Tag Archives: Vancouver Art Gallery

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp, and the Fountain

There is a controversy over one of the important pieces (it’s considered foundational) of modern art, “Fountain.”

The original Fountain by Marcel Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 (Art Gallery) after the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit. Stieglitz used a backdrop of The Warriors by Marsden Hartley to photograph the urinal. The entry tag is clearly visible. [downloaded from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_%28Duchamp%29

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven the real artist behind the ‘Fountain’

According to Theo Paijmans in his June 2018 article (abstract) on See All This, the correct attribution is not Marcel Duchamp,

In 1917, when the United States was about to enter the First World War and women in the United Kingdom had just earned their right to vote, a different matter occupied the sentiments of the small, modernist art scene in New York. It had organised an exhibit where anyone could show his or her art against a small fee, but someone had sent in a urinal for display. This was against even the most avant-garde taste of the organisers of the exhibit. The urinal, sent in anonymously, without title and only signed with the enigmatic ‘R. Mutt’, quickly vanished from view. Only one photo of the urinal remains.

Theo Paijmans, June 2018

In 1935 famous surrealist artist André Breton attributed the urinal to Marcel Duchamp. Out of this grew the consensus that Duchamp was its creator. Over time Duchamp commissioned a number of replicas of the urinal that now had a name: Fountain – coined by a reviewer who briefly visited the exhibit in 1917. The original urinal had since long disappeared. In all probability it had been unceremoniously dumped on the trash heap, but ironically it was destined to become one of the most iconic works of modern art. In 2004, some five hundred artists and art experts heralded Fountain as the most influential piece of modern art, even leaving Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon behind. Once again it cemented the reputation of Duchamp as one of the towering geniuses in the history of modern art.

But then things took a turn

Portrait of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

In 1982 a letter written by Duchamp came to light. Dated 11 April 1917, it was written just a few days after that fateful exhibit. It contains one sentence that should have sent shockwaves through the world of modern art: it reveals the true creator behind Fountain – but it was not Duchamp. Instead he wrote that a female friend using a male alias had sent it in for the New York exhibition. Suddenly a few other things began to make sense. Over time Duchamp had told two different stories of how he had created Fountain, but both turned out to be untrue. An art historian who knew Duchamp admitted that he had never asked him about Fountain, he had published a standard-work on Fountain nevertheless. The place from where Fountain was sent raised more questions. That place was Philadelphia, but Duchamp had been living in New York.

Female friend

Who was living in Philadelphia? Who was this ‘female friend’ that had sent the urinal using a pseudonym that Duchamp mentions? That woman was, as Duchamp wrote, the future. Art history knows her as Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. She was a brilliant pioneering New York dada artist, and Duchamp knew her well. This glaring truth has been known for some time in the art world, but each time it has to be acknowledged, it is met with indifference and silence.

You have to pay to read the rest but See All This does include a video with the abstract for the article,

You may want to know one other thing, the magazine appears to be available only in Dutch. Taking that into account, here’s a link to the magazine along with some details about the experts who consulted with Paijmans,

This is an abstract from the Dutch article ‘Het urinoir is niet van Duchamp’ that is published in See All This art magazine’s summer issue. For his research, the author interviewed Irene Gammel (biographer of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and professor at the Ryerson University in Toronto), Glyn Thompson (art historian, curator and writer), Julian Spalding (art critic and former director of Glasgow museums and galleries), and John Higgs (cultural historian and journalist).

The [2018] summer issue of See All This magazine is dedicated to 99 genius women in the art world, to celebrate the voice of women and the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the Netherlands in 2019. Buy this issue online.

It’s certainly a provocative thesis and it seems there’s a fair degree of evidence to support it. Although there is an alternative attribution, also female. From the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

In a letter written by Marcel Duchamp to his sister Suzanne dated April 11, 1917 he refers to his famous ready-made, Fountain (1917) and states: “One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.”[33] Some have claimed that the friend in question was the Baroness, but Francis Naumann, the New York-based critic and expert on Dada who put together a compilation of Duchamp’s letters and organized Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997, explains this “female friend” is Louise Norton who contributed an essay to The Blind Man discussing Fountain. Norton was living at 110 West 88th Street in New York City and this address is partially discernible (along with “Richard Mutt”) on the paper entry ticket attached to the object, as seen in Stieglitz’s photograph of Fountain.[emphases mine]

Or is it Louise Norton?

The “Fountain” Wikipedia entry does not clarify matters (Note: Links have been removed),

Marcel Duchamp arrived in the United States less than two years prior to the creation of Fountain and had become involved with Dada, an anti-rational, anti-art cultural movement, in New York City. According to one version, the creation of Fountain began when, accompanied by artist Joseph Stella and art collector Walter Arensberg, he purchased a standard Bedfordshire model urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works, 118 Fifth Avenue. The artist brought the urinal to his studio at 33 West 67th Street, reoriented it to a position 90 degrees from its normal position of use, and wrote on it, “R. Mutt 1917”.[3][4]

According to another version, Duchamp did not create Fountain, but rather assisted in submitting the piece to the Society of Independent Artists for a female friend. In a letter dated 11 April 1917 Duchamp wrote to his sister Suzanne telling her about the circumstances around Fountain’s submission: “Une de mes amies sous un pseudonyme masculin, Richard Mutt, avait envoyé une pissotière [urinal] en porcelaine comme sculpture” (“One of my female friends, who had adopted the male pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.”)[5][6] Duchamp never identified his female friend, but two candidates have been proposed: the Dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven[7][8] whose scatological aesthetic echoed that of Duchamp, or Louise Norton, who contributed an essay to The Blind Man discussing Fountain. Norton, who recently had separated from her husband, was living at the time in an apartment owned by her parents at 110 West 88th Street in New York City, and this address is partially discernible (along with “Richard Mutt”) on the paper entry ticket attached to the object, as seen in Stieglitz’s photograph.[9]

Rhonda Roland Shearer in the online journal Tout-Fait (2000) has concluded that the photograph is a composite of different photos, while other scholars such as William Camfield have never been able to match the urinal shown in the photo to any urinals found in the catalogues of the time period.[10] [emphases mine]

Attributing “Fountain” to a woman changes my understanding of the work. It seems to me. After all, it’s a woman submitting a urinal (plumbing designed specifically for the male anatomy) as a work of art.What was she (whichever she) is saying?

It’s tempting to read a commentary on patriarchy and art into the piece but von Freytag-Loringhoven (I’ll get to Norton next) may have had other issues in mind, from her Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

There has been substantial new research indicating that some artworks attributed to other artists of the period can now either be attributed to the Baroness, or raise the possibility that she may have created the works. One work, called God (1917) had for a number of years been attributed to the artist Morton Livingston Schamberg. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose collection includes God, now credits the Baroness as a co-artist of this piece. Amelia Jones idenitified that this artwork’s concept and title was created by the Baroness, however, it was constructed by both Shamberg and the Baroness.[30] This sculpture, God (1917), involved a cast iron pumbing trap and a wooden mitre box, assembled in a phallic-like manner. [31] Her concept behind the shape and choice of materials is indicative of her commentary on the worship and love that Americans have for plumbing that trumps all else; additionally, it is revealing of the Baroness’s rejection of technology. [emphases mine]

As for Norton, unfortunately I’m not familiar with her work and this is the only credible reference to her that I’ve been able to find (Note: The link is in an essay on Duchamp and the “Fountain” on the Phaidon website [scroll down to the ninth paragraph]),

Allen Norton was an American poet and literary editor of the 1910s and 20s. He and his wife Louise Norton [emphasis mine] edited the little magazine Rogue, published from March 1915 to December 1916.

There is another Louise Norton, an artist who has a Wikipedia entry but that suggests this is an entirely different ‘Louise’.

Of the two and for what it’s worth, I find von Freytag-Loringhoven to be the more credible candidate. Nell Frizzell in her Nov. 7, 2014 opinion piece for the Guardian has absolutely no doubts on the matter (Note: Links have been removed),

Men may fill them, but it takes a woman to take the piss out of a urinal. Or so Julian Spalding, the former director of Glasgow Museums, and the academic Glyn Thompson have claimed. The argument, which has been swooshing around the cistern of contemporary art criticism since the 1980s, is that Duchamp’s famous artwork Fountain – a pissoir laid on its side – was actually the creation of the poet, artist and wearer of tin cans, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

That Von Freytag-Loringhoven has been written out of the story is not only a great injustice, it is also a formidable loss to art history. This was a woman, after all, whose idea of getting gussied-up for a private view was to scatter her outfit liberally with flattened tin cans and stuffed parrots. A woman who danced on verandas in little more than a pair of stockings, some feathers and enough bangles to shake out the percussion track from Walk Like an Egyptian. A woman who draped her way through several open marriages, including one to Oscar Wilde’s translator Felix Paul Greve (who faked his own suicide to escape his creditors and flee with her to America)….

Mind you, there is a difference between theft and misattribution. While Valerie Solanas, the somewhat troubled feminist and writer of the Scum manifesto, openly accused Andy Warhol of stealing her script Up Your Ass and even attempted to murder him, other works exist in a more complicated, murky grey area. Matisse certainly directed the creation of his gouaches découpées – large collage works made by pasting torn-off pieces of gouache-painted paper – yet it is impossible to draw the line between where his creativity ends and that of his assistants intention begins. Similarly, while John Milton’s daughters ostensibly simply transcribed their father’s work, how can we say that in the act of writing they were not also editing, questioning, suggesting imagery and offering phrasing?

