Guest curator Klara Manhal’s “Things’ Matter” at Or Gallery sets up a curious intersection of exhibition-making and institutional reflection. This spring, Manhal will graduate from UBC’s critical and curatorial studies program into the world’s youngest profession, while Or Gallery, a historically important artist-run centre, will turn 30. Although “Things’ Matter” is the focus of this review, what is raised by Manhal’s exhibition essay, and by the works on display, could extend to the gallery in which the exhibition is mounted.
“Things’ Matter” includes the work of four artists—Michael Drebert, Heather Passmore, Kika Thorne and Jen Weih—who have been gathered together in an effort to identify what Manhal describes as “a momentary shift in human perception, when a seemingly passive object becomes an animate nonhuman subject with the ability to act and produce effects both grand and subtle.” An unusual proposition, to be sure, but one that is inevitable after years of post-structuralist thought, when the discussion concerning the relationship between reader and text now verges on the paranormal. Can we attribute a subjective position to that which lacks the ability to generate or receive sensation?
Jane Bennett seems to think so. To begin her exhibition essay, Manhal quotes from Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things as follows:
Objects are the way things appear to a subject—that is, with a name, an identity, a gestalt or stereotypical template….Things, on the other hand…[signal] the moment when the object becomes the Other, when the sardine can looks back, when the mute idol speaks, when the subject experiences the object as uncanny and feels the need for…a metaphysics of that never objectifiable depth from which objects rise up toward our superficial knowledge.
For a writer who came of age with pet rocks, who wondered if androids dream of electric sheep and who, while in a Tokyo bathhouse, watched incredulously as a geisha announced she wanted to die after allowing her tamagotchi to expire, I was intrigued.
The present site of Or Gallery is the former site of the Contemporary Art Gallery. Prior to the CAG, it was Bau-Xi, a private gallery started in the mid-1960s. Or Gallery, like its predecessors, is the lone non-residential tenant of the Del Mar Hotel, whose late owner, George Riste, resisted BC Hydro’s buyout demands. The four-storey building, now owned by Riste’s family, stands in the shadow of the utility company’s tower and to the north of its patronizing public garden.
The interior of Or is in the shape of a saucepan turned on its side. Upon entering its long narrow “handle,” viewers are greeted by the gallery’s book table, beyond which lies our first instance of the exhibition’s material presence: a large glass dispenser filled with raw milk. Patrons who attended the opening were invited to sample this milk, and a debate over its composition ensued, one that was not unrelated to what Manhal states early in her essay:
Things have thing power, the observance of which may be explained in two ways. The first is in relation to the sacredness of objects where the thing is regarded to have some form of life force or spirit, and in this way an affecting nature.
While this could apply to the raw (unpasteurized) milk on display—its health concerns versus its unadulterated “life force”—Manhal goes on to say that
The second observation comes from physics and considers the effect of objects in line with their material make-up. Atomic theory, for example, explains that all things are moving matter, sharing a space of interaction and effect. This exhibition considers the latter and draws on what is called vital materialism to probe considerations of nonhuman beings as subjects.
The raw milk is supplied by artist Heather Passmore, who used it as a drawing medium for a pair of wall works. However, the wall work closest to the dispenser—RIPs and holes (2010/2012)—is not by Passmore, but by Kika Thorne. Like Passmore, Thorne sourced her medium from non-traditional art materials; in this case, a liquid mash of Glechoma hederacea (ground ivy). From this liquid, Thorne created silkscreen prints based on the light-bending illustrations of 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell. In Thorne’s prints, the medium (ink derived from a plant that, like all plants, responds to light) re-inscribes Maxwell’s illustrations: this reconstituted form supplies a material content by which light is captured in order to provide evidence of its bending.
A second work by Thorne, in Or’s larger space (the “pan,” as it were), is a continuation of her elastic-cord sculptures. The tension in Untitled (after Medicine) (2012) lies not in what is bent, but in what is stretched—namely a set of cords, from a point midway up the gallery’s west wall to a point higher up on its north wall. The tension placed on these cords causes them to vibrate, and thus “come to life.”
Manhal’s decision to place Thorne’s silkscreens near Passmore’s raw-milk dispenser highlights the shared strategies of these two artists. But there are practical considerations as well, given that Or’s larger space is dimmed to accommodate a video work and Thorne’s prints are so faint that they would be rendered invisible inside it. Not so, however, of Passmore’s serial raw-milk drawings—which, oddly enough, radiate under these low-light conditions.
In Passmore’s Hay Bales (2012) we see a series of overlapping concentric forms that are more reminiscent of the kitchen stove element upon which milk is boiled than the bales that, once consumed by livestock, fuel milk’s production. In All Flesh is Grass (2012) the raw-milk rings are smaller and align at their edges to form a mesh that appears closer to the material through which milk is strained than the relational “moving matter” implied in the title.
The final work in the space—the penultimate work in the exhibition—is Jen Weih’s How Deep Is Your Disaster III (2012). This installation includes a projected video of material forms (some obvious, like a drawn fragment of a violin; others clipped fragments of patterned wallpaper) floating from left to right over a black field. Placed before this projection is what at first appears to be a picnic setting, until it becomes apparent that there is no room within this gathering of film reels, candles, coffee pot and tape deck for anything other than the objects themselves. Here is a case of objects and things watching representations of other objects and things, rather than actual objects and things—as if those gathered might know the difference.
Rounding out Manhal’s exhibition is Michael Drebert‘s Kamakura (2011), which the exhibition map indicates is in the gallery’s administration area. When asked about this work (namely, Where is it?) gallery staff tell the story of Drebert’s time working at Haida Gwaii’s Copper Beech House, an inn owned by poet Susan Musgrave. Having stayed at the inn myself, I can relate to the artist’s fascination with the many glass Japanese fishing floats that decorate its living-room windows. But Drebert, who once took a ball from Vancouver amusement park Crash Crawly’s to the Ganges River for dipping, took his fascination further in Kamakura. For this work, he rewinds the story of those fishing floats by taking one back to Kamakura, Japan, where he gave it to a fisherman.
Unlike fellow traveller Gareth Moore, Drebert does not collect objects for reassignment in his assemblages, but takes them on pilgrimages, or simply returns them. Nor does he exhibit his documentation or save his work once shown. In that sense, Drebert is our Tino Seghal, and in returning this float, he enchants it with story. (This story also reminded me of another: that of the Japanese Harley-Davidson that washed up on Haida Gwaii in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.)
While “Things’ Matter” provides little visual bang, it rewards those who spend time with Manhal’s essay. The propositional content (relevant to a number of emerging local practices, such as those of recent Vancouver arrivals Julia Feyrer and Tamara Henderson) is in line with the works and their arrangement. Furthermore, the buzz this complement excited in me extended to Or itself, specifically with respect to its own thing power—the gallery’s “sacredness” and “life force” as both a site of resistance (within the Del Mar Hotel) and a node in state-sanctioned artist-run culture.
Part of that “life force” has to do with a guideline that distinguishes Or from many other artist-run centres, one that has its director/curator “moving on” after the completion of a certain term. This term was officially set in 1990 at two to three years. Yet in Or’s history since then, two directors have held six-year terms, and there are indications that the gallery will soon be removing set term limits in general. This has me wondering about the way Or Gallery relates to Manhal’s ideas around “moving matter sharing a space of interaction and effect.” I feel I have to ask the question: After 30 years of continuous artist-run activity, does “moving on” no longer “matter”?
This article was corrected on January 4, 2013. The original version suggested that Or Gallery’s director/curator term of two to three years was officially set in 1987.