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The New Art Gallery of Alberta: Honour, Horror and High, High Ceilings

The new Art Gallery of Alberta / photo © Robert Lemermeyer

Alberta’s abuzz with the opening of the redesigned Art Gallery of Alberta. All opening week, Edmonton bubbled with a generous spirit and celebratory atmosphere as politicians, patrons and artists alike attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies, galas and industry parties. And celebrate we should! Los Angeles–based architect Randall Stout’s dramatic, and somewhat controversial, design is the first major visual arts infrastructure project in Alberta in decades. Spearheaded by board chair Allan Scott, lead donors John and Barbara Poole and senior gallery staff, the $88-million radical redesign and rebranding of the former Edmonton Art Gallery has clearly been a collaborative effort pursued on behalf of the broader community. For the 12,000 people who streamed in during the first few days, the new AGA is a triumph and a flagship for Alberta culture that demonstrates many Albertans have a sophisticated and deep commitment to the visual arts.

Situated at the heart of Edmonton on Sir Winston Churchill Square, the Art Gallery of Alberta adjoins the Francis Winspear Centre for Music, the civic plaza and city hall; a testament to the centrality of the arts in the life of the city. At every turn, Stout’s dynamic design and architectural program attempts to link the gallery with Edmonton’s civic life and the particularities of this place. The swirling façade and grand entrance abstracts how the North Saskatchewan River winds through Edmonton’s gridded urban core. The modern, curved stainless steel, patinated zinc exterior and glass frontage recall cool, crystal clear Edmonton nights that sometimes shimmer with the aurora borealis. The 190-metre-ribboned exterior has been designed to capture and hold Edmonton’s sparkling snow, so that it will become part of the building’s materiality and design. True to the architectural traditions of great cathedrals, the 26-metre-high grand hall stresses verticality and light. A long, brushed-concrete stair wraps around a gigantic stele of light-infused opaque glass that thrusts upwards through each level. Soft daylight filters throughout and the interior glows with warm woods. Interior swoops of burnished and white-painted steel draw our view out of the building and into the city itself. This connection to the city is also structured by panoramic views that can be seen from every level as one winds one’s way up the main stairwell to the galleries, interior lobbies, Borealis Lounge and outdoor sculpture terrace.

Although Stout’s aesthetic has been criticized for being derivative of Frank Gehry, with whom he worked for several years, Stout’s expertise in designing museums, art galleries and art schools is most evident in his considered design of interrelated event, public programming and exhibition spaces. It is clear by his design that he understands the complex program that contemporary public art museums must deliver to support an increasingly diversified range of programs and to generate income from entertainment-savvy audiences. To achieve this at the Art Gallery of Alberta, Stout creates clear divisions of space designed for their primary use, while maintaining the possibility for fluid interactions between spaces and their constituents.

On opening night, the Art Gallery of Alberta became a social hub: part nightclub and part museum, but never were the two confused. The main atrium, named Ernest Manning Hall, which also includes Zinc, the gallery’s adjacent high-end 76-seat restaurant, was bustling with social activity, but the galleries behind remained all about the art. Even with a packed house, the flow of people between the upper-level galleries and their exterior lobbies remained fluid. For easy access, the atrium, art rental and lower-level 167-person, state-of-the-art Ledcor Theatre is connected to the city via an integrated rail and pedway hub. Lower-level education spaces, with a separate street entrance, cluster in close proximity to the galleries above. Most of the Art Gallery of Alberta’s event spaces could also easily double as intermittent program spaces for performances, lectures, symposia, film and video screenings and relational contemporary artworks that are shorter in duration.

The opening roster of exhibitions demonstrates the types of international shows and corresponding partnerships that the gallery is now able to support. The Art Gallery of Alberta’s deputy director and senior curator, Catherine Crowston, worked in consultation with Degas scholar Ann Dumas from the Royal Academy in London and Joseph S. Czestochowski of International Art in Memphis to bring together 50 mainly sculptural works from 24 international collections including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Smithsonian in Washington for “Edgar Degas: Figures in Motion.” Another significant institutional partnership between the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Canada Science and Technology Museum and the Portrait Gallery of Canada resulted in “Karsh: Image Maker,” a dramatic, if perhaps overdesigned, exhibition of photographs and studio paraphernalia that tells the story of famous Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh. Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War series (1810–23, edition 1863) and Los Caprichos (1797–98, edition 1799) is the first of 10 exhibitions sponsored by Capital Power and curated from the National Gallery of Canada’s collection that will travel to the Art Gallery of Alberta during the next three years and have specific resonance with the gallery’s program direction. For instance, Crowston was interested in Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, from his Los Caprichos series, because it inspired Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s 2008 audio installation The Murder of Crows, which makes its North American debut in the expansive third-floor gallery. A second work by Cardiff and Miller, 2009’s Storm Room, was commissioned by the Art Gallery of Alberta for the RBC New Works Gallery on the second floor.

Cardiff and Miller’s return to Edmonton for these inaugural exhibitions seems entirely fitting given their long history with Alberta. Miller was born in Vegreville just east of Edmonton, and the two met while studying at the University of Alberta. Both were key figures in Lethbridge’s burgeoning art scene in the 90s, teaching at the University of Lethbridge and exhibiting extensively in Alberta and elsewhere before achieving international acclaim with the Paradise Institute at the 2001 Venice Biennale. In 1997, the Edmonton Art Gallery was first to buy one of their audio installations, To Touch. Significantly, Cardiff and Miller, who now split their time between Berlin and Grindrod, BC, built their careers in Alberta before becoming fixtures on the international scene. It’s a career trajectory that perhaps foreshadows what the Art Gallery of Alberta hopes to foster more of in the future.