Art historians and academics have pointed out that in 1917 Duchamp wrote to his sister, recounting how “one of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture”. Duchamp revealed that this model of urinal wasn’t even in production at the factory where he claimed to have picked it up; and that this artwork bore a more than passing similarity to the Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven readymade sculpture called God, both in appearance and concept.

Here is “God,”

“God” By Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Morton Schamberg (1917)Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Blue pencil.svg wikidata:Q1565911  Source/Photographer: TgGFztK3lZWxdg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum

The “Fountain” graced this blog previously in a March 8, 2016 posting about an exhibition titled: “Mashup: The Birth of Modern Culture” at the Vancouver Art Gallery where I did not have an inkling as to this controversy.  Given the zeitgeist surrounding women and their issues, it’s an interesting time to learn of it.

A dance with love and fear: the Yoko Ono exhibit and the Takashi Murakami exhibit in Vancouver (Canada)

It seems Japanese artists are ‘having a moment’. There’s a documentary (Kusama—Infinity) about contemporary Japanese female artist, Yayoi Kusama, making the festival rounds this year (2018). Last year (2017), the British Museum mounted a major exhibition of Hokusai’s work (19th Century) and in 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute benefit was inspired by a Japanese fashion designer, “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between.” (A curator at the Japanese Garden in Portland who had lived in Japan for a number of years mentioned to me during an interview that the Japanese have one word for art. There is no linguistic separation between art and craft.)

More recently, both Yoko Ono and Takashi Murakami have had shows in Vancouver, Canada. Starting with fear as I prefer to end with love, Murakami had a blockbuster show at the Vancouver Gallery.

Takashi Murakami: a dance with fear (and money too)

In the introductory notes at the beginning of the exhibit: “Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its own Leg,” it was noted that fear is one of Murakami’s themes. The first few pieces in the show had been made to look faded and brownish to the point where you had to work at seeing what was underneath the layers. The images were a little bit like horror films something’s a bit awry then scary and you don’t know what it is or how to deal with it.

After those images, the show opened up to bright, bouncy imagery commonly associated with Mrjakami’s work. However, if you look at them carefully, you’ll see many of these characters have big, pointed teeth. Also featured was a darkened room with two huge warriors.At a guess, I’d say they were 14 feet tall.

It  made for a disconcerting show with its darker themes usually concealed in bright, vibrant colour. Here’s an image promoting Murakami’s Vancouver birthday celebration and exhibit opening,

‘Give me the money, now!’ says a gleeful Takashi Murakami, whose expansive show is currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo by the VAG. [downloaded from https://thetyee.ca/Culture/2018/02/07/Takashi-Murakami-VAG/]

The colours and artwork shown in the marketing materials (I’m including the wrapping on the gallery itself) were  exuberant as was Murakami who acted as his own marketing material. I’m mentioning the money It’s very intimately and blatantly linked to Murakami’s art and work.  Dorothy Woodend in a Feb. 7, 2018 article for The Tyee puts it this way (Note: Link have been removed),

The close, almost incestuous relationship between art and money is a very old story. [emphasis mine] You might even say it is the only story at the moment.

You can know this, understand it to a certain extent, and still have it rear up and bite you on the bum. [emphasis mine] Such was my experience of attending the exhibition preview of Takashi Murakami’s The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The show is the first major retrospective of Murakami’s work in Canada, and the VAG has spared no expense in marketing the living hell out of the thing. From the massive cephalopod installed atop the dome of the gallery, to the ocean of smiling cartoon flowers, to the posters papering every inch of downtown Vancouver, it is in a word: huge.

If you don’t know much about Murakami the show is illuminating, in many different ways. Expansive in extremis, the exhibition includes more than 50 works that trace a path through the evolution of Murakami’s style and aesthetic, moving from his early dark textural paintings that blatantly ripped off Anselm Kiefer, to his later pop-art style (Superflat), familiar from Kanye West albums and Louis Vuitton handbags.

make no mistake, money runs underneath the VAG show like an engine [emphasis mine]. You can feel it in the air, thrumming with a strange radioactive current, like a heat mirage coming off the people madly snapping selfies next to the Kanye Bear sculpture.

The artist himself seems particularly aware of how much of a financial edifice surrounds the human impulse to make images. In an on-stage interview with senior VAG [Vancouver Art Gallery] curator Bruce Grenville during a media preview for the show, Murakami spoke plainly about the need for survival (a.k.a. money) [emphasis mine] that has propelled his career.

Even the title of the show speaks to the notion of survival (from Woodend’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

The title of the show takes inspiration from Japanese folklore about a creature that sacrifices part of its own body so that the greater whole might survive. In the natural world, an octopus will chew off its own leg if there is an infection, and then regrow the missing limb. In the art world, the idea pertains to the practice of regurgitating (recycling) old ideas to serve the endless voracious demand for new stuff. “I don’t have the talent to come up with new ideas, so in order to survive, you have to eat your own body,” Murakami explains, citing his need for deadlines, and very bad economic conditions, that lead to a state of almost Dostoyevskyian desperation. “Please give me the money now!” he yells, and the assembled press laughs on cue.

The artist’s responsibility to address larger issues like gender, politics and the environment was the final question posed during the Q&A, before the media were allowed into the gallery to see the work. Murakami took his time before answering, speaking through the nice female translator beside him. “Artists don’t have that much power in the world, but they can speak to the audience of the future, who look at the artwork from a certain era, like Goya paintings, and see not just social commentary, but an artistic point of view. The job of the artist is to dig deep into human beings.”

Which is a nice sentiment to be sure, but increasingly art is about celebrity and profit. Record-breaking shows like Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty and Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between demonstrated an easy appeal for both audiences and corporations. One of Murakami’s earlier exhibitions featured a Louis Vuitton pop-up shop as part of the show. Closer to home, the Fight for Beauty exhibit mixed fashion, art and development in a decidedly queasy-making mixture.

There is money to be made in culture of a certain scale, with scale being the operative word. Get big or get out.

Woodend also relates the show and some of the issues it raises to the local scene (Note: Links have been removed),

A recent article in the Vancouver Courier about the Oakridge redevelopment plans highlighted the relationship between development and culture in raw numbers: “1,000,000 square feet of retail, 2,600 homes for 6,000 people, office space for 3,000 workers, a 100,000-square-foot community centre and daycare, the city’s second-largest library, a performing arts academy, a live music venue for 3,000 people and the largest public art program in Vancouver’s history…”

Westbank’s Ian Gillespie [who hosted the Fight for Beauty exhibit] was quoted extensively, outlining the integration between the city and the developer. “The development team will also work with the city’s chief librarian to figure out the future of the library, while the 3,000-seat music venue will create an ‘incredible music scene.’” The term “cultural hub” also pops up so many times it’s almost funny, in a horrifying kind of way.

But bigness often squeezes out artists and musicians who simply can’t compete. Folk who can’t fill a 3,000-seat venue, or pack in thousands of visitors, like the Murakami show, are out of luck.

Vancouver artists, who struggle to survive in the city and have done so for quite some time, were singularly unimpressed with the Oakridge development proposal. Selina Crammond, a local musician and all-around firebrand, summed up the divide in a few eloquent sentences: “I mean really, who is going to make up this ‘incredible music scene’ and fill all of these shiny new venues? Many of my favourite local musicians have already moved away from Vancouver because they just can’t make it work. Who’s going to pay the musicians and workers? Who’s going to pay the large ticket prices to be able to maintain these spaces? I don’t think space is the problem. I think affordability and distribution of wealth and funding are the problems artists and arts workers are facing.”

The stories continue to pop up, the most recent being the possible sale and redevelopment of the Rio Theatre. The news sparked an outpouring of anger, but the story is repeated so often in Vancouver, it has become something of a cliché. You need only to look at the story of the Hollywood Theatre for a likely ending to the saga.

Which brings me back around to the Murakami exhibit. To be perfectly frank, the show is incredible and well-worth visiting. I enjoyed every minute of wandering through it taking in the sheer expanse of mind-boggling, googly-eyed detail. I would urge you to attend, if you can afford it. But there’s the rub. I was there for free, and general admission to the VAG is $22.86. This may not seem like a lot, but in a city where people can barely make rent, culture becomes the purview of them that can afford it.

The City of Vancouver recently launched its Creative Cities initiative to look at issues of affordability, diversity and gentrification.

We shall see if anything real emerges from the process. But in the meantime, Vancouver artists might have to eat their own legs simply to survive. [Tyee]

Survival issues and their intimate companions, fear, are clearly a major focus for Murakami’s art.

For the curious, the Vancouver version of the Murakami retrospective show was held from February 3 – May 6, 2018. There are still some materials about the show available online here.

Yoko Ono and the power of love (and maybe money, too)

More or less concurrently with the Murakami exhibition, the Rennie Museum (formerly Rennie Collection), came back from a several month hiatus to host a show featuring Yoko Ono’s “Mend Piece.”

From a Rennie Museum (undated) press release,

Rennie Museum is pleased to present Yoko Ono’s MEND PIECE, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York City version (1966/2015). Illustrating Ono’s long standing artistic quest in social activism and world peace, this instructional work will transform the historic Wing Sang building into an intimate space for creative expression and bring people together in an act of collective healing and meditation. The installation will run from March 1 to April 15, 2018.

