdity of the object. The tank stands at average human height, while the pressure gages, valve, and party favour make up an unmistakable face-form at the top of the object. Favaretto creates empathy towards this object: her lone partier, militantly celebrating onwards on our behalf. This object continues its designated gesture until the nitrogen in the tank runs out, literally exhausting itself from a mechanical process. It is easy to observe the link between the assembly line work that flourished during industrialization and this mechanical humanoid figure. Its humanoid appearance grounds the industrial object in a position of empathy.

Pino Pascali
1 Metro Cubo di Terra, 1967

(image source: MANYBITS on flickr)

The heterogeneity of the works associated with the arte povera movement is also present in Lara Favaretto: Collected Works. The stoic gray confetti cubes of Village of the Damned (2014) lack the empathy that Coppie Semplici/Simple Couples and Twistle evoke in their viewers. These cubes, however, are still linked to arte povera in terms of their material. Favaretto also indicates Italian cultural values by using the celebratory material of confetti: “confetti” is an Italian word. Favaretto pays homage to her heritage by importing the confetti used in most of her artworks from Turin. Furthermore, Village of the Damned can be understood better when compared to the work of Pino Pascali, an influential arte povera artist. Titled 1 Metro Cubo di Terra (1967), Pascali’s cubes are constructed from sod and earth. The work may be seen as a jab at minimalist artist Donald Judd’s polished metal cubes. Pascali and Favaretto’s cubes employ the same minimal language in the cubes, yet they differ in their materiality, which is a distinct arte povera characteristic. Their cubes are ephemeral in their nature; set to disintegrate and decompose. Although made from fragmented pieces, both 1 Metro Cubo di Terra and Village of the Damned are sturdier than they appear and hold their form through the duration of installation.

After months of experiencing Favaretto’s work, it is apparent that her artwork can be approached through many different readings. It is full of intricacies. With careful attention and consideration, a more personal understanding reveals itself. Her artwork demonstrates how materiality and context can come together to help viewers gain a better understanding of contemporary Italian culture, subtly telling us a story of a culture often overlooked by North American audiences.

*Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn. “Introduction.” Arte Povera. 2nd ed. London: Phaidon, 1999. Page 26. Print.

For further reading:
Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn. Arte Povera. 2nd ed. London: Phaidon, 1999. Print.