Next month, Vancouver’s longest-running artist-run centre, the Western Front, will turn 40—an anniversary that has caused some to reflect on the trajectories of local art practices and an institution that continues to enable them.
Since the arrival of executive director Caitlin Jones in 2010, the Western Front has undergone a renaissance, attracting a new and younger audience through dynamic exhibitions, a revitalized residency program and a thoughtful activation of its archive.
This was most noticeable last year when the “service-oriented” collective Instant Coffee eschewed the centre’s traditional performance hall (the Luxe) for its exhibition space, where IC members built a Grecian-style raked theatre and hosted events—from visiting lectures to community panels to whittling sessions.
While these activities were popular among patrons, the collective’s achievement lay in reminding audiences of the artist-founders’ initial ambivalence towards the production and exhibition of art objects in favour of more ephemeral expressions (correspondence art, performance, dinners and so on). For some, Instant Coffee’s inversion of the performance and exhibition spaces was an exhumation of that history, and it is through their archaeology (inadvertent or otherwise) that their exhibition/residency, titled Feeling So Much Yet Doing So Little, can be seen as a success.
Other notable activities last year included a media arts residency that allowed Isabelle Pauwels to make and screen a new 64-minute video (LIKE…/AND, LIKE/YOU KNOW/TOTALLY/ RIGHT) that wove the demands of a teenage girl’s club, the exploits of a latex-clad dominatrix, the 1970s-era personae of three Western Front artist-landlords (Hank Bull, Glenn Lewis and Eric Metcalfe) and the building’s architecture into a harrowing tale of identity, inclusion and constraint.
Also impressive was media curator Sarah Todd’s equally braided group exhibition of Internet works “IRL,” which in September and October transcended the one-note trickery of digital technologies for an immersive installation that carried both a history of these technologies and their ongoing—and uneasy—relationship to gallery display.
Finally, the arrival of exhibitions curator Jesse Birch in January 2012 resulted in a reinvention of the centre’s literary program in the form of Scrivener’s Monthly, a “periodical that talks” where writers and artists explore the space between material practices and spoken word. In addition to that series, Birch last year mounted a neatly constructed—and ethnographically inventive—film-and-wall-work exhibition “This Is the Cow” by emerging artist Arvo Leo (David Lehman), derived from the recent Piet Zwart graduate’s passage through India.
Birch’s current exhibition is “Edible Glasses,” a group show that features the work of four younger artists—Feiko Beckers, Tamara Henderson, Eun Kyung Kim and Ieva Misevičiūté. Unlike the Or Gallery’s recent “Things’ Matter” exhibition, where the object’s agency was at the forefront, we are asked to consider not the object independent of us but, as Birch writes in his accompanying essay, “the potential of all objects to be something other than what we expect of them.” What we, as viewers, expect of these works, and what the artists have made of their constituent parts, was on my mind as I entered Birch’s exhibition.
For this show, the Western Front’s gallery is divided into two cubes by an east-west wall, with a passage linking the two spaces at the east end. In the first space are three works. Directly ahead, on a low and wide square plinth, is an element from Becker’s Merely a Part of Life (2011): an off-white ceramic vase (or is it an urn?), from which juts an outsized, arrow-pointed “handle” that causes the vessel to lean to that side. Here, we recognize not the utility of the vessel (for it is no longer a vessel), but the gravitational pull of the total composition.
Moving clockwise is Henderson’s Neon Figure (2013), a three-minute, in-camera-edited, 16mm film loop whose recurrent property is a venetian blind that opens and closes—though who is pulling on this blind (a “neon figure”?) remains unseen and might well be related to the same gravitational force that has determined the composition of the sculpture. Behind the blind (and occasionally poking through it) are piles of hay that rise and fall, a self-typing typewriter, martini glasses filled with bugs and green goop, a bowl of fruit that overturns on its own, a pair of gloves and a sunlit cobweb, all of which appear in different indoor and outdoor settings. A carnival-like score (co-composed with artist Julia Feyrer) animates the images, giving the film a surreal, Felliniesque quality.
To the right of the film is Henderson’s Pacific Peace (2013), which consists of a chaise longue, like those found in a psychologist’s office, a squiggly band of multicoloured, fabric-covered forms emanating from its side and, laid out over top, an evacuated T-shirt and pants. That the chaise looks homemade is less relevant than the clothing and the emanation that might account for the abandonment of those clothes. Has there been an out-of-body experience? Is the body’s absence the literal “body” that is responsible for the film’s unworn gloves, or indeed the body that authored the film (or for whom the film was made)? Such are the vagaries of the unconscious, where it is the objects of our dreams, and not the people who dream them, that are doing all the work.