First conceptualized in 1966, the work immerses the visitor in a dream-like state. Viewers enter into an all-white space and are welcomed to take a seat at the table to reassemble fragments of ceramic coffee cups and saucers using the provided twine, tape, and glue. Akin to the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi, an embracing of the flawed or imperfect, Mend Piece encourages the participant to transform broken fragments into an object that prevails its own violent rupture. The mended pieces are then displayed on shelves installed around the room. The contemplative act of mending is intended to promote reparation starting within one’s self and community, and bridge the gap created by violence, hatred, and war. In the words of Yoko Ono herself, “Mend with wisdom, mend with love. It will mend the earth at the same time.”

The installation of MEND PIECE, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York City version at Rennie Museum will be accompanied by an espresso bar, furthering the notions of community and togetherness.

Yoko Ono (b. 1933) is a Japanese conceptual artist, musician, and peace activist pioneering feminism and Fluxus art. Her eclectic oeuvre of performance art, paintings, sculptures, films and sound works have been shown at renowned institutions worldwide, with recent exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Copenhagen Contemporary, Copenhagen; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; and Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. She is the recipient of the 2005 IMAJINE Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2009 Venice Biennale Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, among other distinctions. She lives and works in New York City.

While most of the shows have taken place over two, three, or four floors, “Mend Piece” was on the main floor only,

Courtesy: Rennie Museum

There was another “Mend Piece” in Canada, located at the Gardiner Museum and part of a larger show titled: “The Riverbed,” which ran from February 22 to June 3, 2018. Here’s an image of one of the Gardiner Museum “Mend” pieces that was featured in a March 7, 2018 article by Sonya Davidson for the Toronto Guardian,

Yoko Ono, Mend Piece, 1966 / 2018, © Yoko Ono. Photo: Tara Fillion Courtesy: Toronto Guardian

Here’s what Davidson had to say about the three-part installation, “The Riverbed,”

I’m sitting  on one of the cushions placed on the floor watching the steady stream of visitors at Yoko Ono’s exhibition The Riverbed at the Gardiner Museum. The room is airy and bright but void of  colours yet it’s vibrant and alive in a calming way. There are three distinct areas in this exhibition: Stone Piece, Line Piece and Mend Piece. From what I’ve experienced in Ono’s previous exhibitions, her work encourages participation and is inclusive of everyone. She has the idea. She encourages us to  go collaborate with her. Her work is describe often as  redirecting our attention to ideas, instead of appearances.

Mend Piece is the one I’m most familiar with. It was part of her exhibition I visited in Reykjavik [Iceland]. Two large communal tables are filled with broken ceramic pieces and mending elements. Think glue, string, and tape.  Instructions from Ono once again are simple but with meaning. Take the pieces that resonate with you and mend them as you desire. You’re encourage [sic] to leave it in the communal space for everyone to experience what you’ve experienced. It reminded me of her work decades ago where she shattered porcelain vases, and people invited people to take a piece with them. But then years later she collected as many back and mended them herself. Part contemporary with a nod to the traditional Japanese art form of Kintsugi – fixing broken pottery with gold and the philosophy of nothing is ever truly broken. The repairs made are part of the history and should be embraced with honour and pride.

The experience at the Rennie was markedly different . I recommend reading both Davidson’s piece (includes many embedded images) in its entirety to get a sense for how different and this April 7, 2018 article by Jenna Moon for The Star regarding the theft of a stone from The Riverbed show at the Gardiner,

A rock bearing Yoko Ono’s handwriting has been stolen from the Gardiner Museum, Toronto police say. The theft reportedly occurred around 5:30 p.m. on March 12.

The rock is part of an art exhibit featuring Ono, where patrons can meditate using several river rocks. The stone is inscribed with black ink, and reads “love yourself” in block letters. It is valued at $17,500 (U.S.), [emphasis mine] Toronto police media officer Gary Long told the Star Friday evening.

As far as I can tell, they still haven’t found the suspect who was described as a woman between the ages of 55 and 60. However the question that most interests me is how did they arrive at a value for the stone? Was it a case of assigning a value to the part of the installation with the stones and dividing that value by the number of stones? Yoko Ono may focus her art on social activism and peace but she too needs money to survive. Moving on.

Musings on ‘mend’

Participating in “Mend Piece” at the Rennie Museum was revelatory. It was a direct experience of the “traditional Japanese art form of Kintsugi – fixing broken pottery with gold and the philosophy of nothing is ever truly broken.” So often art is at best a tertiary experience for the viewer. The artist has the primary experience producing the work and the curator has the secondary experience of putting the show together.

For all the talk about interactive installations and pieces, there are few that truly engage the viewer with the piece. I find this rule applies: the more technology, the less interactivity.

“Mend” insisted on interactivity. More or less. I went with a friend and sat beside the one person in the group who didn’t want to talk to anyone. And she wasn’t just quiet, you could feel the “don’t talk to me” vibrations pouring from every one of her body parts.

The mending sessions were about 30 minutes long and, as Davidson notes, you had string, two types of glue, and twine. For someone with any kind of perfectionist tendencies (me) and a lack of crafting skills (me), it proved to be a bit of a challenge, especially with a semi-hostile person beside me. Thank goodness my friend was on the other side.

Adding to my travails was the gallery assistant (a local art student) who got very anxious and hovered over me as I attempted and failed to set my piece on a ledge in the room (twice). She was very nice and happy to share, without being intrusive, information about Yoko Ono and her work while we were constructing our pieces. I’m not sure what she thought was going to happen when I started dropping things but her hovering brought back memories of my adolescence when shopkeepers would follow me around their store.

Most of my group had finished and even though there was still time in my session, the next group rushed in and took my seat while I failed for the second time to place my piece. I stood for my third (and thankfully successful) repair attempt.

At that point I went to the back where more of the “Mend” communal experience awaited. Unfortunately, the coffee bar’s (this put up especially for the show) espresso machine was not working. There was some poetry on the walls and a video highlighting Yoko Ono’s work over the years and the coffee bar attendant was eager to share (but not intrusively so) some information about Yoko and her work.

As I stated earlier, it was a revelatory experience. First, It turned out my friend had been following Yoko’s work since before the artist had hooked up with John Lennon and she was able to add details to the attendants’ comments.

Second, I didn’t expect was a confrontation with the shards of my past and personality. In essence, mending myself and, hopefully, more. There was my perfectionism, rejection by the unfriendly tablemate, my emotional response (unspoken) to the hypervigilant gallery assistant, having my seat taken from me before the time was up, and the disappointment of the coffee bar. There was also a rediscovery of my friend, a friendly tablemate who made a beautiful object (it looked like a bird), the helpfulness of both the gallery assistants, Yoko Ono’s poetry, and a documentary about the remarkable Yoko.

All in all, it was a perfect reflection of imperfection (wabi-sabi), brokenness, and wounding in the context of repair (Kintsugi)/healing.

Thank you, Yoko Ono.

For anyone in Vancouver who feels they missed out on the experience, there are some performances of “Perfect Imperfections: The Art of a Messy Life” (comedy, dance, and live music) at Vancity Culture Lab at The Cultch from June 14 – 16, 2018. You can find out more here.

The moment

It certainly seems as if there’s a great interest in Japanese art, if you live in Vancouver (Canada), anyway. The Murakami show was a huge success for the Vancouver Art Gallery. As for Yoko Ono, the Rennie Museum extended the exhibit dates due to demand. Plus, the 2018 – 2020 version of the Vancouver Biennale is featuring (from a May 29, 2018 Vancouver Biennale news release),

… Yoko Ono with its 2018 Distinguished Artist Award, a recognition that coincides with reissuing the acclaimed artist’s 2007 Biennale installation, “IMAGINE PEACE,” marshalled at this critical time to re-inspire a global consciousness towards unity, harmony, and accord. Yoko Ono’s project exemplifies the Vancouver Biennale’s mission for diverse communities to gain access, visibility and representation.

The British Museum’s show (May 25 – August 13, 2017), “Hokusai’s Great Wave,” was seen in Vancouver at a special preview event in May 2017 at a local movie house, which was packed.

The documentary film festival, DOXA (Vancouver) closed its 2018 iteration with the documentary about Yayoi Kusama. Here’s more about her from a May 9, 2018 article by Janet Smith for the Georgia Straight,

Amid all the dizzying, looped-and-dotted works that American director Heather Lenz has managed to capture in her new documentary Kusama—Infinity, perhaps nothing stands out so much as images of the artist today in her Shinjuku studio.

Interviewed in the film, the 89-year-old Yayoi Kusama sports a signature scarlet bobbed anime wig and hot-pink polka-dotted dress, sitting with her marker at a drawing table, and set against the recent creations on her wall—a sea of black-and-white spots and jaggedy lines.

“The boundary between Yayoi Kusama and her art is not very great,” Lenz tells the Straight from her home in Orange County. “They are one and the same.”

It was as a young student majoring in art history and fine art that Lenz was first drawn to Kusama—who stood out as one of few female artists in her textbooks. She saw an underappreciated talent whose avant-pop works anticipated Andy Warhol and others. And as Lenz dug deeper into the artist’s story, she found a woman whose struggles with a difficult childhood and mental illness made her achievements all the more remarkable.

