Tuesday 8 November 2016


     I should begin by apologizing for posting this blog so late.  I was held up by a bad cold.  Two of the exhibits have already been changed.  However I will go ahead and post the blog as I originally wrote it on October 25 2016. 
     Is our  Art disposable?  Is anything that we create nowadays built to last at all or even to be taken seriously for very long?  That is the question I was asking myself as I came away from the three exhibits that are currently on display at NAC. 

     The most striking and immediately accessible one is in the window of NAC and takes up the whole window.  It consists if interesting, grotesque looking hand puppets, at least thirty of them, all different.  Most of them are arranged in three tiers on one side of the window, all gazing in the same direction and forming an audience.  They are looking, with wooden fixed expressions, at a terrifying scene that is taking place on the far sider of the window.  A huge monster is griping a helpless puppet in preparation for destruction, while observed by two other puppets, one male and wearing a white jacket, obviously a doctor, and the other a terrified female, presumably his assistant.

     The whole thing has been constructed and put together with a great deal of care and skill and is easy to appreciate as Halloween entertainment, but it is on show longer than that and will be replaced by similar exhibits by the same group of artists.  None of all this will last forever, but, as the French say, nothing lasts like what is temporary.  Perhaps this is actually the least disposable exhibit, the one that best accommodates traditional aesthetic criteria, even though made of perishable materials.

     As we advance into the Dennis Tourbin gallery, we are faced with a spectacle that initially seems quite dull and normal but is in fact disquieting.  The walls are hung with framed photographs from the St. Catharines Museum of public buildings, most of which used to form the architectural background to our lives but are no longer with us.  They were designed with some care by respected architects but have been replaced with buildings that are roomier and more convenient but not remarkable to look at.  There has been quite a drastic change in our streetscape but I doubt whether anyone outside the St. Catharines Museum has really noticed it.  I know I haven't.  Buildings used to be constructed once upon a time with an eye to beauty and durability, like the Parthenon and the medieval cathedrals, but this is no longer the case. 

     Coming to the third gallery, which is habitually more offbeat, I found myself face to0 face with conceptual art.  I had only heard about it before.  For instance, I had heard about an artist who exhibited elephant dung to show his disdain for all previous art.  A museum bought it in order to fulfill its obligation to record all trends in modern art but then became concerned about how to preserve it.  This paradoxical dilemma shows that the curators have not really understood what they were investing in.  In conceptual art it is the idea that counts, to the exclusion of any visible, tactile or audible phenomenon to which it is temporarily attached.

     The exhibit in question is called "Twenty-three Days at Sea."  It was commissioned by Access Gallery of Vancouver acting in partnership with the Burrard Arts Foundation and the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver.  It wished to support four young artists in residence but was deterred by housing prices in Vancouver.  Consequently it sent them on a twenty-three day sea voyage, each in a separate container ship, from Vancouver to Shanghai.  They had instructions to record their impressions, knowing this would be difficult as container ships are so much more anonymous than merchant vessels used to be.  In an earlier age the artist would have brought back detailed journals and albums.  As things were, they brought back a log book, lists, videos, recordings, barely visible photographic prints and small wooden models.  The small wooden models are the most tangible and creative items, but the other items tend to represent the absence of any Romantic value in this sea trade. 

     This kind of art the Access Gallery's curator calls "emergent," that is, rising from the depths but not yet completely in view.  I can in fact grasp the idea and can imagine doing this kind of thing myself.  I can imagine setting out on a sea voyage with twenty-four empty jam jars attached to pieces of string.  A jam jar would be lowered into the sea on twenty-three consecutive days and its contents carefully preserved.  The twenty-fourth jam jar would remain empty to embody the idea of the project.  When I got back to a galley I would set up a series of microscopes where people would analyze the sea water to enter into the spirit of the voyage. 

     What would emerge would be their reactions in response to my reactions rather than anything strictly tangible, although they might form a feeling for the sea.  It would be a new sensation, quite different from anything previously considered art, which would make it conceptual.  It might be quite fun as a conceptual experiment.  But, speaking personally, the idea makes me sad.  This art is so disposable that it makes me feel that our very humanity is disposable too.

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