Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Special guest post by Sheena Edmundson, Awakening Generations: representational gaps at the AGA

At the Art Gallery of Alberta there is a curious juxtaposition of two separate exhibitions currently showing side by side. “Generation” features nine contemporary artists from North America whose work supposedly incorporates the images, ideals and anxieties of North American youth. “Awakening” is comprised of artwork from ihuman (high risk) youth from right here in Edmonton. "Generation" is about youth, while "Awakening" is created by youth, but this is where the similarities end.

"Generation" is fraught with idle moments; its view of youth dated and wholly un-original. The most prominent piece is of two girls boorishly looking at porn magazines (perhaps self-portraits of the artist Eliza Griffith herself) and I can’t help but openly laugh at the cliché. These girls are the over sexualized playthings of the media machine and they fail to embody anything about growing up as a teenage girl. While this may have been her point, it has been done a thousand times before and doesn’t speak about how “over-sexualized” teenagers really feel about the matter.

Image credit: Eliza Griffiths, Another Perfect Day, 1997.

The theme runs strong throughout the exhibit: Janet Werner’s “Puppy and Pearls” top off the pre-planned, posed, and overly thought out youth “image” that plagues popular media. Her models are the poor little rich girls circa 1985 (think Molly Ringwald, not Paris Hilton) that always seem to have deep sad eyes and pink sweaters. As an exhibit, they do not stand up as works that investigate any images, ideals, and anxieties of North American Youth.

If anything, the exhibit laughs at youth. Take Jeremy Shaw's “21 Methods of After School Destruction,” a tongue in cheek look at post-Columbine anxiety (apparently, most teenage boys just draw out elaborate bomb making instructions for fun), and Justine Kurland’s “Boy Torture,” another pre-planned, posed work of photography depicting a gang of girls stripping a male victim. Again, hardly a likely afterschool activity for a typical teenage girl. Kyla Mallet’s “Legendary Teens” is the only artist who broaches the reality of youth experience through enlarged school room notes and portraits of suburbanized teenagers alongside trivial interview questions like, “What do you spend your money on?” and the obligatory “drugs, smokes and booze” responses. Still, the art is not hers; she just made it bigger and put it in fancy frames, which is what pisses me off the most about the entire "Generation" exhibit. It’s just so . . . contrived.

At the end of the day, it becomes glaringly obvious that these thirty something artists (and the curators) are out of touch with today’s young people. Which is why putting "Generation" in the room next to "Awakening"-- a room where every piece of art is clearly introspective and truthful--is wonderfully ironic.

Photo courtesy of ihuman youth society, 2007.

With only four walls and a few untrained artists to draw from, "Awakening" does what "Generation" fails to do: understand youth. There is passion in this exhibit, something revealing and unapologetic as soon as you walk in. If you really want to know about youth--their images, ideals and anxieties, Jacob Amon’s pieces come to mind. One in particular, Untitled, of inner city Edmonton where large scaffolds holding downtown apartments hang over the heads of abstract, colourful bodies in the midst of dance, art, creation and despair. These bodies, perhaps ihuman youth, are doing what real youth do amidst the idea of rising house and rental prices looming over them. Finally, some semblance of reality. Another one of Amon’s pieces looks like a small child with a gun over his back, looking on to a scary political landscape--here we know that Amon is indeed in tune with the world we all live in, and not some media-generated fantasy of teenage boredom.

One of the other pieces by “Shady” depicts white hands coming out of darkness, and in a stormy sky the words “Shady Vill” and “Mentally Ill” disappear into the clouds. It seems Shady is astute enough to have hope. Everything about the remaining pieces speak youth; the art like the people are sporadic and unstructured, rebellious and refreshing. There is poetry on the walls, there is a CD walkman with original beats from the artists, and there is no room for pretentious ponderings on what youths are REALLY trying to say. The youths in "Awakening" are acutely aware of who they really are and what they’re really about, and I think those other generations should take note.

Both exhibitions run until March 24, 2008, Art Gallery of Alberta

Sheena Edmundson, 23, is an intern at The Magazine Project where she has helped write, design, develop, and produce Asterisk magazine (to be released March 27, 2008). Part of her internship included a job shadow with Amy Fung where she was asked to write this review.


Anonymous said...

Best post ever.

Anonymous said...

“At the end of the day, it becomes glaringly obvious that these thirty something artists (and the curators) are out of touch with today’s young people.”

First off, why do you assume these artists (and curators) are thirty-something’s? Right there you have put your own generalization and definition of what it means to be in this age bracket.
The curatorial statement of Generation was clear in it’s intention to exhibit artists working with the theme of youth as defined by our media-centric culture. The exhibit did not intend to act as an authority on the personal experiences of youth or childhood today. Sure this theme is over-done but so is the media machine that perpetrates it. The young artists in this exhibit (20-something’s who grew up with Britney Spears and the Columbine shootings) are reacting to these images and stereotypes that we are confronted with on a daily basis.

Whereas the intent of iHuman is completely different: youth making art to express their personal experiences.

Interesting comparison but from reading the reviews and comments on this blog related to Generation, it seems people here have missed the point of Generation. Perhaps a reflection on the language used in the exhibition’s didactics? I wish more people came to the Generation panel to have their thoughts heard by the curator who was sitting in the audience.

“Still, the art is not hers; she just made it bigger and put it in fancy frames, which is what pisses me off the most about the entire "Generation" exhibit. It’s just so . . . contrived.”

But that was the point. “Youth culture” has been commodified by marketing forces. Movements such as punk that originated with youth to define their experiences and their position in society become blandified and trivialized when brought into the mainstream and used to sell products. Kyla Mallet’s choice of what to enlarge and frame of the notes are subjective to her personal experiences of being a youth and what she encounters in the media. This project was her concept, she selected the questions to make some statement, so it is her baby.