Today, Kusama is one of the world’s most celebrated female artists, her kaleidoscopic, multiroom show Infinity Mirrors drawing throngs of visitors to galleries like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Seattle Art Museum over the past year. But when Lenz set out to make her film 17 long years ago, few had ever heard of Kusama.

I am hopeful that this is a sign that the Vancouver art scene is focusing more attention to the west, to Asia. Quite frankly, it’s about time.

As a special treat, here’s a ‘Yoko Ono tribute’ from the Bare Naked Ladies,

Dance!

Two tales of mashup visual art shows in Vancouver (Canada): part 2 of 2

Part 1 of this piece featured definitions for the word mashup and a commentary on the current (Jan. 23 – April 23, 2016 [ETA April 4, 2016: The show has been extended to Friday, May 20, 2016.]) Rennie Collection show which is a mashup in all but name. This part is going to focus on the Vancouver Art Gallery’s show ‘Mashup: The Birth of Modern Culture’ (Feb. 20 – June 12, 2016). There will also be mention of a couple of precursor mashup shows and there will be a few comments about artists, mashups, and curators.

Mashup: The Birth of Modern Culture

Immediately, you hear the sounds of the show bleeding into the Vancouver Art Gallery’s (VAG) lobby. With 371 works representing 156 artists, it is the largest and most ambitious show in the gallery’s  85-year (founded in 1931) history. (20% of the works are from the VAG’s collection and the other 80% are from elsewhere.)

The first mashup experience is a wall of screens (reminding me of a movie ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ starring David Bowie as an alien who like to watch multiple television sets arranged as a wall of screens) where pieces in the show flash on in a mesmerizing fashion. If you stay long enough in front of the bank of screens, you will see the entire show cycle through. It’s an appropriate beginning for a show that overwhelms the senses and in many ways reflects modern culture.

Each floor hosts a different ‘age’ with the first floor representing ‘The Digital Age: Hacking, Remix and the Archive in the Age of Post-Production’, the second floor the ‘Late Twentieth Century: Splicing, Sampling and the Street in the Age of Appropriation’, the third floor the ‘Post-War: Cut, Copy and Quotation in the Age of Mass Media, and the fourth floor the ‘Early Twentieth Century: Collage, Montage and Readymade at the Birth of Modern Culture. Somewhat counterintuitively you go backward in time.

The press tour I attended was trotted through the not quite ready for prime time show pretty briskly two days before the opening so your experience may vary from what I am about to describe. In fact, it’s a certainty it will, given the wealth of works shown.

By contrast with the Rennie Collection show which focused on social issues, this show is focused, although some of the artists do address social issues, on the art history of the last hundred years or so.

In a sense, Marcel Duchamp provides the through-line for the show. Sherrie Levine’s ‘urinal’ (cast in bronze with a gold patina) evokes the ‘original’ version in a fashion I read as teasing,

Sherrie Levine's Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp).

Sherrie Levine’s Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp), 1991, cast bronze and artist’s wooden base,Glenstone Photo: Tim Nightswander/Imaging4Art.com

Here’s an image of the original,

The original Fountain by Marcel Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 (Art Gallery) after the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit. Stieglitz used a backdrop of The Warriors by Marsden Hartley to photograph the urinal. The entry tag is clearly visible. [downloaded from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_%28Duchamp%29]

The original Fountain by Marcel Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 (Art Gallery) after the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit. Stieglitz used a backdrop of The Warriors by Marsden Hartley to photograph the urinal. The entry tag is clearly visible. [downloaded from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_%28Duchamp%29]

Here’s a description of the ‘fountain’ and its place in contemporary art history, from the Fountain (Duchamp) entry in Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),

Fountain is a 1917 work produced by Marcel Duchamp. The piece was a porcelain urinal, which was signed “R.Mutt” and titled Fountain. Submitted for the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, in 1917, the first annual exhibition by the Society to be staged at The Grand Central Palace in New York, Fountain was rejected by the committee, even though the rules stated that all works would be accepted from artists who paid the fee. Fountain was displayed and photographed at Alfred Stieglitz’s studio, and the photo published in The Blind Man, but the original has been lost. The work is regarded by art historians and theorists of the avant-garde, such as Peter Bürger, as a major landmark in 20th-century art. 17 replicas commissioned by Duchamp in the 1960s now exist.[2]

Mashup has a Marcel Duchamp ‘fountain’ on the VAG’s fourth floor. Levine’s piece can be found on the second floor. So, this Duchamp ‘throughline’ takes us almost from the present into the past.

One installation that seemed interesting but wasn’t ready at the preview was a music room (on the second floor) featuring David Byrne’s and Brian Eno’s album, ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’. The album’s Wikipedia entry has this (Note: Links have been removed),

Recorded by Eno and Byrne in between their work on Talking Heads projects, the album combines sampled vocals, African rhythms, found sounds, and electronic music,[6] and has been called a “pioneering work for countless styles connected to electronics, ambience, and Third World music”.[2] The extensive use of sampling on the album is widely considered ground-breaking and innovative, though its actual influence on the sample-based music genres that later emerged continues to be debated.[7][8]

Also on the second floor is a roomlet of bookcases (floor to ceiling) featuring copies of a 1376-page book titled ‘S, M, L, XL’.  by Rem Koolhaus (internationally renowned Dutch architect) and Bruce Mau, a Canadian graphic designer. It made a bit of a splash when it was published in 1995 but its Wikipedia entry is somewhat muted. Perhaps its prominence in Mashup is in part due to Mau’s Massive Change show which was premiered at the Vancouver Art Gallery in October 2004.

One of my favourite pieces (due to its bright colours and movement) was by Robert Rauschenberg, [Revolver II] on the third floor,

Rauschenberg – Revolver II – Silk screen on plexiglass – 1967 Courtesy: fibonaccisusan

Rauschenberg – Revolver II – Silk screen on plexiglass – 1967 Courtesy: fibonaccisusan

This piece has an interesting history as described in a Jan. 25, 2014 (?) post by Susan Happersett on her fibonaccisusan website concerning Math Art,

E.A.T Experiments in Art and Technology 1960 – 2014 is the current exhibition on display at the Payne Gallery at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This small show documents the collaborations of artists with scientists and engineers from Bell Labs in NJ. Two Bell Labs engineers, Billy Kluver and Fred Waldhauer, started working with artists, providing them access to the newest technology. In 1966 they helped bring together 30 scientists and engineers with 11 artists to produce a cutting edge performance art series called 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering in NYC. Through these partnerships, the engineers were trying to do two things. They wanted to address the effects of technology on society, and they were looking for new ways to explore this technology. Not all of the work was performance art, it also included  sculpture, drawing and architecture.

What does this have to with Math Art? If you look at the time line for these collaborations you see that in 1966 computers were the new technology. Some of the art work done in these experiments was based on Mathematical algorithms.

Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg was one of the artists closely involved with E.A.T. One of his projects was a series of six “Revolvers”. “Revolver II” from 1967 is on display in the center of the gallery. It consists of 5 plexiglass circles that have been printed with silk screen. They rotate independently when one of five buttons is pushed. Because the circles are transparent, the different rotations (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 circles at a time) create interesting geometric patterns.

‘Revolver II’ has a control box so you can push a switch and make things happen.

While it’s not stated explicitly, technology is an important motif in this show as the technologies of different periods make some of these art pieces and installations possible.

While the infamous (in some circles) Duchamp ‘Fountain’ can be found on the fourth floor, it was another of Duchamp’s pieces there which caught my attention. ‘La boîte-en-valise’ largely because it reminded me of a dollhouse. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) devotes a webpage to the ‘boîte’,

Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, or box in a suitcase, is a portable miniature monograph including sixty-nine reproductions of the artist’s own work. Between 1935 and 1940, he created a deluxe edition of twenty boxes, each in a brown leather carrying case but with slight variations in design and content. A later edition consisting of six different series was created during the 1950s and 1960s; these eliminated the suitcase, used different colored fabrics for the cover, and altered the number of items inside. Each box unfolds to reveal pull-out standing frames displaying Nude Descending a Staircase and other works, diminutive Readymades hung in a vertical “gallery,” and loose prints mounted on paper. Duchamp included in each deluxe box one “original.” In The Museum of Modern Art’s Boîte-en-valise, this is a hand-colored print depicting the upper half of The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, or Large Glass (1915-23). Among the reproductions found in the box is L.H.O.O.Q., a rectified Readymade created by taking a cheap print of the Mona Lisa and adding a moustache, goatee, and lascivious pun (understood when the letters L-H-O-O-Q are pronounced rapidly in French to mean “she’s got a hot ass”). Duchamp’s boxes, along with his altered Mona Lisa, address museums’ ever-increasing traffic in reproductions and question the relative importance of the “original” work of art.

Here’s an image of one of the many ‘boxes’ appearing in an April 20, 2012 article by Brady Carlson for New Hampshire Public Radio,

Marcel Duchamp, Box in a Valise (Boîte-en-valise, Series F), 1966, mixed-media assemblage. Courtesy Hood Museum of Art

Marcel Duchamp, Box in a Valise (Boîte-en-valise, Series F), 1966, mixed-media assemblage.
Courtesy Hood Museum of Art

The ‘boîte’ in the VAG’s Mashup came from the Art Gallery of Ontario and according to the show’s lead curator, Bruce Grenville, this is the last time, due to fragility, the piece will be loaned out.

