by Jaclyn Guse

With a Free Smile, 2007

While made from terracotta, With a Free Smile (2007) could easily trick the naïve eye into thinking it was anything but a sculpture. The dense, coffin-shaped work resides in the front room of rennie collection, and if you weren’t aware you might accidentally presume it to be a low bench. It is in front of the windows after all. After my first two weeks of guiding tours for the exhibited work of mixed-media, conceptual artist Mircea Cantor, a number of visitors already made this mistake. Conceptual art is like that though–often misleading. With just a little help from me you’ll understand why Cantor’s work is designed to make you second guess your initial instinct, and perhaps come away with a renewed sense of what art can do when it looks like something else.

On the blue wall next to With a Free Smile, there are handwritten instructions from the artist requiring guests to finish the piece “by placing coins into the slot”. Guests are invited to participate in the creation of the work by dropping loose change into the slot on top. So you go ahead and drop a quarter into the slot–let it fall and clank against the others residing somewhere, hidden inside the coffin. The sound is the only thing you’ll acquire in exchange for your participation. In an instant you’ll realize the action is quite absurd. Maybe you’ll chuckle to yourself or shake your head, but from my experience giving tours guests almost always smile. Thus the work is aptly titled. The coins in With a Free Smile are now rendered a permanently inaccessible addition to the artwork and are unified into a common pool of uselessness. It is the action, however, that plays the biggest part in Cantor’s representation of Utopian Socialism, in which our relationships garner more value than any monetary measure. Your action is required as Cantor’s instructions imply, and thus you become a part of the artwork.

With a Free Smile (detail), 2007

With a Free Smile is a great first encounter to Cantor’s first solo show in Canada because it is emblematic of his art practice. My impression is that Cantor shares, and perhaps was inspired by, Joseph Beuys’ central theoretical concept of art as a “social sculpture”. Artwork was believed by Beuys to hold a certain power in the sociological, cultural, and political realms of the world by shifting perspectives of those interacting with it. He also believed that to this degree every single person is their own artist, contributing to the greater work of art which we call society.

While this relationship stays strong throughout Mircea’s exhibition, it is most apparent in his film Deeparture (2005), where the tension building wolf/deer interaction plays heavily on Beuys 1974 performance piece I Like America and America Likes Me (1974). Beuys, who flew from Germany to The United States for the performance, was placed in an ambulance covered in felt and brought to the Rene Block Gallery in New York. He spent the duration of his time in America in the gallery with a live coyote, sometimes instigating a reaction from the animal by teasing him with props such as poking at him with his staff from his German Sheppard felt costume. And most emblematically perhaps, his inclusion of layering the floors each day with The Wall Street Journal on top of which the coyote urinated.

Joseph Beuys
I Like America and America Likes Me, 2005
(image source: WikiArt)

In this performance, the coyote can be viewed as the spirit animal of America. Joseph Beuys’ interaction with the animal can be interpreted as an action against the hegemony of American art. While Beuys’ performance had nationalistic symbols, in Cantor’s Deeparture we don’t immediately see these. Stripped of these motifs, we only have the deer, whose innocence is met by the predatory wolf in the deviant habitat of the white-walled gallery. While Beuys used specific objects to comment on political policy in I Like America and America Likes Me, Cantor extends this discourse to reflect a social responsibility held within universal politics. Cantor plays instead with the common affliction of determining how to act in response to others.

At first glance, many conceptual works seem simplistic or look like something else. When we delve a little deeper into the concepts ingrained within the pieces a deeper understanding can take place. In Mircea Cantor’s exhibition, theories surrounding a Utopian Socialism arise through exploring the concepts beyond the aesthetics. Whether suspending us in perpetual climatic tension or making us act out an absurd gesture, Cantor’s work creates a metaphorical, and sometimes literal, mirror of our own role in society.