Posted by Cindy on October 1st, 2010
Every day of the festival when I arrived at the gallery, after plugging my computer in and dropping everything off at my couch-station in the reception area, the first thing I would do is check in on the performances in the gallery spaces. First I would look into the black rice bowl of Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s Hourglass performance to see how much work had been done since I was last there.
For the first few days, I was quite distraught at how slowly the work was going; it always looked like a few dozen grains had been completed but no more. Finally by the last couple of days of work, I could see that the grains of rice had started to pile on top of one another – she was far from covering the bottom of the bowl, but the bowl was also far from empty. The work pretty much went, in this way for the first few days, exactly as expected: a futile task earnestly undertaken, seeming never to get anywhere even as the artist spent whole days working.
As the week wore on, Chun Hua Catherine seemed to be in the gallery less and less, though I know that she was always working the appointed hours; the reason she seemed to be working less is that random people were working more and more – somehow this work had compelled people to come and paint even when the artist was not there – even when the gallery was closed. Catherine and I had a brief conversation about this. She told me that in her mind, the most successful performance is one where there is no performer at all. She was pleased and surprised at how this performance played out, that people were compelled to assist – to perform the work – even in her absence. I agree with her, and I think this project will give her a lot to think about in her broader practice, in ways that she may not have expected.
The second thing I did every day was to spend time in the Culinary Cultures in the Kinder/Garden space, to see what was new and what sort of experiments would be going on that day. Alison Reiko Loader (and, when she arrived a couple days later, Kelly Andres) worked all day every day in the space, and quite the opposite to Chun Hua’s performance which seemed never to progress, their space was constantly evolving, changing, and – ahem – growing.
Posted by Cindy on September 25th, 2010
Arriving back at the gallery shortly before The Comfort Room by Jennifer Mesch and Scott Smallwood was to start, I have just enough time to be fitted with a bread dough baby sling by Alison Reiko Loader in the Culinary Cultures of the Kinder/Garden installation before heading into the performance space. Sitting on the floor with my new doughbaby slung around my belly, I stare up at The Comfort Room’s tables full of collections of inedible objects arranged like petits fours, hors d’oeuvres and pretty candies, and think about comfort, physical objects and things that pacify, things that lubricate pleasant social engagement and things that we want to be alone with.
I feel the bread warming up against my body and starting to rise, softening and growing and resembling my own soft belly. I am comforted by my baby dough and I am comforted by watching Jennifer Mesch put things in her mouth and I am disappointed when she spits them out, not because I wish she would have swallowed them but because I wish she wanted to keep them there. But her character is fighting with wanting them in her mouth, wanting to swallow them, wanting their weight deep in her warm belly, and trying not to be overcome by her compulsion to do so, trying to be “normal” and “healthy” and “good.”
Pica is the name for the disorder characterized by a compulsion to eat non-food objects. It’s also the Latin name for the magpie, after which the disorder was named, ostensibly because magpies are scavengers that will eat nearly anything. Strangely, there is another disorder named after the magpie, the “magpie syndrome,” which refers to the phenomenon of being irrationally or overly attracted to things that are shiny, colourful, new, or unobtainable. The comfort room set installed in the gallery oddly brings these 2 odd behaviors together; it is a collection of beautiful collections, an assortment of myriad attractive textures that do all seem like they would be perfect to put in the mouth.
So I think about psychological disorders, my own attachment to physical objects, my fears about becoming overwhelmed by “things” like those people on the hoarding TV shows and the horrific news stories about getting buried alive by a landslide of 50 years of newspapers. I think about the things I put in my mouth and how they make me feel. I remember what I sucked on as a child and I remember what I sucked on yesterday. I try to remember why I did it in the first place and why I did it again, and why I will do it tomorrow. I reach down to feel the rising dough against my skin and I take a deep breath, calmed by the physicality of the object that has become a part of me.
Jenn is occupying the space like a magpie, moving from collection to collection, running her fingers over and admiring her shiny objects, picking up handfuls of others and stuffing them in her mouth, turning in circles and rising and falling. Moving around the space, she seems to be playing as much as dancing with intention, and I imagine her as a bird that is surrounded by its favorite objects – giddy and awe-filled and overwhelmed – there not for sustenance as much as the compulsion to be there. It’s not just that, though; the human in her is also guilty, fighting against her desires and struggling to do what the brain says is right.