Commentary

Both the Rennie Collection’s ‘untitled’ mashup and the VAG’s ‘Birth of Modern Culture’ mashup are overwhelming experiences. The issues raised in Rennie’s curatorial outing (it took him five years and it’s his first attempt) are difficult, complex, and, at times, quite confronting. And while art history might seem like a more sedate topic, the VAG’s mashup (10 years from when Grenville first had the idea including three years to execute the plan) reflects the frenetic, frantic pace and noise (both literally and informationwise) of contemporary life. Both shows do beg repeat viewings.

These shows also pose a question about the role of artists and the role of curators. If a mashup, as I noted in part one, “… is when you bring together multiple source materials to create something new” and curators are bringing these pieces together to create something new, then is the curator also the artist?

Rennie could argue that he has brought pieces together in a way which reflects each artist’s concerns and demonstrates how different artists approach the same social issues. So, he’s less an artist and more a curator who has found a way to highlight each artist while reflecting contemporary concerns.

By contrast, the curators at the VAG (Bruce Grenville, Daina Augaitis, and Stephanie Rebick took a creator’s approach to their show and in some ways could be viewed as subverting the artists.

Rennie and the VAG curators have facilitated their own subversion as viewers mentally construct their own show from the works on display. While, it could be said that viewers always construct their own shows, the sheer number of pieces in the VAG’s Mashup and Rennie’s ‘untitled chaos’ demand it.

Previous Vancouver art gallery/museum mashups

Surrey Art Gallery (Surrey is in the Vancouver metropolitan area) had a mashup in 2007, Cultural Mashups, Bhangra, Bollywood + Beyond (PDF). Plus the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology had a mashup show sometime in the mid-1980s that was a revelation to me. Objects were brought together in completely unexpected ways to showcase similarities of disparate cultures across time. Sadly, I don’t recall the title of the show.

Going to the Rennie Collection and VAG shows

As noted in part one, you have to book a tour for the Rennie Collection but the show is free. Scheduled tours are given on Saturdays, Sundays, and Thursdays.

The VAG show costs $24 for adults and $55 for families. Seniors and students do get a break, it’s $18 for them. In addition seniors (65+) can pay by donation from 10 am to 1 pm on Mondays: March 7, 2016, April 4, 2016, May 2, 2016, and June 6, 2016. There are no show passes but you can purchase a membership which if you go often enough to the VAG can be a good deal. Tuesday nights used to feature a donation entry fee after 5 pm but that seems to have been eliminated.

Reviews and commentaries from elsewhere

Robin Laurence who writes about visual art for the Georgia Straight newspaper and many other publications has two pieces, a Feb. 10, 2016 preview of the show (MashUp charts modern culture’s mad mixing; The Vancouver Art Gallery’s monumental new show links everyone from Picasso to Basquiat and Tarantino) and a Feb. 23, 2015 review (MashUp reveals the pivotal role of women in pioneering of modern art methods). I particularly appreciated this bit in her review,

Despite the large number of women among the show’s 28 collaborating curators, female artists are dramatically underrepresented in MashUp. By my count, they number 36 out of the 156 listed in the show’s media kit. Nonetheless, an interesting subtheme emerges here: the important, if not always acknowledged, role women played in pioneering collage and photomontage techniques.

On the VAG’s fourth floor, where the early-modernist works are installed, a couple of didactic panels alert us to the photo-collages that were produced by aristocratic English women during the Victorian era. “Decades before the collage experiments of…the 20th century European avant-garde,” the text tells us, “the manipulation of photographs had already become a popular technique.”

The greatly enlarged example of a genteel-pastime precursor to photomontage is a late-1870s work by Kate Edith Gough. Her homely watercolour scene of a pond is given a surreal twist by cut-out photos of women’s heads mounted onto the necks of painted ducks. The effect is unsettling–a precursor to surrealism.

The show doesn’t allude at all to Mary Delany, the 18th-century “gentlewoman” credited with inventing mixed-media collage, an art form she described as “paper-mosaicks”. An accomplished amateur artist, Delany created, in her 70s and 80s, an extraordinary series of botanical drawings using cut paper and watercolour mounted on a black ground. (Not only are they extremely beautiful and dazzlingly detailed, they are also scientifically accurate.) But perhaps she was too botanically inclined and too far in advance of the modern era to be considered here—more’s the pity.

Point taken Ms. Laurence and just in time for International Women’s Day, March 8, 2016.

Kevin Griffin of the Vancouver Sun chimes in with a Feb. 23, 2016 review on his blog where he provides more information about the Sherrie Levine piece mentioned earlier in this part,

An example of how the idea of the readymade has changed over time is Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp) by Sherrie Levine. Unlike Duchamp’s urinal, Levine’s wasn’t bought in a store but is a copy cast in bronze, a traditional sculptural material. By 1991 when she made the work, Levine appropriated Duchamp’s original but made it out a material that suggests that what was once a radical art gesture has now become tamed by art history.

While the VAG show received extensive coverage internationally prior to its opening, as of this day, March 8, 2016, I haven’t found many reviews other than a few local ones and one in the national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, by Marsha Lederman in a March 4, 2016 article,

During a period of intense experimentation between 1912 and 1914, Picasso and Georges Braque began to incorporate non-traditional materials in their compositions – wallpaper, newspapers, musical scores and other found materials – essentially inventing collage. This launches an entirely new mode of representation, something that will take on many forms and terms – assemblage, collage, détournement, appropriation, sampling, ripping and hacking (to name a few).

The impact of this radical move was tremendous and the VAG show demonstrates that it has reached far beyond visual art. You see it in architecture and design, in film; you hear it in music – an interconnectedness that links artists, eras, genres and mediums.

“Everything you see around you is really based in a kind of mashup, remix, sampling kind of sensibility,” says Grenville, who conceived the exhibition.

“We do like to encompass the historical but to see it from the contemporary perspective. And so trying to make sense out of mashup culture, we had to go back in time to see it and to understand: Where does this originate? How is it connected?”

The impact of this radical move was tremendous and the VAG show demonstrates that it has reached far beyond visual art. You see it in architecture and design, in film; you hear it in music – an interconnectedness that links artists, eras, genres and mediums.

“Everything you see around you is really based in a kind of mashup, remix, sampling kind of sensibility,” says Grenville, who conceived the exhibition.

“We do like to encompass the historical but to see it from the contemporary perspective. And so trying to make sense out of mashup culture, we had to go back in time to see it and to understand: Where does this originate? How is it connected?”

The exhibition is organized chronologically in four sections, each with its own floor. On the first floor, the contemporary – the digital age. Here you can lie back on blue pillows in German filmmaker Hito Steyerl’s video installation Liquidity Inc. (2014) and let the story of economic loss, mixed martial arts – and water – wash over you; blue judo mats act as sound buffers, also part of the installation.

You can watch an armed Ronald McDonald take Big Boy hostage in French graphics and animation studio H5’s animated short Logorama (2009) – which uses more than 2,500 logos.

While there are a few others, the last review I’m including here is Helen Wong’s March 2, 2016 article for Sad Mag (Note: I found her article on March 7, 2016 after I finished my set of impressions and found she and I shared more than one; we have not communicated with each other),

In the exhibition preview Grenville stated their goal was to ensure their visitors would return again and again. By creating such a massive and comprehensive show, there is no choice but to return. Frankly, going and seeing the exhibition in one go is overwhelming and exhausting. [emphasis mine] There is so much work to see that by the time you finish, your thoughts resemble the mashup of the exhibition. In a way, the design of the exhibition presents a mashup in itself where hundreds of works are presented to the viewer, giving you the responsibility of picking out what’s important. I found that this also mirrors modern day society as information and images are given to us at a speed quicker than ever. We are prone to distraction as our attention spans decline.

What follows is a segue of sorts into the New York art scene which disconcertingly brings to mind the current situation with the VAG’s interest in moving to a purpose-built space and its current show.

Contemporary art museum scene

For anyone who’s interested in the Vancouver art scene, it’s hard to miss the Vancouver Art Gallery’s current drive to raise $350M for a new space. This desire for a newer, bigger box is not confined to Vancouver as Jerry Saltz points out in his April 19, 2015 piece for the Vulture where he explores the drive for bigger and better in New York City’s art scene (Note: Links have been removed),

… museums have changed — a lot. Slowly over the past quarter-century, then quickly in the past decade. These changes have been complicated, piecemeal, and sometimes contradictory, with different museums embracing them in different ways. But the transformation is visible everywhere. Put simply, it is this: The museum used to be a storehouse for the art of the past, the display of supposed masterpieces, the insightful exploration of the present in the context of the long or compressed histories that preceded it. Now — especially as embodied by the Tate Modern [Note: The Swiss architects responsibe for the Tate Modern have been retained for the proposed new VAG space], Guggenheim Bilbao, and our beloved MoMA — the museum is a revved-up showcase of the new, the now, the next, an always-activated market of events and experiences, many of which lack any reason to exist other than to occupy the museum industry — an industry that critic Matthew Collings has called “bloated and foolish, corporatist, ghastly and death-ridden.”

