Writing Award 2009 Best Essay

1 September 2009

Essay by Karolina Wisniewski

It is an unfortunate truth that major art institutions often come across as intimidating and inaccessible, especially to newcomers. As a contemporary art gallery located on a university campus, the AGYU finds itself in a unique position. With many of its exhibitions taking on a fresh approach, free from the confines of traditional curatorial practices some larger galleries are forced (or choose) to restrain themselves to, as well as its close proximity to thousands of students on a daily basis, the AGYU is in the position to either shatter stereotypes of staleness and esotericism, or perpetuate them to a myriad of susceptible youth. Many facets of the gallery – relevant exhibition choices, user-friendly curatorial layouts, accessibility to students – have rendered its effect to be the former. The AGYU exposes the world of contemporary art, often considered inaccessible to even the most artistically inclined, in a way that does justice to the brilliant work displayed, while remaining relevant and interesting to the viewer. Doubtless there are far too many elements that go into this process to discuss all at once, but it will be the aim of this essay to examine one in particular, that is, the creation of a dialogue between the viewer and the artwork that encourages active participation and viewing. Two exhibitions from the 2008/2009 academic year will be considered – Carla Zaccagnini’s no. it is opposition. and Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins’ Project for a New American Century.

no. it is opposition. looked at the conceptions of difference and similarity, but through a complex and unfolding set of “forking paths” and “crossroads”, each introducing a point of familiarity or strangeness, respectively, in an unexpected manner. Pieces such as “Two Margins”, a double channel video displaying footage of the Atlantic Ocean filmed from Portugal and Brazil, and “On equality and difference: twin houses”, a series of photographs which presents structurally identical houses that are nonetheless varied in details that betray the subjectivity of their respective owners, embody the notion of “forking paths” – two objects which one would assume to share, in the case of these pieces, geographical or architectural identity, but are ultimately exposed as dissimilar. The “Second AGYU Lobby” and “Memory Game” embraced the similarity-difference distinction from another side – that of “crossroads”, in which a supposed similarity between two objects or ideas is proved to be absent, leaving the viewer instead with a sense of disparateness between the two entities explored. Carla’s exhibition worked and reworked the similarity-difference distinction from a seemingly countless number of levels; the very name of the exhibition itself, a palindrome, indicates the precise and thorough approach taken by the artist to ensure the exhibition worked together as a whole to communicate her vision.

It would be difficult to isolate instances of the viewer’s participation in no. it is opposition. ; the entire exhibit was an ongoing process of questioning and examining both the artwork and oneself. While guests were invited to observe degrees of similitude in various pieces of the first gallery, such as “Procedures Performed/Auto-Pilot” (in which a team of flight attendants acted out in-flight safety demonstrations), the simultaneous process of delineating minute variations within oneself had been undertaken. The replicated AGYU lobby – which undoubtedly required an immense amount of architectural precision and patience to duplicate– created a déjà vu situation, placing the guest in the context of entering the gallery for the first time. Now, of course, one had already acquired the experience of viewing a portion of the exhibit, rendering an exact replication of the moment of entering impossible, since the individual is now altered. One could not help but consider this shift within themselves in connection with pieces such as “Memory Game”, comprised of photographs of a swimming pool which were only very slightly different and, of course, given the nature of memory games, had an exact counterpart within the set of 36. Viewers were actually invited to sit down and play the game –yet another way in which the AGYU broke down barriers between the viewer and the viewed. While visiting the exhibit, the individual was not only metaphorically experiencing the two-fold interaction of similarities and differences, but literally as well, through the action of entering the replicated lobby and in viewing the pieces in the last room, which included several of the same (but different) works that had been viewed previously. The flight attendants made a second appearance, although this time, the actions were being filmed a second time and the effects of fatigue were noticeable in all participants. Not only was one’s experience of the pieces slightly altered from the first time they were seen, but the pieces themselves had undergone alterations. This two-tiered change in both the artwork and the experience of it was nonetheless overwhelmed by the sensation that one was experiencing something familiar. no. it is opposition. explored the age-old philosophical problem of not being to step into the same river twice, but it managed to do so in a way that was new and fresh, all the while maintaining integrity to the complexity of the paradox that has plagued thinkers for thousands of years. It managed to do all this with simplicity and light-heartedness that rendered it accessible to the wide variety of guests it hosted. The involvement of the individual was essential in this process, as it placed the abstract subject matter in a context readily available to everyone – themselves.

