Thursday, September 3, 2009

Art, inside the box

ContainerArt photographed by John Lehmann of the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn

Special to The Globe and Mail

September 3, 2009


Aficionados of the Pacific National Exhibition are likely unfamiliar with the refined decorum demanded by art galleries.

Nor are gallery habitues accustomed to gazing upon an objet d’art while gorging on cotton candy.

Snob, meet mob.

On the fairgrounds, what is described as an innovative temporary container museum offers a thoughtful respite from the daylong vendors’ cry of “Win a house! Win a car!”

Fifteen cargo containers are stacked to present an archway leading to an interior courtyard. Opened at one end, eight of the containers hold installations created by eight British Columbia artists. There are paintings, sculptures, photographs, and multi-media presentations.

It is called, understandably enough, ContainerArt.

Think of it as schtick in a box.

The idea comes from Italy, where it boasts a manifesto. The idea: “Empty containers ambling around the world, filling with beauty wherever they stop.”

“It’s very new,” said Peter Male, whose title of vice-president, sales with the PNE is much less interesting than calling him a curator. “It’s very experimental. It’s breaking new ground.”

The Fair is traditionally associated with such popular arts as black velvet paintings and toothpick Eiffel Towers, as dedicated craftspeople compete for blue ribbons, a prize also coveted by those doing battle in displays of animal husbandry.

The ContainerArt exhibition is located on Spirit Plaza, sandwiched between a casino, a beer garden, and the logging sports display. The roar of nearby Monster Trucks provides a background soundtrack. At night, a quartet of Skytracker searchlights flashes beams of light into the sky. Good luck trying to find a similar multimedia experience at the Uffizi, the Prado, or the Louvre.

The artists were told they could not alter the container in any way — no painting, no cutting windows, no using glue, or nails, or screws.

As a sustainable project, the containers must be able to return to their ordinary duty, which is in evidence at the nearby working waterfront.

The artist Corinne Wolcoski draped the interior of her box in billowing white cloth, soothing as clouds. Five acrylic panels of calm landscapes hang at eye level. Sand, shells and driftwood lined three sides of the interior. Stepping inside, one hears the sound of a sea and waves crashing.

“It’s immersive,” Mr. Male said enthusiastically. Though it should be noted one child who entered said he felt like he was inside a hurricane. The work is titled “360 Inside Passage.”

Another container bringing the outside indoors was prepared by Brittany Devon Mitchell, whose “Whitespaces” includes strips of turf on the floor. A series of green-and-white paintings of the city based on satellite images show how urban landscapes are dominated by man-made structures. She got the idea while living in Osaka. Let’s just say her painting of the fairgrounds has way more green than it would have a decade ago, when asphalt dominated. A “keep off the grass” sign on the exterior is not so much ironic as an attempt to protect the artwork.

An installation by Neal Nolan with Eden Bender and Brian Gotro, titled “{BlackHandprint}”, includes spraypainted panels and a video featuring a freight train with a hobo’s recounting of riding the rails. “My work is a catharsis occurrence; expressing conjecture toward individual emprise, a philosophy, theory or discussion through mixed media application,” Mr. Nolan writes.

That’s what I thought.

“Neon Heaven in Flames” by Ken Gerberich and Harvey Chometsky uses fragments of neon tubing, chrome hubcaps, and sheet copper scavenged from dumps and laneways as an attempt “to change the mundane into the sublime.”

Anthony Au’s container featured his photographs from Asia, while Robert Studer’s “Empty Vessels, Full Container” includes 500 sculptures of handblown glass.

Junichiro Iwase’s “Country” displayed three mask-like sculptures created from eggshells, chosen because Canadians are “attuned to the fragility of others.”

“He must have eaten a lot of eggs,” a mother informed her children after reading the artist’s statement.

Nor was their yet word of protest from the nearby 4-H nearby barns.

A brief canvass of visitors showed the most popular of the eight installations to be Christian Dahlberg’s photographs of neon signs found on Vancouver streets, including the Apostolic Faith’s spectacular “Jesus, The Light of the World.”

Perhaps the photographer can be accused of pandering to fairgoers, who are likely more familiar with the Ovaltine Cafe than contemporary art.

A guard sidled up to a note-taking patron.

“I don’t get that one,” he said, cocking his head to one side towards a container. “And I don’t get that one,” he added, cocking his head to the other. He pushed his chin forward. “That one I like.”

I don’t know art when I see it, but I do know this. Everyone’s a critic.