The list of fun-house attractions is long. At MoMA, we’ve had overhyped, badly done shows of Björk and Tim Burton, the Rain Room selfie trap, and the daylong spectacle of Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass case. This summer in London you can ride Carsten Höller’s building-high slides at the Hayward Gallery — there, the fun house is literal. Elsewhere, it is a little more “adult”: In 2011, L.A.’s MoCA staged Marina Abramovic’s Survival MoCA Dinner, a piece of megakitsch that included naked women with skeletons atop them on dinner tables where attendees ate. In 2012, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art paid $70,000 for a 21-foot-tall, 340-ton boulder by artist Michael Heizer and installed it over a cement trench in front of the museum, paying $10 million for what is essentially a photo op. Last year, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago mounted a tepid David Bowie show, which nevertheless broke records for attendance and sales of catalogues, “limited-edition prints,” and T-shirts. Among the many unfocused recent spectacles at the Guggenheim were Cai Guo-Qiang’s nine cars suspended in the rotunda with lights shooting out of them. The irony of these massively expensive endeavors is that the works and shows are supposedly “radical” and “interdisciplinary,” but the experiences they generate are closer, really, to a visit to Graceland — “Shut up, take a selfie, keep moving.”

In this way, an old museum model has been replaced by another one. Museums that were roughly bookish, slow, a bit hoity-toity, not risk-averse but careful, oddly other, and devoted to reflection, connoisseurship, cultivation, and preservation (mostly of the past but also of new great works) — these museums have transformed into institutions that feel faster, indifferent to existing collections, and at all times intensely in pursuit of new work, new crowds, and new money. We used to look at these places as something like embodiments and explorations of the canon — or canons, since some (MoMA’s and Guggenheim’s modernism collections) were narrower and more specialized than others (the Met’s, the Louvre’s). But whatever long-view curating and collecting museums do now — and many of them still do it well — the institutions that are sucking up the most energy are the ones that have made themselves into platforms for spectacle, as though the party-driven global-art-fair feeding frenzy had taken up residence in one place, and one building, permanently. Plus, accessibility has become everything. More museums are making collections available online — sad to say, art is sometimes better viewed there than in the flesh, thanks to so much bad museum architecture and so little actual space to display permanent collections. Acousti­guides have become more and more common, and while there’s much good they can do, it often seems their most important function is crowd control — moving visitors through quickly to make room for the next million.

The museums of New York can already feel alien with this new model taking over. And we’re really at the beginning rather than the end of the transformation. All four of Manhattan’s big museums — the Met, MoMA, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim — have undertaken or are involved in massive expansion, renovation, and rebuilding. …

It’s a fascinating read for its perspective on the New York art and international art scenes. Well worth reading.

Final words

After reading Saltz’s piece and recalling the VAG’s expansionist plans, I am beginning to wonder if their Mashup spectacle is a precursor for their future contributions to Vancouver’s art scene. Is quiet contemplation going to disappear from our public galleries and museums?

Part 1 which includes definitions for mashups and a review of the Jan. 23 – April 23, 2016 [ETA April 4, 2016: The show has been extended to Friday, May 20, 2016.] is here.

Programming announcements for the International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) 2015 in Vancouver, Canada

I last wrote about ISEA (International Sympsosium on Electronics Arts) in an April 24, 2015 posting when announcing this,

Our paper (Raewyn Turner, an artist from New Zealand,  and mine, Maryse de la Giroday), Steep (I): a digital poetry of gold nanoparticles, has been accepted for the 2015 International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) to be held in Vancouver, Canada from Aug. 14 – 18, 2015. I last wrote about ISEA 2015 in a Dec. 19, 2014 post where I indicated more information about our project would be forthcoming—the next week. Ah well, better late than never, eh?

In short, I will be presenting at the conference and (fingers crossed) so will Raewyn.

A July 7, 2015 Simon Fraser University (SFU) news release reveals more about the conference programming,

For the first time in two decades, the 2015 International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) is returning to Canada and will be hosted by Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Communication, Arts and Technology, and its School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT), the School for Contemporary Arts (SCA).

I attended the 2009 edition of ISEA which was held in Northern Ireland and Ireland where some people were still raving about the Québec-hosted event. Vancouver has a lot to live up to.

Back to the news release,

ISEA 2015 will be held in Vancouver from August 14-19. Over the five days the symposium will feature more than 450 speakers, workshops and presentations. Its theme, “Disruption,” will examine the borders between academia and artwork, practice and theory, systems and reality, and art and society.

The symposium will also feature some of the most innovative and groundbreaking digital artworks from all over the world and will transform Vancouver into a “city-sized” dynamic art space, says symposium coordinator and SIAT professor Philippe Pasquier. More than 160 digital artworks will come to life in multiple venues throughout Vancouver, including SFU Woodwards.

“We are excited that Simon Fraser University, with its core commitments to innovative education and community engagement, will host one of the world’s most prominent international arts and technology events,” said SFU President Andrew Petter. “Featuring leading experts and innovators in the field, including those from SFU, and a global arts showcase, ISEA 2015 will bring great energy to the city.”

A committee of distinguished experts has curated a program for ISEA 2015 that will explore how disruptions manifest in science, artistic practice, activism, geopolitics, media, sound, sound ecology and embodied practices.

Panels and roundtable programs will feature discussions on artistic research, communications, computational media technologies, dance and performance. These will explore how art intersects with climate change, contemporary curatorial practices, media activism and subversion, IY technology, bio art and sound, embodied art practices, geopolitics and more.

To frame the discussion around the artistic, scientific, technological, and social manifestations of disruptions as a phenomenon, keynote speakers will include Brian Massumi, Michael Connor, Dominique Moulon, Sara Diamond, as well as SFU’s Hildegard Westerkamp. The Yes Men will close the symposium with an address on the use of creative expression for subversion and disruption.

The symposium will feature 19 workshops across several disciplines. MOCO’15, the 2nd international workshop on movement and computing, aims to gather academics and practitioners interested in the computational study and generation of movement in art and science. As part of MOCO’15’s artistic program visitors can attend Hakanai, a dance performance, taking place in a cube of moving images.

Keynote speakers (and master disruptors) Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, better known as the Yes Men, will share the history of media activism, following up with a mater-class on creating media activist campaign base on unscripted responses.

  • MUTEK Cabaret, organized by the MUTEK Festival and curated for ISEA 2015 by Alain Mongeau.
  • Computer code meets contemporary art as ISEAS 2015 presents an Algorave, a participatory performance that invites visitors to dance to music generated by algorithms. This is the first time an Algorave will take place in Canada.
  • Beyond the Trees: WALLPAPERS in dialogue with Emily Carr is an exhibition by the WALLPAPERS collective that will run at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

For more information on specific programs please visit: www.isea2015.org

As for the paper and video we’re (Raewyn and I) presenting, it’s called “Steep (1): a digital poetry of gold nanoparticles. It is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015 in session no. 9 (Interactive Text 1), 11:30 am – 1 pm. You can find the schedule here.

Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference (part 4 of 4)

Cultural heritage and the importance of pigments and databases

Unlike Thom (Ian Thom, curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery), I believe that the testing was important. Knowing the spectra emitted by the pigments in Hurdy Gurdy and Autumn Harbour could help to set benchmarks for establishing the authenticity of the pigments used by artists (Harris and others) in the early part of Canada’s 20th century.

Europeans and Americans are more advanced in their use of technology as a tool in the process of authenticating, restoring, or conserving a piece of art. At the Chicago Institute of Art they identified the red pigment used in a Renoir painting as per my March 24, 2014 posting,

… The first item concerns research by Richard Van Duyne into the nature of the red paint used in one of Renoir’s paintings. A February 14, 2014 news item on Azonano describes some of the art conservation work that Van Duyne’s (nanoish) technology has made possible along with details about this most recent work,

Scientists are using powerful analytical and imaging tools to study artworks from all ages, delving deep below the surface to reveal the process and materials used by some of the world’s greatest artists.

Northwestern University chemist Richard P. Van Duyne, in collaboration with conservation scientists at the Art Institute of Chicago, has been using a scientific method he discovered nearly four decades ago to investigate masterpieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Winslow Homer and Mary Cassatt.

Van Duyne recently identified the chemical components of paint, now partially faded, used by Renoir in his oil painting “Madame Léon Clapisson.” Van Duyne discovered the artist used carmine lake, a brilliant but light-sensitive red pigment, on this colorful canvas. The scientific investigation is the cornerstone of a new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

There are some similarities between the worlds of science (in this case, chemistry) and art (collectors,  institutions, curators, etc.). They are worlds where one must be very careful.

The scientists/chemists choose their words with precision while offering no certainties. Even the announcement for the discovery (by physicists) of the Higgs Boson is not described in absolute terms as I noted in my July 4, 2012 posting titled: Tears of joy as physicists announce they’re pretty sure they found the Higgs Boson. As the folks from ProsPect Scientific noted,

This is why the science must be tightly coupled with art expertise for an effective analysis.  We cannot do all of that for David [Robertson]. [He] wished to show a match between several pigments to support an interpretation that the ‘same’ paints were used. The availability of Hurdy Gurdy made this plausible because it offered a known benchmark that lessened our dependency on the databases and art-expertise. This is why Raman spectroscopy more often disproves authenticity (through pigment anachronisms). Even if all of the pigments analysed showed the same spectra we don’t know that many different painters didn’t buy the same brand of paint or that some other person didn’t take those same paints and use them for a different painting. Even if all pigments were different, that doesn’t mean Lawren Harris didn’t paint it, it just means different paints were used.

In short they proved that one of the pigments used in Autumn Harbour was also used in the authenticated Harris, Hurdy Gurdy, and the other pigment was in use at that time (early 20th century) in Canada. It doesn’t prove it’s a Harris painting but, unlike the Pollock painting where they found an anachronistic pigment, it doesn’t disprove Robertson’s contention.