This comfort room, though appearing to be the place where a woman’s treasures are stored, where she can feel safe to do as she pleases and not be judged, is acting like more of a torture chamber, where all her comforting devices, her security blankets are laid out to look at but not touch – it is a room of control and self-denial, and I can see that in the movement, too (though more formally – now she is moving like a dancer thinks someone denying themselves would move). Then she puts something new in her mouth and she lets the new object move her.
The audio component of the piece, created live in response to Jenn’s movements, provides a lush soundscape reflective of her movements in the space and therefore helps evoke the fully realized environment of the comfort room. The sound also underscores the psychological weight of the piece and of Jenn’s movement, its’ creaks and groans and muffled shuffling calling to mind memories of sneaking into the kitchen after bedtime, vermin collecting rubbish and eating the walls, being warmed and lulled by droning heaters and rhythmic appliances.
The Comfort Room reminds me of Diane Borsato’s work Artifacts [in my mouth], where she went into museums and examined the collections by putting things in her mouth. Getting to know things by the way they feel in her mouth is, as the artist put it, is “a whole different way of knowing.” Come to think of it, this performance reminds me of several Diane Borsato pieces, including Warm Things to Chew for the Dead and Sleeping with Cake, works that attempt to uncover emotional knowledge of objects in hopes of applying them to our human needs. Food serves important emotional and psychological needs as well as physical ones.
Of course we develop emotional attachments not only to people and to food and to the things that are connected to or remind us of people, but to things and their “thing-ness,” their singularity. Because putting things in one’s mouth is comforting, (especially for those of us, like me and like Jenn’s character, for whom putting things in one’s mouth is comforting), getting to know objects by putting them in our mouths, licking them, sucking on them, and for some ingesting them gives us a completely different sort of emotional attachment and response than looking at things and recognizing their beauty, listening to sounds and hearing their music, feeling objects and appreciating their texture… It’s not always what something reminds us of that give them emotional power; things and how we interact with them are powerful in their own right.
Talking with Jenn after the performance, she tells me that she wasn’t sure ahead of time what she was going to do in the space. Did it even make sense that it was a “dance” performance? I don’t know anything about dance or how to talk about it, but in the end, I really connected to the content and to the improvisational nature of the work. If the artist didn’t know exactly what she was going to do before she got into the space and the performance started, then I think I can believe what I saw – that the things she put in her mouth made her move.
Posted by Cindy on September 19th, 2010
It’s been a really long day; the 10:30 am Saturday feedback session (what were they thinking?!) with Kelly Andres and Alison Reiko Loader was kind of a bust, but I had a really nice conversation with them anyway. I went to my Mom’s house and baked my bread baby, which to be perfectly honest had gone through a lot in the previous night. It had risen out of control, stuck completely to the baby sling and got “kneaded” back down in the process of scraping it out of its cloth carrier, rose again, stuck again PLUS dried out and formed a hard crust which I kneaded back into it, and never quite rose again to its former glory. You should have smelled it, though – the most powerful fermenting smell ever, that did not smell anything like bread, but like some kind of a boozy brewery. It smells like bread now, though! I didn’t want to stifle my baby’s creativity, so I decided to let he go back out into the world, where she decided she feels most comfortable on display in the gallery with the rest of Alison and Kelly’s creations. I may be brave enough to try a slice tomorrow.
Then it was time for the walking tour of caribou X crossing‘s Miles of Aisles. I had assumed that this would be a live version of the audio tour, but in fact it was simply a mass participation in the audio tour; the artists were present only to guide the participants into the store and to observe. If I had known that this is what today’s scheduled performance would be, I would not have bothered going. But then I would have missed a couple of really interesting experiences that I would not otherwise have had; that of being in the store while a couple dozen others were wandering around absurdly like me, and more importantly of experiencing the tour as one of a pair. Jennifer Mesch and I went into the tour together, she playing the tour for Anne and I the tour for Julia. Compared to going on the tour by myself yesterday, this was far more satisfying, even though, bizarrely, the two tours did not ever have Jenn and I cross paths or interact.
But more about Miles of Aisles later! In the meanwhile, if you’re planning to take in Miles of Aisles during Visualeyez (or later; I assume there’s nothing preventing you from downloading the files and taking the tour anytime in the future), my advice is to find a friend who wants to go with you; it’ll only redouble your fun, plus you’ll have someone to talk to about it afterwards!
