Embarass/Debarass, the literal fun house installation by Montreal artist Patrick Berube, may just be the most enchanting gallery experience the AGA has ever offered.
As part of the larger group exhibition of emerging Canadian art stars, Berube’s work may not be anything new or original, but certainly his bare construction of finding wonder in forgotten spaces represents most clearly the show’s overall theme: that the life we live, mirrored askewed in art, can still hold simple pleasures.
Facing Berube’s construction, four narrow doors going from left to right present themselves with little appeal beyond the anticipated entry point of any gallery installation. The inside rooms of the two middle doors have been constructed as utility closets, with a blown-up photograph in each one depicting a man and a woman in a similar situation before the miscellaneous boxes and cheap storage shelves. Both the man and woman look to be in their 20s to 30 and look tired, but the looming shadow of a large red helium balloon is arguably keeping them conscious and upright. Is the banal chore of cleaning out your storage closets suggested as an uplifting experience full of wonders and surprises? As you continue to explore the two other rooms, the novelty of wonder and wander perpetuates with every corner taken.
A projection of a closet shines down if you look up and carefully survey the shelves for items ordinary and not. In the room to the right, you discover the resonating sound that permeates the entire exhibition, a droning wail that is in fact a Yamaha keyboard on permanent synth bass mode. What keeps the machine moaning is in fact one of the room’s support structures, reinforcing that it really is the keyboard that is the fundamental foundation for experiencing this space.
In the left room, with the inside wall painted bubble-gum pink, another photograph of a man on his hands and knees with his head tucked beneath an arm chair realizes itself into life as you the viewer soon take up a similar position peering into a lower crawl space on the opposite wall. Once inside the quaint and cozy space, there is not much to survey about you until you look up. Only in lying flat down can you take in the partitioned-off glass ceiling filled to the brim with the bottom of unclassifiable objects. From magnetized letters to the bottom of jars filled with knick knacks to the sole of a dress shoe and old boxes and cartridges to everything you forgot you ever had, the layout of shapes and colours with the glimpses of light shining through becomes a galaxy of garage-grown forget-me-nots.
In the back of the left room, where the hallway adjoins to the keyboard room, a ladder takes you up to another hallway, a route I originally and consciously passed up on my first visit to the exhibition. (First time around, the mentality of being in a gallery space still remained strong; and a ladder or a closed door or anything you have to actively engage and touch would transcend the rules that maintain a gallery’s perceived inaccessibility.)
Up the ladder there is a narrow hallway with lowered ceilings. With yet another storage space spilling out excess boxes, you question whether or not this upstairs may actually be official storage space for the ceiling trinkets you earlier saw); but at the end of the hallway, a single light shines on an unplugged hand saw behind a sheet of builder’s plastic. The lower corner of the plastic has been invitingly torn, and so moving the plastic aside into this attic-like room, the first thing you notice is that floor/ceiling boards are unstable. In the final corner of this maze-like installation experience, with the resonance of the keyboard hum rising from below and walking along the nail studs as the boards feel like they may give way, you discover the projector set up that has been shining below. In this moment, you are arrested in thought at the notion that you are at once nowhere and engaged, that you are at once made privy to the backstage workings of the illusion inside of a fabricated crawl space in a construction that has been purely created for this very purpose of interaction and discovery. The urge to remain inside this nowhere space all day long becomes irresistible ... but the outside world wades in as you hear a field trip class entering below you and realize the weekday lunch hour is almost over.
Running into one of the AGA’s key personnel on my way out, we chatted briefly about the exhibition’s opening. He shares that all in all it was great, but his nine-year-old son inadvertently broke through a piece of plastic in the back of Patrick Berube’s exhibition and now the gallery staff have to figure out what to do about it. Do they just block it back off or reinforce the floor boards? What are they doing in the meantime so that visitors of the gallery don’t fall through the roof?
So it goes that the only Stendhal experience I have ever experienced in the AGA may have all been from err, but with all great moments in art as in life, there can be no set rules of engagement. The officious gallery space presents Fun House for the enjoyment of its visitors, and for some—not just unruly nine-year-olds—we take this engagement very literally