To contrast the two worlds, the art world seems to revel in secrecy for its own sake while the world of science (chemistry) will suggest, hint, or hedge but never state certainties. The ProSpect* Scientific representative commented on authentication, art institutions, and databases,

We know that some art institutions are extremely cautious about any claims towards authentication, and they decline to be cited in anything other than the work they directly undertake. (One director of a well known US art institution said to me that they pointedly do not authenticate works, she offered advice on how to conduct the analysis but declined any reference to her institution.) We cannot comment on any of the business plans of any of our customers but the customers we have that use Raman spectroscopy on paintings generally build databases from their collected studies as a vital tool to their own ongoing work collecting and preserving works of art.

We don’t know of anyone with a database particular to pigments used by Canadian artists and neither did David R. We don’t know that any organization is developing such a database.The database we used is a mineral database (as pigments in the early 20th century were pre-synthetic this database contains some of the things commonly used in pigments at that time) There are databases available for many things:  many are for sale, some are protected intellectual property. We don’t have immediate access to a pigments database. Some of our art institution/museum customers are developing their own but often these are not publicly available. Raman spectroscopy is new on the scene relative to other techniques like IR and X-Ray analysis and the databases of Raman spectra are less mature.

ProSpect Scientific provided two papers which illustrate either the chemists’ approach to testing and art (RAMAN VIBRATIONAL STUDY OF PIGMENTS WITH PATRIMONIAL INTEREST FOR THE CHILEAN CULTURAL HERITAGE) and/or the art world’s approach (GENUINE OR FAKE: A MICRO-RAMAN SPECTROSCOPY STUDY OF AN ABSTRACT PAINTING ATTRIBUTED TO VASILY KANDINSKY [PDF]).

Canadian cultural heritage

Whether or not Autumn Harbour is a Lawren Harris painting may turn out to be less important than establishing a means for better authenticating, restoring, and conserving Canadian cultural heritage. (In a June 13, 2014 telephone conversation, David Robertson claims he will forward the summary version of the data from the tests to the Canadian Conservation Institute once it is received.)

If you think about it, Canadians are defined by the arts and by research. While our neighbours to the south went through a revolutionary war to declare independence, Canadians have declared independence through the visual and literary arts and the scientific research and implementation of technology (transportation and communication in the 19th and 20th centuries).

Thank you to both Tony Ma and David Robertson.

Finally, Happy Canada Day on July 1, 2014!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

* ‘ProsPect’ changed to ‘ProSpect’ on June 30, 2014.

ETA July 14, 2014 at 1300 hours PDT: There is now an addendum to this series, which features a reply from the Canadian Conservation Institute to a query about art pigments used by Canadian artists and access to a database of information about them.

Lawren Harris (Group of Seven), art authentication, and the Canadian Conservation Insitute (addendum to four-part series)

Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference (part 2 of 4)

Testing the sample and Raman fingerprints

The first stage of the June 3, 2010 test of David Robertson’s Autumn Harbour, required taking a tiny sample from the painting,. These samples are usually a fleck of a few microns (millionths of an inch), which can then be tested to ensure the lasers are set at the correct level assuring no danger of damage to the painting. (Robertson extracted the sample himself prior to arriving at the conference. He did not allow anyone else to touch his purported Harris before, during, or after the test.)

Here’s how ProSpect* Scientific describes the ‘rehearsal’ test on the paint chip,

Tests on this chip were done simply to ensure we knew what power levels were safe for use on the painting.  While David R stated he believed the painting was oil on canvas without lacquer, we were not entirely certain of that.  Lacquer tends to be easier to burn than oil pigments and so we wanted to work with this chip just to be entirely certain there was no risk to the painting itself.

The preliminary (rehearsal) test resulted in a line graph that showed the frequencies of the various pigments in the test sample. Titanium dioxide, for example, was detected and its frequency (spectra) reflected on the graph.

I found this example of a line graph representing the spectra (fingerprint) for a molecule of an ultramarine (blue) pigment along with a general explanation of a Raman ‘fingerprint’. There is no indication as to where the ultramarine pigment was obtained. From the  WebExhibits.org website featuring a section on Pigments through the Ages and a webpage on Spectroscopy,

raman-ArtPigment

Ultramarine [downloaded from http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/intro/spectroscopy.html]

Raman spectra consist of sharp bands whose position and height are characteristic of the specific molecule in the sample. Each line of the spectrum corresponds to a specific vibrational mode of the chemical bonds in the molecule. Since each type of molecule has its own Raman spectrum, this can be used to characterize molecular structure and identify chemical compounds.

Most people don’t realize that the chemical signature (spectra) for pigment can change over time with new pigments being introduced. Finding a pigment that was on the market from 1970 onwards in a painting by Jackson Pollock who died in 1956 suggests strongly that the painting couldn’t have come from Pollock’s hand. (See Michael Shnayerson’s May 2012 article, A Question of Provenance, in Vanity Fair for more about the Pollock painting. The article details the fall of a fabled New York art gallery that had been in business prior to the US Civil War.)

The ability to identify a pigment’s molecular fingerprint means that an examination by Raman spectroscopy can be part of an authentication, a restoration, or a conservation process. Here is how a representative from ProSpect Scientific describes the process,

Raman spectroscopy is non-destructive (when conducted at the proper power levels) and identifies the molecular components in the pigments, allowing characterization of the pigments for proper restoration or validation by comparison with other pigments of the same place/time. It is valuable to art institutions and conservators because it can do this.  In most cases of authentication Raman spectroscopy is one of many tools used and not the first in line. A painting would be first viewed by art experts for technique, format etc, then most often analysed with IR or X-Ray, then perhaps Raman spectroscopy. It is impossible to use Raman spectroscopy to prove authenticity as paint pigments are usually not unique to any particular painter.  Most often Raman spectroscopy is used by conservators to determine proper pigments for appropriate restoration.  Sometimes Raman will tell us that the pigment isn’t from the time/era the painting is purported to be from (anachronisms).

Autumn Harbour test

Getting back to the June 3, 2014 tests, once the levels were set then it was time to examine Autumn Harbour itself to determine the spectra for the various pigments.  ProSpect Scientific has provided an explanation of the process,

This spectrometer was equipped with an extension that allowed delivery of the laser and collection of the scattered light at a point other than directly under the microscope. We could also have used a flexible fibre optic probe for this, but this device is slightly more efficient. This allowed us to position the delivery/collection point for the light just above the painting at the spot we wished to test. For this test, we don’t sweep across the surface, we test a small pinpoint that we feel is a pigment of the target colour.

We only use one laser at a time. The system is built so we can easily select one laser or another, depending on what we wish to look at. Some researchers have 3 or 4 lasers in their system because different lasers provide a better/worse raman spectrum depending on the nature of the sample. In this case we principally used the 785nm laser as it is better for samples that exhibit fluorescence at visible wavelengths. 532nm is a visible wavelength.  For samples that didn’t produce good signal we tried the 532nm laser as it produces better signal to noise than 785nm, generally speaking. I believe the usable results in our case were obtained with the 785nm laser.

The graphed Raman spectra shows peaks for the frequency of scattered light that we collect from the laser-illuminated sample (when shining a laser on a sample the vast majority of light is scattered in the same frequency of the laser, but a very small amount is scattered at different frequencies unique to the molecules in the sample). Those frequencies correspond to and identify molecules in the sample. We use a database (on the computer attached to the spectrometer) to pattern match the spectra to identify the constituents.

One would have thought ‘game over’ at this point. According to some informal sources, Canada has a very small (almost nonexistent) data bank of information about pigments used in its important paintings. For example, the federal government’s Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has a very small database of pigments and nothing from Lawren Harris paintings [See the CCI’s response in this addendum], so the chances that David Robertson would have been able to find a record of pigments used by Lawren Harris roughly in the same time period that Autumn Harbour seems to have been painted are not good.

Everything changes

In a stunning turn of events and despite the lack of enthusiasm from Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) curator, Ian Thom, on Wednesday, June 4, 2014 the owner of the authenticated Harris, Hurdy Gurdy, relented and brought the painting in for tests.

Here’s what the folks from ProSpect Scientific had to say about the comparison,

Many pigments were evaluated. Good spectra were obtained for blue and white. The blue pigment matched on both paintings, the white didn’t match. We didn’t get useful Raman spectra from other pigments. We had limited time, with more time we might fine tune and get more data.

One might be tempted to say that the results were 50/50 with one matching and the other not, The response from the representative of ProSpect Scientific is more measured,

We noted that the mineral used in the pigment was the same.  Beyond that is interpretation:  Richard offered the view that lapis-lazuli was a typical and characteristic component for blue in that time period (early 1900’s).   We saw different molecules in the whites used in the two paintings, and Richard offered that both were characteristic of the early 1900’s.

Part 1

Part 3

Part 4

* ‘ProsPect’ changed to ‘ProSpect’ on June 30, 2014.

ETA July 14, 2014 at 1300 hours PDT: There is now an addendum to this series, which features a reply from the Canadian Conservation Institute to a query about art pigments used by Canadian artists and access to a database of information about them.