I just got back from Alberta Arts Days at the Jubilee Auditorium, where a whole Visualeyez contingent went to check out the art action, and more specifically because Chun Hua Catherine Dong, Jennifer Mesch and Scott Smallwood were performing. The event had a look like it had been going on all day and was winding down (which I think was actually the case); there wasn’t any food on the food table that I could eat, but I was completely wiped out and starving. Thankfully there were big bags of Jubilee-branded jujubes in piles throughout the venue. I ate one, took one for later, one for Megan, and one for a souvenir. Todd got one for me too.
I had little stamina left for to take in very diverse event and spent much of my time chatting in a quiet corner with Adina Bier, Jennifer Mesch, Todd Janes and others until Jenn and Scott’s performance.
By the end of the evening, Chun Hua Catherine appeared to have successfully proposed to every white man at the event, and was looking pretty love-drunk!
Posted by Cindy on September 18th, 2010
I’m up bright and early today; even though I was blogging into the night, there’s no way I was gonna miss today’s 10:30 am feedback session on Alison Reiko Loader and Kelly Andres‘ work Culinary Cultures of the Kinder/Garden: it’s got a lot going on, and I’m gonna need all the help I can get in writing about it!
I have spent quite a bit of time in their installation, and have engaged with the work in every way they’ve presented options – eating the food cultures, getting hands-on with the work, watching the video projections, and even adopting a “doughbie,” wearing it all night. (more about that later…) I’ve engaged every way I know how, EXCEPT for talking with them much about the work. Yet.
So I’m counting on today’s feedback session to give me some “meat” for a longer post on their work.
Luckily there’s also a great blog about the project as well, which I’ve had up on my desktop for days but haven’t explored much yet. It’s not a matter of not being interested enough to explore the work, it’s a matter of finding time in the day!
But between that feedback session and the caribou X crossing live performance walk of their project Miles of Aisles at Sobey’s later this afternoon, I should have time to finish the post that’s been simmering in my brain for several days now about Randy Lee Cutler‘s Ask Me About Salt, and to get a good start on one for Alison and Kelly.
Posted by Cindy on September 18th, 2010
Sitting in the reception area of Latitude 53 for a great majority of my time this week, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the people coming in and out of the ProjEx room where Chun Hua Catherine Dong is performing her piece, Hourglass. I’ve also hovered around quite a bit while others help her paint the grains black, one by one. One thing I’ve noticed is that most people, shortly after sitting down with Dong, proclaim that they find the task of painting the rice very meditative. Some are too frustrated by the overwhelming enormity of the task to continue, while others are content to sit for long periods of time, engaging the artist in conversation about the performance, her other work, and about whatever else comes up. Of course, whenever there is an opportunity to connect with the artist and learn more about their work, especially within the context of a performance, I am a strong advocate of taking advantage of the situation!
Speaking of which, there are 2 feedback sessions on festival projects today (Saturday) – Kelly Andres and Alison Reiko Loader talking about Culinary Cultures of the Kinder/Garden at 10:30 AM at Latitude 53, and caribou x crossing talking about Miles of Aisles at 6 pm at Latitude 53. This is your opportunity to find out what inspired some of the works in the festival and have your questions answered by the artists themselves.
In the case of Dong’s work, however I am also eager to encourage you – if you have a chance to sit down with Chun Hua Catherine one-on-one over a couple of bowls of rice, please take the time to talk with her about her work!
So I was talking with the artist about the work, and about how people have engaged with it, and she was telling me that indeed, most people seem to claim that they find the process of painting the rice very meditative. I suspect that if the project did not involve grains of rice but, let’s say, tiny plastic pellets, and if Chun Hua Catherine Dong was not Asian, it would be harder to solicit participation in the performance and that those who did participate would almost universally reject the notion that it is a soothing, relaxing or meditative experience. She said that in fact, when she performed this project in Vancouver, people tended to bow to her when they got up from helping her paint grains of rice, thanking her for sharing the experience with them.
With a gleeful laugh, Chun Hua Catherine (who seems to be developing a sophisticated practice around the notion that you simply cannot judge a book by its cover) explains that this performance is the farthest possible thing from the Buddhist meditation ritual people are perceiving the work to be, a ritual which is performed without goals – the meditation is its own goal. Conversely, her project of painting rice is very goal-oriented; she has set out to complete a very labour-intensive task, and when people volunteer to participate, they are not entering into a ritual that she is leading for their mutual betterment, they are entering into unpaid labour towards an enterprise of production for a thankless and endless task. And then they thank her for the opportunity!
