Friday, October 05, 2012

Foreshadowing.  Not a "location picture," despite the site's uncanny resemblance to Passerby, 1996.
"An outsize energy and determination drove him on to recover and rebuild after every self-created disaster that he faced."
Thursday, October 04, 2012

Correspondent: "So you've never seen any good work at the VAG."

I didn't say that.  The VAG, like any large art museum, exhibits a range of aesthetic quality.  Recently I've seen and liked Carol Sawyer's time-lapse Every day I take the same photograph, Kika Thorne's Octave (which I wrote about for Pyramid Power), survey exhibitions by Isabelle Pauwels and Scott McFarland, the big Roy Arden retrospective and accompanying permanent collection survey show, and the Kai Althoff and Anthony Hernandez exhibitions co-curated by Kathleen Bartels and Jeff Wall.  But I don't think that, overall, the VAG is the best place in Vancouver to learn about, or to see, contemporary art.  It was once, under Willard Holmes and Judith Mastai. Studying the roots of its slow decline is instructive.

Some correspondents want to talk about the VAG.  Advance apologies to anyone not interested in a discussion of local artworld politics.

1.  I was at the VAG for sixteen months as a curatorial assistant, meaning I typed and filed and was routinely overruled.  If by some miracle I had survived another sixteen months I would still probably have been typing and filing. Once I was asked if the "kids" might be interested in a show about skateboarding. When I mentioned my surplus curatorial energies I was lectured on something called the "career path," which apparently begins in St. John's, or Regina, or Whitehorse.  This didn't work for me, just as it didn't work for Kitty Scott or Melanie O'Brian, two ambitious occupants of positions almost identical to mine, who also left.

2.  Just before I left, I curated a tiny exhibition out of the permanent collection with Alfred Pellan and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and some other good artists.  It was called Change or Die!, a title not lost on my regular coffee crowd in the preparation department.

3.  My proposal for a one-room contemporary project space somewhere in the building was nixed by my boss on multiple grounds, one of which was that it would cost too much money.  Undeterred, I opened Anodyne Contemporary around the corner from the VAG in a second-floor office, where I did two years of exhibitions on a curatorial assistant's salary and my then-partner's patience.  After a brief hiatus, I've now done six years and counting of exhibitions with my friends Steven Tong and Adam Harrison at CSA Space, this time on a bookseller/photographer's salary, which is to say, even less.

4.  The VAG's current programming is largely irrelevant to anyone under 45, with the exception of the excellent one-offs co-curated by its director, Kathleen Bartels, and Jeff Wall. (A permanent collection exhibition curated by Roy Arden, as a counterpoint to a VAG survey of his own work, was also pretty terrific).

5.  Vancouver doesn't lack for youngish curatorial talent.  Jordan Strom, Liz Park, Lee Plested, Aaron Peck, Steven Tong and many of the UBC curatorial studies grads are routinely producing interesting exhibitions.  Yet the VAG seems totally uninterested in engaging with them.

6.  Kathleen Bartels' tenure as director has been linked, by Bob Rennie and others, to a move to a larger building.  Bob wants to torpedo the move for reasons I don't pretend to understand, other than to observe that I have less in common with him, the consummate salesman, "creative capitalist" and political insider, than with just about any other member of the Canadian art world.

7.  Somehow #6 has evolved into a George W. Bush-style axis-of-evil equation.  Either you're with Kathleen, and for a bigger building, or you're with Bob.

8.  Put me in the not-Bob crowd.  I have no time or respect for what Bob and his job have done to my city.

9.  I think that Kathleen Bartels has done a good job under difficult circumstances, certainly the best job of any director since Willard Holmes.  But admiring Kathleen doesn't mean rubber-stamping the monomania of the current VAG board, who want a bigger building, but have no clear plan for how the cash-strapped institution will pay for it.

10.  Money will always be found for buildings.  Donors love having their names on things.

10a.   No one likes to fund light and heat, curatorial research, preparation, conservation, exhibition installation, & etc.  These costs are necessary, but not sexy.

11.  Cultural institutions are always, in the words of one of my more frequent correspondents, managed disasters.  Point taken.  But upping an institution's financial exposure at a time of unprecedented economic turmoil is counterproductive.  It makes the institution more dependent on politicians of all stripes, who are no friends of sophisticated art to begin with, and on donors with smug taste.  There will always be corporate money for Emily Carr and Douglas Coupland and Gordon Smith and EJ Hughes.  But Paul McCarthy?  Lady Brute?  Yuxweluptun?  Paul Wong?

12. As I wrote this morning, "The solution to a long-standing institutional problem is to reform the institution, not to kick the problem down the road, naively pretending that it will somehow resolve itself in the medium- to long term, despite all evidence to the contrary."

13.  Kathleen's supporters -- and I count myself among them -- would do her, and the city, a favor by nixing talk of a bigger building, focusing instead on holding the VAG to a higher curatorial standard.  That institution might then consistantly produce exhibitions of high quality which would put Bob Rennie and his private vanity gallery to shame.

Some other illuminating contributions to the discussion here and here.

Fair notice: I will treat all future correspondence pertaining to this topic as public, eg., available for attribution, citation, & etc.
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
Sidewalk couple discussing Animal Farm.

He: "I'm pretty sure it's fiction. I mean, talking pigs."

She: "So Babe is fiction too?"

Everybody, Get in Line

The solution to a long-standing institutional problem is to reform the institution, not to kick the problem down the road, naively pretending that it will somehow resolve itself in the medium- to long term, despite all evidence to the contrary.

I left the institution because its administration and goals were in conflict with me, and to secure some independence.

Demanding unqualified support for that institution -- by pretending that it's the only game in town; by pretending that enlarging it will somehow miraculously reform its provinciality and poverty of curatorial imagination  -- is a 100% non-starter.  At least with me.
"The world has moved outside of our vision; all that remains is the recognition of things.  We do not say 'hello' to each other, we say '...'lo.'

The entire world through which we pass, the homes which we do not notice, the chairs on which we sit, the women with whom we walk arm in arm -- they all say to us '...'lo.'"

(Viktor Shklovsky, Literature and Cinematography)

Choosing a Cat, by Ursula K. Le Guin

"The Humane Society’s Portland office is an amazing place. It is immense, and I saw only the lobby and the cat wing — rooms and rooms and rooms of cats. There’s always somebody, staff and volunteers, at hand if you want them. Everything is organised with such simple efficiency that it all seems easygoing and friendly — low-stress. When you are one of the huge number of people coming daily to bring in or adopt animals, when you see the endless incoming and outgoing of animals and glimpse the tremendous, endless work involved in receiving and treating and keeping them, the achievement of that easy-going atmosphere seems almost incredible and totally admirable.

The human-animal interface is a very troubled one these days, and in one sense the Humane Society shows that trouble at its most acute. Yet in everything I saw there, I also saw the best of what human beings can do when they put their heart and mind to it."
Tuesday, October 02, 2012

"Garner, who was awarded an OBE in 2001, lives with bipolar disorder, and this slim masterpiece is in the tradition of mad kings Sweeney and Lear; a message from the frontiers of pain. More than any orthodox work of historical fiction, it was this weird fantasy novel which taught me to look beyond the walls of my own era, my own reality."

Best novel I've read since Hard Rain Falling, maybe since Light.

Monday, October 01, 2012

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