Lawren Harris (Group of Seven), art authentication, and the Canadian Conservation Insitute (addendum to four-part series)

 

Bioengineered ear at Cornell University

The researchers claim their bioengineered ear looks and acts like a real ear, from the Feb. 20, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

Cornell bioengineers and physicians have created an artificial ear – using 3-D printing and injectable molds – that looks and acts like a natural ear, giving new hope to thousands of children born with a congenital deformity called microtia.

In a study published online Feb. 20 in PLOS ONE, Cornell biomedical engineers and Weill Cornell Medical College physicians described how 3-D printing and injectable gels made of living cells can fashion ears that are practically identical to a human ear. Over a three-month period, these flexible ears grew cartilage to replace the collagen that was used to mold them.

“This is such a win-win for both medicine and basic science, demonstrating what we can achieve when we work together,” said co-lead author Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering.

The novel ear may be the solution reconstructive surgeons have long wished for to help children born with ear deformity, said co-lead author Dr. Jason Spector, director of the Laboratory for Bioregenerative Medicine and Surgery and associate professor of plastic surgery at Weill Cornell in New York City.

“A bioengineered ear replacement like this would also help individuals who have lost part or all of their external ear in an accident or from cancer,” Spector said.

Replacement ears are usually constructed with materials that have a Styrofoam-like consistency, or sometimes, surgeons build ears from a patient’s harvested rib. This option is challenging and painful for children, and the ears rarely look completely natural or perform well, Spector said.

Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and colleagues collaborated with Weill Cornell Medical College physicians to create an artificial ear using 3-D printing and injectable molds. Credit: Lindsay France/University Photography [downloaded from http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Feb13/earPrint.html]

Lawrence Bonassar, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and colleagues collaborated with Weill Cornell Medical College physicians to create an artificial ear using 3-D printing and injectable molds. Credit: Lindsay France/University Photography [downloaded from http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Feb13/earPrint.html]

A Feb. 20, 2013 article in Cornell University’s Chronicle Online (and the basis for the news release) provides details about how this bioengineered ear was achieved (Note: A link has been removed),

To make the ears, Bonassar and colleagues started with a digitized 3-D image of a human subject’s ear and converted the image into a digitized “solid” ear using a 3-D printer to assemble a mold.

They injected the mold with collagen derived from rat tails, and then added 250 million cartilage cells from the ears of cows. This Cornell-developed, high-density gel is similar to the consistency of Jell-O when the mold is removed. The collagen served as a scaffold upon which cartilage could grow.

The process is also fast, Bonassar added: “It takes half a day to design the mold, a day or so to print it, 30 minutes to inject the gel, and we can remove the ear 15 minutes later. We trim the ear and then let it culture for several days in nourishing cell culture media before it is implanted.”

The incidence of microtia, which is when the external ear is not fully developed, varies from almost 1 to more than 4 per 10,000 births each year. Many children born with microtia have an intact inner ear, but experience hearing loss due to the missing external structure.

There was a show in 2004  at the Vancouver Art Gallery (Canada), Massive Change, curated by graphic designer Bruce Mau, which amongst many other objects and images featured a bioengineered nose being grown in a beaker. If memory serves, the work featuring the nose was from Israel and there was no mention of when that work might leave the lab and be used for implants. From the Chronicle article,

Bonassar and Spector have been collaborating on bioengineered human replacement parts since 2007. Bonassar has also worked with Weill Cornell neurological surgeon Dr. Roger Härtl on bioengineered disc replacements using some of the same techniques demonstrated in the PLOS One study.

The researchers specifically work on replacement human structures that are primarily made of cartilage — joints, trachea, spine, nose — because cartilage does not need to be vascularized with a blood supply in order to survive.

They are now looking at ways to expand populations of human ear cartilage cells in the laboratory so that these cells can be used in the mold, instead of cow cartilage.

“Using human cells, specifically those from the same patient, would reduce any possibility of rejection,” Spector said.

He added that the best time to implant a bioengineered ear on a child would be when they are about 5 or 6 years old. At that age, ears are 80 percent of their adult size.

If all future safety and efficacy tests work out, it might be possible to try the first human implant of a Cornell bioengineered ear in as little as three years, Spector said.

Good luck to them. For anyone who’s interested here’s a citation and link to the paper,

Reiffel AJ, Kafka C, Hernandez KA, Popa S, Perez JL, et al. (2013) High-Fidelity Tissue Engineering of Patient-Specific Auricles for Reconstruction of Pediatric Microtia and Other Auricular Deformities. PLoS ONE 8(2): e56506. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056506

PLoS One is an open access journal.

Vancouver Art Gallery show: The Modern Woman and Rennie Collection show: Richard Jackson resonate in unexpected ways

Does the artist’s (visual, literary, musical, theatrical, etc.) personal life matter when you’re experiencing their art? It’s a question that arose in Lucas Nightingale’s response to Robin Laurence’s June 7, 2010 Georgia Straight visual arts review in his June 24, 2010 letter to the editor. The show in question was  the Vancouver Art Gallery’s big summer exhibition, The Modern Woman: Drawings by Dégas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and other Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. Laurence in her critique noted,

“I paint with my prick.” So claimed Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Asked what motivated his representations of plump, rosy-cheeked young women, he’s also reputed to have said his art was all about tits and ass. As for Edgar Degas—the perennial bachelor, anti-Semite, and misogynist—he said he wanted to view women in intimate settings, as if he were looking at them “through a keyhole”. That reads a lot like voyeurism, especially in light of his drawings and paintings of naked women drying themselves off after a bath, seemingly unaware of the viewer. Then there’s the aristocratic Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who hung out with and depicted women who worked in brothels, bars, and nightclubs. He died of syphilis and tuberculosis in 1901 at the age of 36. How and when the prostitutes died is not recorded here.

Nightingale’s comments included,

Despite Laurence’s article, I went to see for myself. I marvelled in front of Angrand’s Ma Mère. Did I see misogyny there? No.

I melted in front of Courbet’s Portrait of the Artist’s Young Sister Juliet, Asleep. Did I see treachery there? No.

Did I care that Degas was a misogynist or that Renoir was a pervert or that Toulouse-Lautrec hung out with prostitutes? No, because finding out about the skeletons in an artist’s closet is not why I go to the gallery—I go to be moved by what they create.

Laurence seems to set a standard that you must approve of an artist’s dirty secrets before you can appreciate their art; call me naive, but I probably wouldn’t know anyone if I set standards like that.

In general, I separate the art from the artist so I can appreciate the work but I also find that knowing a little bit about the background can inform what I’m experiencing. For example, The Lady from Shanghai, a movie directed by Orson Welles released in 1947 and starring then wife, Rita Hayworth is an amazing work. The scene in the hall of mirrors where the two lead characters shoot out their reflections with the shattered glass refracting ever growing numbers of fractured reflections is still studied and marveled over. You can enjoy the movie as a work of art without ever knowing that Orson and Rita were experiencing a breakdown of their marriage and working together on the film was an attempt to repair it. I do find that knowing some of the background story to the movie makes me appreciate the movie all the more even as I wonder at Welles’ insistence that his famous wife dye her legendary hair from red to a platinum blonde and casting her as a heartless vamp.

In a way I find the work that Renoir, Dégas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, etc. all the more amazing given their enormous shortcomings. It’s a paradox and, for me, how you resolve the issue of art/artist is highly personal. For a contrasting example, Leni Riefenstahl produced two film masterpieces when she worked for Hitler, a man who engineered the death of entire Jewish populations in Europe during World War II (1939-1945). I have seen clips of her work but am not sure I could ever sit through an entire film. To date, I have not been able to separate the artist from the art.

There is a good reason for learning about the background or the story of an art work. For conceptual art and a lot of other contemporary art you need the story to make sense of what you’re seeing. For example, the latest show (my previous posting here) at the Rennie Collection features (amongst other pieces) a rifle or two and a huge canvas which is a partial recreation of a Georges Seurat painting from the 19th century. Unless you know something about Seurat and his paintings, you’re likely to dismiss it as it doesn’t make much sense. Thankfully, the gallery insists visitors go on a tour and are accompanied by someone who can tell you something about the show and what the artist is doing. There’s a reason for the rifle. The artist (Richard Jackson) uses it to shoot paint pellets at the canvas and there’s a reason why he picked a Seurat painting rather than another 19th century artist’s work. See my previous posting for more about this but very simply, Seurat was a very precise painter who worked with tiny dots to create his images which contrasts with hurling a paint pellet using the propulsive power of a rifle at a copy of one of his paintings.

Jackson has also created a series of bronze ballerinas reminiscent of Dégas. The Rennie Collection has one on display for this show and I had the good luck to talk to a trainee guide about the piece. I’ve described the piece in more detail in my previous posting but briefly, the dancer has been knocked off her pedestal and lies crumpled below it. There’s paint dripping from the pedestal and elsewhere (including her head as I recall). The paint colour for the ballerina in the Rennie Collection is red, other ballerinas in the series have different colours for the dripping paint. The guide had found out from the artist who visited Vancouver for several weeks before the show was opened, that this series is intended as a commentary on how artists use women in their work and a commentary on how women in the arts were treated in the 19th century. Serendipitously or not, the piece provides an interesting contrast to the big show currently on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery which you can only appreciate if you know the story.

I think there’s something to be said for being able to go and experience a piece of art without having a degree in art history or knowing the backstory. There’s also something to be said for having one or both. As for being able to separate the artist from his/her personal behaviour, that’s up to the individual. Like I said, sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. I imagine many folks are the same.