Originally commissioned for the 2008 Sydney Biennale, Cardiff and Miller’s 30-minute soundscape The Murder of Crows uses the same technical process as their 2001 work Forty Part Motet, but involves over 700 separate computer-controlled tracks played back through 98 speakers, which stand in for both a murder of crows and the technology that structures our reality through sound. Unlike Forty Part Motet, where the spectator configures the score by walking from speaker to speaker or track to track, The Murder of Crows centralizes listeners in a provisional amphitheatre of folding wooden chairs. At the centre of this 75-by-25-metre audio installation, a dismembered gramophone lies on a 1940s burgundy-leather-topped card table. From it, Cardiff’s voice intermittently breathes a series of short narratives, nightmares that recall the horrors of war and man’s inhumanity to man.

These audio vignettes intermix with an electro-acoustic cinematic soundscape of violent storms, flocking crows and factory sounds that merge with a “Bohemian Rhapsody”-type aria. Anticipation builds as a marching band seems to be pushed through the space by an encroaching Russian choir that sings Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Vasily Lebedev-Kumach’s “The Sacred War”—once an anthem for Soviet patriotism, now all but drifted into folklore. Cathartic swells of chanting nuns from Thrangu Tara Abbey Kathmandu, Nepal, heighten the emotional intensity through a remarkable depth of sound, sculpting a space that sounds much larger than it is. Finally, as it often is in the movies, we are left with a paradoxically optimistic end in the form of an indie-rock ballad, The Crows Did Fly (Kathmandu Lullaby), written by George and sung by Janet, perhaps with their daughter in mind. One can almost see the credits roll as the space falls silent and listeners leave their seats to contemplate the personal cost of violence and war.

Cardiff and Miller collaborated with Berlin-based film composer Tilman Ritter and the Babelsberg Film Orchestra to compose The Murder of Crows as a requiem for the old world—a pre-9/11, pre–George Bush world where, in the artists’ estimation, “we weren’t so paranoid and things weren’t so dark.” The installation does indeed recall Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which depicts a collapsed Goya engulfed by his nightmares and surrounded by a flurry of owls and bats. Produced after a five-year bout with cholera and his resulting deafness, Los Caprichos depicts Goya’s sensory and political isolation. Los Caprichos (caprichos meaning whim or fantasy) denounced the social oppression and economic crisis of Enlightenment Spain that could easily be seen to parallel our own time. Like Goya’s etchings, Cardiff and Miller’s soundscape conjures false monsters or imagined realities that might still have the potential to transform even the most frightening of worlds at a moment when reality and fantasy seem one and the same.

The Murder of Crows is like experiencing a film without images, and it recalls Cardiff’s earlier audio walks, which she describes as film scores for physical environments. The soundscape is structured like poetry or a dreamscape, where a collage of narrative and musical tropes from a variety of genres are linked associatively through metaphor to score our imaginations. In particular, The Murder of Crows relies heavily on fairy-tale and film references—the Brothers Grimm, Apocalypse Now and Hitchcock come to mind—to conjure horror and cultivate a state of cinematic suspense. Within popular culture and particularly film, the crow’s call is both a sign of warning and a sign of mourning that foreshadows the moment when we “know something terrible is going to happen.” The suspense is real, the horror explicit, at times even humorously so because of its baroqueness and absurd combination of genres. Yet The Murder of Crows transfers real anxiety to the listener; it becomes our mirror, reverberating back to us our culture’s deepest fears and loathings.

Storm Room is a theatre set: a completely self-contained, manufactured thunderstorm for our nightmarish pleasure. Originally produced in situ for the 2009 Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial, the Art Gallery of Alberta’s Storm Room is a doppelganger of sorts as it recreates a room in an abandoned house in Doichi, Japan, where the original work was staged. Storm Room builds on the violence and theatrics of 2007’s The Killing Machine, but this haunted space is minimal. The interior, which you enter from the back, is empty save for a few domestic props: a sink, a mirror and buckets catching drips. Walls of windows sheeted by recirculated water are traced with signs of missing passages that lead nowhere. Periodically, an oscillating fan blows a ghostly band of cool air that conjures remembrances of the former occupant. Thunder claps and strobe lights flash, momentarily freezing participants in their own afterimage to become spectres themselves. It is almost impossible not to imagine someone monstrous or deranged will appear from around the corner. Perhaps you imagine a Japanese kappa, a children-eating water imp who is said to protect natural water sources. But there are no corners to turn; there isn’t anyone present except for you and the people with whom you share your fear. Storm Room cultivates your fear, and gives it back to you in the form of an entertaining experience. By extension, it makes visible the way capitalist culture cannibalizes all experience, be it natural or artificial, to repackage it for endless circulation.

Cardiff and Miller’s audio environments seem to parallel a larger shift in museums’ merging with the entertainment industry and commercial culture. In many ways, the new Art Gallery of Alberta participates in the spectacularization of the museum that we have seen recent years, with “starchitecture,” blockbusters and event-based programming designed to capture audiences who are willing to pay to have memorable experiences. To some extent, the gallery has to do this; expectation and economy demand it. It seems as if the new contemporary art museum is irrevocably tied to Joseph Pine and James Gilmore’s idea of the experience economy, an economy that relies less on the delivery of goods and services and more on the marketing and sale of experiences. Today spectators are participants who go to the museum to be seen as much as to see. Yet the Art Gallery of Alberta’s opening curatorial direction seems cautious and critical of this trend, demanding functional gallery infrastructure and producing substantive exhibitions with credible partners. From this perspective, Cardiff and Miller’s installations are a good self-critical choice for the launch of the new Art Gallery of Alberta because their experiential installations subtly critique the construction and commodification of experience through spectacle. Storm Room, in particular, flashes a haunting doppelganger of the contemporary art museum itself.

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