Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Prairie Artsters: A Strategy of Space*

Getting off on the fifth floor of the crowded freight-sized elevator of the New Museum in New York City, I got a flashback to a sensation I have felt many times over the years. Falling somewhere between claustrophobia and disappointment, the sensation in question comes over me when I realize how hard up art really is for space.

I remember the first time I had this feeling: it was in Hong Kong, around 2005, and I was searching for a gallery space I had heard about. Located on the eighth or 15th or 23rd floor in a bustling building and district I can no longer distinguish, the exhibition space turned out to be the size of an area rug. This was not uncommon. Hong Kong is hard up for space in general, but the underlying denominator over the value of space carries through to almost everywhere you go.

Perhaps this is why I've liked the prairies so much, because of the vastness here. There are issues with space here as well, but it's easier to believe if one space dries up, another opens, because there is just so much of it available.

Take another moment experienced, at the soon-to-be-former site of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Curators Dana Miller and Scott Rothkopf have assembled an exhibition around the strategy of space, bringing together a dozen artists from the institution's permanent collection and staging each work in their own room. Calling the show Singular Visions, the works are not necessary cohesive in theme, but concept, culling on meditative works and asking viewers to slow down in how we look, giving each work some breathing room. But it's still New York and it's still the Whitney, and so there still wasn't that much breathing room, but compared to the Edward Hopper show two floors below, where half-a-dozen heads shared viewership over any given image lining the walls, it appears the value of space is all relative.

I recently walked through the Brian Jungen exhibition on the top floor of the AGA, a massive 6000 square foot open space adorned with three of Jungen's large plastic sculptures. Only myself, a friend, a staff person and a guard shared this space for the 10 to 15 minutes I was there. The works ranged in size, with "Carapace" being a shell like structure several people could enter at once. Only, there were not several people in the room to try. I didn't get the sensation that art needed more space, but I felt something similar that's been creeping up, and that it's about having the people as much as having the space.

I remember talking to a collective in Saskatchewan four or five years ago that wanted to use the entire province as one enormous exhibition site. The dream was to invite international artists to engage with public sites in the fashion of Münster, Germany. I thought it was a great idea for a residency, but I wondered then who would see it? And how?

Space is both inviting and limiting, in what we can do and how we stay connected. These are thoughts I'll continue to ruminate, in another open and remote space, on the other side of the ocean. Thank you for reading.

*First published in Vue Weekly
I will be completing an Arts Writing and Curating Fellowship in the North East of Scotland this year. Prairie Artsters in Vue Weekly is now on an indefinite hiatus.

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