Project for a New American Century forced the viewer to actively take in the artwork, albeit differently than Carla’s exhibition. Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins drew on a torture technique employed in the Spanish Civil War in which prisoners were placed in chambers that featured disconcerting interiors inspired by surrealist art, which often took the form of op-art-like patterns on walls. Marman and Borins asked what an artist might have produced when placed in such a chamber. The first section of the exhibition was a scale-to-scale creation of the exterior of such a prison. Viewers were faced with a looming and ominous tower that dominated the entrance-way to the show. The only hint of what lied behind the uninviting walls was a small window that one had to come unsettlingly close to in order to see what was inside. The viewer then found themselves peering into one of these torture chambers – a visually stunning but dizzying exploration of op-art. The second section of the exhibit was the result of the “what if” scenario; what the artist might produce if imprisoned in a “psycho-technic torture” chamber. Guests were greeted with a sprawling sculpture piece and three abstract paintings hanging around it. In true contemporary aesthetic, the pieces were all untitled, leaving much room for interpretation.

This brings us to the element of viewer involvement. As mentioned, very little was given by way of textual guidance in Project for a New American Century, chiefly through the noticeably absent titles. Marman and Borins were able to manipulate this quality, one which often creates all the more distance between the audience and the artwork, to work to both their and the viewer’s advantage. The second section being the product of hypothetical imprisonment, and refraining from the limitation that would have resulted had titles been given, placed the viewer in the position of the artist. The first section made use of aesthetic and architectural terseness, which placed all focus on the chamber, an integral part of the ideology of the exhibition. The situation where the individual is forced to eliminate usual spatial barriers between themselves and the artwork, created by the small window and the resulting necessity to come right up to the glass, literally placed the viewer in the position of the artist; one felt as though they were inside the chamber. The effectual dwarfing of the audience by the brutalist tower further served to emphasize the notion of imprisonment and subordination. The second portion of Project for a New American Century prodded the viewer to make sense of the abstract artwork displayed, rendered all the more subjective through the act of omitting titles. In several ways, the second portion was surprising; one might have expected utter chaos to result from the madness brought on by psycho-technic torture. Instead, a sense of restraint is present, which is arguably all the more unsettling when one considers what it is exactly that is being restrained. In feeling as though one was physically inside such a torture chamber and that one was now trying to make sense of the results of that imprisonment recalled art historical precedents such as Miro and Pollock, who claimed to enter into states of automatism when creating their works. The connection between the first and second sections in terms of a cause and effect was underlain by a more abstract temporal relationship. The reference to a specific historic context, namely, the Spanish Civil War, paired with the exhibition name, leads one to consider more contemporary political issues and their connection with historical precedents. This also elicited an active response from the viewer, it connected the exhibit to current ideas in politics. Project for a New American Century explored psychological, political and art historical ideas in a way that at once imprisoned and liberated both the artist and the viewer. The creation of such ambivalence plunged the audience into an unsettling state of alertness, thereby preventing passive consumption of the work presented.

In employing a set of curatorial techniques that create an environment of psychological and physical immediacy between the audience and the artwork, the AGYU has succeeded in creating an exceptional context in which to view their exhibitions. The problematic relationship between the individual and the artwork that pervades many art institutions is arguably one of the more daunting aspects of interacting with artwork. The philosophical, aesthetic, psychological and political complexity and multi-faceted nature of the AGYU exhibits could have acted as a foil, had not extreme care and attention been paid to the creation of a dialogue between guests and the exhibits. The ultimate chasm that exists between one all objects outside of oneself – the phenomena and noumena –  is all the more pressing in the field of aesthetics, since no direct communication is often established between the foreign art object and one’s own subjective approach. Such ideas went into the creation of works which contained increasing degrees of autonomy, the culmination of which, arguably, is expressed in contemporary aesthetic ideals. Given the nature of such ideals, it is not surprising that interaction contemporary work is more often than not frustrating. However, the AGYU shows us that it need not be so. In the correct context, with proper consideration of the viewer and the genuine wish to involve them as closely and directly as possible with the artwork at hand, one finds that interaction with art is not only possible, but incredibly rewarding. Through a consistent display of innovative and interactive exhibition layouts which foster a close relationship between the guests and exhibits, the AGYU has succeeded in achieving what few galleries are able to do – display artwork of incredible depth and complexity in a way that respects the integrity of these pieces, while gracefully involving the viewer every step of the way.

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