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Carol Podedworny

TOM ( ) TOM
Art Gallery of Hamilton

C Magazine #38, Summer 1993.
[ 760 words ]

Art galleries are still widely seen as the site of celebration of the 'best' or the 'latest.' They sum up. They state. But rarely, if ever, do they involve the viewer in a questioning process. It is true ... that the 'artworks' challenge assumptions or work towards 'reversing' values. But the ceremonial aspects of exhibitions themselves do no such thing.

— Louise Dompierre 'The Curatorial Question,' Euclid Theatre, Toronto, April 1991

Many cultural workers are concerned with reassessing the manner in which social and art history are constructed. Much of their practice has become that of exposing or destabilizing traditional notions of authority and the institution. Some curators are involved with the presentation of this revision in the form of exhibition theses. Yet, it is another matter to produce an exhibition that encourages a similar act of revision in the viewer. That is, however, just what Andrew Hunter has achieved in curating the group exhibition TOM ( ) TOM.

The installation comprises fourteen objects exhibited in a stairwell between galleries. The work is bracketed by two reproductions of Tom Thomson's Photograph of an Unknown Man (1916). Each photograph is accompanied by a text panel that lists the objects in the exhibition, along with a poetic text by Hunter. A canoe hangs in the stairwell, suspended from the ceiling. If you entered the exhibition from the bottom of the staircase, you would next encounter a souvenir pillow ('The Fisherman's Paradise, Burk's Falls, Ontario'). If you entered from the second floor, you would encounter a camera. Between these twin entry points, Hunter has gathered four works in oil by Thomson and three contemporary works — mixed media pieces by Gary Spearin and Ronald Wakkary and a text by Tragically Hip — that reference Thomson's influence on contemporary Canadian popular / cultural life. Through this non-traditional juxtaposition of objects and art, Hunter expresses his wish to break down the barrier that invisibly separates our life outside the museum from what we experience inside the museum — to comment on collecting, to question what exactly 'art' might be and to ponder what kind of relevance we attach to it. He has also given us a broader impression of the significance of Thomson's vision of Canada.

A poetic and inquiring text on Thomson and his work reflects Hunter's conscious decision to appear, not as an art historian or curator (an authoritative voice) but rather as a writer — as an individual writing 'with fiction.' The objects and artworks in the exhibition support this methodology. The photos of the unknown man serve both literally and conceptually to frame the installation, forming the basis for a poetic play on the history / myth of Thomson. The camera and the pillow suggest the positions from which we might consider the artworks. The camera distinguishes reality, the objective gaze and consciousness. Hunter says about the camera, 'I will rest my gaze on the works and write towards Thomson.' The camera's role is analogous to the notion of 'History as objective document.' The pillow suggests sleep, dreaming and the unconscious. Hunter writes, 'I will rest my head on this pillow and write towards Thomson.' The allusion is to objects and texts as purveyors of 'History as mythic fiction.' The canoe mimics both the physical structure of the exhibition (stretching the length of the stairwell, it provides the same context whether first seen from top or bottom) and the intellectual process of investigating the exhibition (moving through the objects / space to create a story). The act and the interpretation give us new clues towards understanding the life, death and art of Thomson.

Several speakers in the panel for 'The Curatorial Question' suggested that the main issue — next to destabilizing the canon — to be addressed by curators in the 1990s, is the staging of exhibitions. Bruce Grenville spoke about the 'performative' nature of curatorial work and the curator's disruptive role. By asking viewers to create their own representations, they will be 'faced with the recognition of the construction of that representation.' Barbara Fischer called curatorial work 'constructive,' stating that it can show meaning to be 'content-dependent rather than inherent, timeless or immutably attached to a given work.' By juxtaposing objects as he has and by writing about art and contemporary objects as he has — mindful of their placement and his contextualization of them in an art gallery — Hunter has brilliantly, if modestly, achieved what several of the panel have set as important goals.


C Magazine #38, Summer 1993.

Text: © Carol Podedworny. All rights reserved.


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