It occurs to me that the viewer might easily replace the stereotype of the Asian zen-master in this scenario for that of the sweatshop.
Of course this is not to negate the experience of the participants; you will recall from earlier blog posts that I also found the experience of painting rice grains compelling. Rather, I think it is important to try to recognize the quiet deployment of well-worn stereotypes during activities and interactions we engage in which are deserving of deeper reflection.
Chun Hua Catherine and I talk about some of her other work, including a project called Looking for a White Husband where she has distributed promotion proclaiming herself to be “an exotic, compliant and artistic Asian girl, looking for A WHITE HUSBAND who would like to take me to his home and live with him for a day as his mail order bride.”
This husband-seeking project, as many of her other projects, I can see, has much to do with the exercise and exertion of power. I start to think about this in the context of the work she is presenting at Visualeyez, partly relative to her interactions with the participants, but also in terms of the content of the work itself, which aims to “reconfigure the established centralized power in order to create an equal, fair and balanced world.“
My friend Suzette Chan arrived at the Visualeyez launch party, and I was introducing her to the performances and installations throughout the gallery spaces. Chun Hua Catherine Dong had not yet arrived and in fact had not performed on Thursday at all, so the performative space appeared very different from how I had been experiencing it to date – quiet, and because of the employment of precision implements (tweezers, tiny paintbrushes, tiny ink bowls) and stark white colour, quite sterile. I recounted to Suzette the story Chun Hua Catherine had told me about the bowing participants and their reading of the work as meditative. (To be fair to the participants, the artist really was only too aware of this potential reading of the work from the beginning and is quite obviously exploiting those stereotypes in this work, especially upon reading the rest of her Rice Performance Series, where reliance on Asian stereotypes is essential to the work.) I think Dong’s amusement in this case resides not in any reading or misreading of the work, which is in fact very multilayered and engages stereotypes through employing them quite literally and humorously; it lies, I think, in the reactions of participants, which have been uniform enough to carry some important revelations about the work and how it is understood. If only I could decode what revelations those might be…
So Suzette and I were looking at the performance site sans artist and I was telling her how other people were reading the work, when she told me that upon first glance at the unpeopled work, POWER is the FIRST thing she thought of. And that the bowl of painted rice, contrasted against the clean and controlled space looked, to her, very violent.
I started thinking about the work in that context, and about forced change in nature; the compulsion to control and change people, plants, culture. I first read the work quite literally as an attempt to correct the power distribution to a white/non-white parity but now I am starting to read it also as the attempt to achieve a balance of the “natural” versus the “controlled,” and to see the artist as an agent for that control, much as she is in her other performance work.
Now, I know that white rice is already a pretty heavily-controlled commodity – cultivated, cleaned and packaged. But in this project it’s being taken from something useful and nutritious and being made useless. If this work is indeed about colonialism, is it about addressing and correcting a colonial world by taking half of it back, or is it the artist who is colonizing the rice, one grain at a time?
Posted by Cindy on September 18th, 2010
Tonight I adopted a bread baby. I wore it in a sling throughout the Comfort Room performance, and it was oddly comforting. In fact, I wore it back to the hotel and am now lying on my stomach on the bed, blogging with my new little girl curled up for warmth in the small of my back.
I opted to wear the “doughbie” under my sweater so as to allow it to benefit from being closer to my skin, so it’s really more like I am a surrogate dough mommy, yet to give birth. I mean, now that it’s on my back I’m not sure how I feel about what exactly it is, but it’s still comforting. I feel like I’ve made a real commitment to this dough, and am now trying to decide how and when and where to bake it. Naufus, and Manolo (who I finally met tonight) are busy working on the dishes for their Food Wars in another hotel (one that has suites with kitchens) and they’ve invited me to stop by. I know Naufus has a lot of cakes to bake, though, so I don’t know that there’d be room for me! I might end up baking at my Mom’s after all!
Well, I have a lot of writing to do before I make that decision anyway, and the baby has a lot of growing to do before she’s big enough to pop in the oven! I’ll let you know how it turns out.