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William Wood

How We See What We Say [1986] [Rudi Fuchs,General Idea, Murray Favro, Susan Schelle, Louise Noguchi, Renée Van Halm, and Michael Snow]
Art Gallery at Harbourfront, Toronto

C Magazine #10, Summer 1986.
[ 2,278 words ]


I feel that the time one can show contemporary art in makeshift spaces, converted factories and so on, is over. Art is a noble achievement and it should be handled with dignity and respect. Therefore we have finally built real walls.

— R. H. Fuchs, 1982, in a promotional appearance for Documenta 7

If walls are needed, they will be walls, not partitions, and their existence will be contingent upon their specific purpose.

— Ian Carr-Harris, 1986, in the catalogue How We See What We Say

Curating originates in an ecclesiastical setting, as the activity of healing souls and managing the religious life of a parish. That it later achieved the nomination for managerial roles in conserving and selecting museum and other collections displays a lingering pastoral tendency not to be dismissed when considering the solecism of the 'independent curator'. For, if the museum curator is responsive to a given grouping, an 'organic collection' of artifacts residing in the storage of a specific institution, the independent is like a friar wandering in the 'museum without walls', working to soothe the souls of art works left preterite while others are elected and hoping to win places in the afterworld for all, including himself.

Ian Carr-Harris's curation of this exhibition deserves to be seen as a variation on this sort of mission. In his catalogue essay he attempts to address the heresies of the established mode of curation, deliberating upon the secular nature of the enterprise, elaborating on how the art becomes 'mere evidence', the artist an isolated 'hero', the curator a manipulative 'impresario' operating in an 'illegitimately neutral space'. All of these allegations would seem to require extensive discourse, but it is in the missionary and 'specific' position of the independent that they find their answer; for this can be solved by sight, by eliding our sense of the noble with the space and the texts he has provided in service to a higher calling. The art will 'speak' itself, the artist will retreat to an audio commentary, the curator will reside in a 'specific position', and the space will be emptied. To this end Carr-Harris has had constructed the 'real walls' of Rudi Fuchs so that the artwork is installed within its box, unseen by the others and integral to its allotted space. We might visit the first irony of this exhibition in this architectural folly: Carr-Harris travels from the museum without walls to a temporary site fitted to mimic the museum's solidarity — ordering walls that are not structural but contingent — and inevitably engages the underlying text of contingency in forgetfulness and mincing gesture. Add to this the textual field of the printed and recorded catalogues that occlude the works with inspirational meditations in order to encourage the pilgrims along the exhibition's paths. The entire passes under a whimsical title that slides confusedly into the vernacular — for 'we' never discover who 'we' are in the maze constructed, a maze of language and occasion, so our speech eludes our eyes and the two can only obtain cursory agreement.

The result is perhaps one of the oddest concoctions recently witnessed in this area. The works displayed are good (but not great) pieces by, in the main, established artists. Gone are the times of makeshift spaces for them, as a careful reading of the labels will attest. Six of eight are represented by significant commercial galleries; half of the works are previously elected, stored in the collections of major institutions. But here, in this setting, they are healed into a new life contained within their enclosures, on display to a public larger than the institutions that demand tithing at the door, far more public than those who saw them in their original presentations behind the commercial name. For this is Harbourfront, the optimum blend of idle leisure and idle consumption, packed with touristic glee and Sunday boredom, soon to be inhabited by condominium dwellers eager to inspire their empty spaces. Yet, with the public in mind, Carr-Harris has given them what they need — a quick break into an insulated private experience, using architectural eccentricity to fuel both a sense of the dignity of autonomous individuality and a lingering expectation that the walls will come down and clear sight prevail.

In one sense this presentation stands as a vigil for the individual — an acknowledgement that it is impossible to concentrate on objects in these times as images get in the way. From another vantage, one afforded by being content with semiotic interference, the solution seems simplistic and overbearing, for it announces that to see art is to know art so long as the spectator is controlled by specifics, by the bottom line of phenomenology, by a clarity and honesty that is taught by repetition and appeals to the solemnity of the proceedings. The art is placed within the walls as if it were too fragile to touch the air, as if uncontrollable neglect would erupt if mistakes were made and specifics were cast away in pursuit of interpretive irreverence. The catalogue claims that its goals are to 'demonstrate that art works are conversational, and that ideas are passionate'; as it stands the works silently brood in their cells, provoking fiery thoughts merely in the minds of the insurance men who raised the rates because of the multiplied walls.

That is the devil of the entire exhibit. The works are appealing, but there is nothing to keep them in the spectators' mind because the walls impede. The work that most completely achieves its aim is General Idea's Snowbirds: a Public Sculpture for the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion. For, contrary to Carr-Harris's containment policy (and perhaps as an ironic display of its ineffectuality), hung from the ceiling in the hall outside the gallery this work finds a most pleasant site within an expanding space. With the glass walls of a garage door assembly to bring in the wonders of the controlled nature of a reclaimed lakebed, GI's plastic bottles shaped into a craft-class's impression of a flock of birds find an equivalent to their model in the Eaton Centre not many blocks away. Not only do they float in a shallow atrium of disabused industrial appropriation, but they also directly relate to where the birds fly out in this part of the world — the lake, with its contaminants resembling the bottles' chemical composition. Michael Snow is put as far away as possible from the work he most directly inspired, in a dark corner near the craft studios, with Waiting Room, a work admirable for its simulating qualities but minor in conceit and force. It subsides with Murray Favro's Still Life, as both are instances of momentary fascination, works that consider composition as an interrogative and stand as supplements to other pieces in œuvres of length and distinction. Favro is one artist, and Susan Schelle is another, who fits quite comfortably into the isolated containers of the exhibition for these works require specific lighting conditions to facilitate their slide projections. One only wishes that this kind of specificity ruled all of the curatorial decisions.