In the second space are two works.
The first work we see is, like Beckers’s sculpture, an element of a larger composition, part of Kim’s Peacock Parade with Goddesses on Mushrooms (2013). Here, an open fan sits atop a factory-made vase decorated with fans, which sits atop an open wood-framed interior-lit structure, which sits atop a wrinkled, paint-spattered fabric base. With title in hand, I understand that the fan approximates the peacock’s plume, just as the mushrooms I did not ingest prior to visiting the exhibition might have allowed me to experience what this first “Goddess” is experiencing through her associative reconstitution of self. For here she stands, her gown underfoot, part of a parade that includes two other “lamps”—one that shares the same fan-decorated vase, but does not shine (nor have a fan lampshade); the other a fan atop a much larger purple glass vase that, like Kim’s first sculpture, is lit from within. A fourth element is a three-dimensional wall work that has a pair of two-foot wide spherical forms draped in golden fabric, with one end of the fabric touching the floor, as if to ground it. Are these the fecund “breasts” of a goddess, as the curator suggests, or merely support for a material that allows them to be “something other than what we expect of them”?
The second work in this space is the second part of Beckers’s Merely a Part of Life—a video projection involving two men. The first man enters the frame and places atop a tall narrow plinth an object similar to the one that greeted us in the first space. As with the first object, it leans towards its “handle” and smashes on the floor, a gesture that is repeated more than once (until a second man arrives to clean things up), after which he tells the story of a friend of his, a woman, who complains about her life. When he attempts to help his friend, she chastises him—and his gender—by saying he is “typical” of all men in his need to offer “solutions,” because “some problems just don’t have solutions.” From this the man deduces “If a problem does not have a solution, it is no longer a problem.” Then he proceeds to tell the story of forgetting his nephew’s birthday and, feeling bad about it, is reassured by his brother, who says, “These things happen.” From this the man reasons, “I am certainly not the person responsible for cleaning up any mess.”
In this video, what is seen and what is related to us do not sit right. Of course, the same could be said of the broken objects: they do not sit right on the plinth—but only because they are not supposed to. Here, the problem (if it is a problem) lies with our expectation of the object to behave like a work of art, to conform to historic modes of display. How the first man absolves himself from his responsibility for cleaning up that which he has instigated (broken sculptures) is an instance of a false premise leading to a true conclusion, something that, while also not sitting right with us, does not break the rules of logic, where a false premise can lead to a true conclusion.
When the Western Front was founded in 1973, it was done so by artists who, as I mentioned earlier, were at odds with the art object (interestingly enough, the centre’s first exhibition was of pottery and weaving produced at its pastoral node up the coast at Robert’s Creek, or Babyland, as it was known). However, by the late 1970s, discussions arose over those who felt the “brain” of the Western Front lay in its exhibitions program (now formalized in what was originally the building’s dining room) versus those who felt that the centre should remain molten, open to emerging mediums, or to those that had not yet been invented. Other tensions also simmered. Some of those in favour of an exhibitions-first program (Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov) left for Europe in 1981, with a resister (Glenn Lewis) eventually settling in 1987 at the Canada Council, where the Western Front was, in my understanding, considered a model artist-run centre.
Looking back, something missing in this historic discussion was a public investigation of the object that the founders and their contemporaries were so quick to dismiss. But those were the days—a time, not unlike today, of extremes, polemics, shortcuts and expediencies.
What differs now from that past, I think, at least within the remnants of an avant-garde, is a deeper, more critical interest in the processes by which we have come to draw conclusions; an interest not in ends but in means, not in objects but in practices, not in verdicts but in trials.
The work in “Edible Glasses” feels attuned to these processes, whether through time-based mediums such as film and video, or through objects that embody the transitions implicit within their construction and/or destruction. On February 23 and 26, Ieva Misevičiūté, the artist responsible for the exhibition’s title, will give a performance and host an “action workshop,” respectively. Here’s hoping that all will not be revealed.
A correction was made to this article on February 20, 2013, to clarify the title, duration and content of the Isabelle Pauwels video screened and produced at Western Front in 2012.