As to works ill served by the architecture, Louise Noguchi's Three Dreams of Blood and Renée Van Halm's piece are recalled from the memory palace. Noguchi's bowl of ritual sacrifice comes to resemble the evidential museum object when it is encroached upon by walls — the doorway one slides through to see the piece obstructs like a glass case smacking of decontextual fetishization. The white enclosure sucks the fumes of oil emanating off the bowl up to a never-never land of blissful memory, while the work suggests the use of the bowl again as a receptacle for atavistic spillage. Shorn of the drawings that usually surround her installations, Noguchi is reduced to a sham shaman peddling dried blood instead of effective elixirs. Van Halm's work is oppositely hampered because its freestanding stature is compromised by the addition of another wall. No theatre would suffer further arches to replicate the proscenium; the stage then becomes shown up as doubled illusion and the action as exclusively predetermined — undermining the anti-climax of Anticipating the Eventual Emergence of Form.

These objections bring in outside voices, voices of presentation and memory that deny the singularity of the encounter provided. Carr-Harris intended to isolate the work so that it would ventriloquize for itself, projecting its voice into my mind much as the lakebed and Ann Murray infects my consideration of Snowbirds. That the context does more than the work, that I spent more time trying to read the titles on the book covers projected on the table in Still Life than in considering its relation to a given theme, is a fault of being secular and a fault of the theme.

The theme anatomized is the relation of art and nature, and one could go far to pick a thornier problem to deal with in eight art works and several thousand words. Snow's piece sums up the difficulties in its photographic representation of a 'natural' space; a cardboard model of a room that the camera can only see as 'real'. This simulation, patched together with tape, is combined with a ridiculously schematized projector of moving pictures outside the photograph's frame. Carr-Harris ascribes to this work an objective in 'pure' structure, but I surmise insidious processes of impurity at work in Snow's dissimulative picturing and framing. Both the photograph as a technique and its simulation as an effect concur with the social production of representations — a series of processes that has yet to become structurally coherent even after being elaborately analysed as such. The links between our perception of representations and the processes of projection and. transference of such representations have not been dealt with to a point where the title of this exhibition could obtain currency. There is no identifiable 'seeing' that can take place, no matter how small the room; there is no conception of how art functions outside of experience, nor any proof of why that experience should be stubbornly narrowed. What we see is not what art works see — God willing so many faces and anonymous hands will not direct their gaze and touch upon me — nor is what we say what they say. They stand as memorials to speech unprepared and undelivered, resistant to the instrumentality of verbal speech even as they absorb it into their fabric and prompt language as response. To feign otherwise and give them voice is to enfold them in a strategy that seeks control above all — the control of the space of viewing, the managing of a collection 'inorganically' assembled, the pursuit of a public that would agreeably respond to such control in the name of appreciation.

But I see that I take this all too seriously. Perhaps I missed the point in the art and nature theme — Carr-Harris could be intimating that art works are beasts that need to be contained in zoos to prevent interbreeding and nasty territorial battles. We have seen enough of those activities in the salon style shows presented as 'Monumenta' and the 'New City of Sculpture', but in those cases it was informal as a cockfight and as bloodless as foppish slapping. My contention is that many of the art works being made here are far more civil and well behaved than we should like. And, as with any overly mannered creation, they become affected when encounter at close quarters is forced. That the museum sedates their cleverness and the cant of the critical and curatorial intelligentsia makes them sound like bad company is a splendid point to address, but this exhibit incorporates these ills as if there were a duty to reflect the worst.

Conceiving of the artwork as a unitary and propositional entity knits directly into the network of commentary and collectability that structurally upholds the pastoral arenas Carr-Harris is attempting to critique. Like any good parishioner the work then becomes the focus of coercive violence in search of greater fidelity to inquiring authority; it becomes subject to confession and disclosure in a manner that gives it over to language exclusively. In going the distance of making the maze-like walls of this coercive network apparent, in making contingent the 'real walls' that Fuchs et al. wish to encompass the notion of art, Carr-Harris has displayed a bathetic sense of dependence upon an imaginary museum of impeccable human behavior. It would hard to agree more fully with his distinction between 'empty' and 'neutral' here, because it is the legislative legitimacy of the empty that suffocates the works. This exhibit shows an over-weaning dependence upon the circulations of discourse and currency that an upwardly glancing art community wishes to sustain, suggesting, if only very quietly, that there is nothing 'in' independence. We are dealing not with backs against the wall, but those within a set of walls; we are heading back to class, back to prayer, back to your cage...


C Magazine #10, Summer 1986.

Text: © William Wood. All rights reserved.

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