Written by Whitney Brennan

Installation view

In the rennie museum’s current exhibition, curated around the theme of chaos, there’s a sense of continuous conversation; of bringing together different experiences, perspectives and artistic voices. The viewer is instantly overwhelmed and confronted with the issues that lie beneath our everyday. The exhibition includes 41 artists from just as many contexts, making it difficult to distil the works into one single concept or thematic thread. The artworks seem to connect to one another through the creation of a conversation in the museum space. Rather than simply hosting the works, the walls, plinths, and floor space become the instigators of a dialogue, both between its spectators and between each work. The works speak to issues and injustices from across the world. Chaos becomes the most appropriate term, and rightly so. The works form a dialogue that speaks to the chaos that surrounds and connects us all. This was the first exhibition curated by collection principal Bob Rennie, and the first to include such a long list of artists. Along with provoking topics, the works also speak to Rennie’s own prerogative in collecting art. The collection’s themes of injustice, appropriation, identity and social issues have never been clearer.

Walking past John Baldesarri’s imposing sculpture of Camel (Albino) Contemplating Needle (Large) (2013), we see the glow from a large, neon work from the end of the hallway, leading to the back of the museum. Visually disorienting, it isn’t initially obvious what the shattered words say. Fragments and partial letters are sprayed across the black wall, as if an intact neon sign had been dropped from above. Half-blinded from the intensity of the lights, we can just make out Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan’s piece I Belong Here (Exploded) (2011). The work brings together issues of belonging and the constant question of who belongs where, when the ‘who’ and the ‘here’ are not always certain or necessarily defined. Suddenly, we’re reading the phrase two ways; declaring our own right to belong, and acknowledging the right of others. We’re also made to question the ‘here’ the work speaks to. Where is here? Is it Vancouver, or Chinatown, or the museum, or a larger, more global context? As Strachan emphasizes, our conception of ‘here’ is in constant flux. Notions of displacement and migration are brought to the surface, and in the current refugee crisis, have a particularly affective significance. The shattered neon phrase, made of tens of feet of convoluted neon tubing on a black wall, works doubly as illustrating the visually ‘exploded’ words, and also representing the diverse structures and properties of glass itself. Glass itself has a duality, a potential strength or breakability. Similarly precarious, a person’s strong sense of ‘here’ can be uprooted by forces beyond their control, and become a place where they may never return. The materiality of glass reflects Strachan’s issue with the word ‘here’; its ability to feel certain or concrete, or look solid and bright, and yet its political fragility, like the delicate material of the glass surrounding the neon. In this way, Strachan is commenting on the internal fragmentation, or dislocation that occurs when one migrates far from home: the feeling of existing with and without oneself, feeling incomplete and yet whole. Without having experienced a long-distance migration or displacement, it is hard to conceptualize the feeling of needing home when it perhaps no longer exists, or you are unable to go back. This migratory sentiment is what informs Strachan’s practice as a Bahamian immigrant now living in New York. His work often ties together seemingly disconnected geographies and contexts, like his 16-piece contribution to the 2013 Venice Biennale, which drew together Nassau, Venice and the North Pole. In an interview for his Biennale exhibition he said, “I’m fascinated by the idea of being in two or more places at once, and exploring difference that way,”* and that is no less true about I Belong Here (Exploded). While not overtly political, the work functions as a call to arms to claim our space in the world and to acknowledge the right of others to belong as well. It also points out the problematic nature of dualities; thinking of here and there, you and I, light and dark, black and white as separate, irreconcilable concepts that keep the world divided. Looking at the contrast of the neon against the black background, the stark illumination that sheds light on issues faced by migratory populations, we’re left questioning how long we’ve been standing in the dark, blind to issues outside our own ‘here’.

Dan Halter
When the Bag Tears the Shoulder Gets a Rest, 2011

Hank Willis Thomas
Intentionally Left Blanc, 2012

Strachan’s work speaks to a number of other works in the exhibition, perhaps none as appropriately as the piece in closest proximity, Zimbabwean artist Dan Halter’s When the Bag Tears the Shoulder Gets a Rest (2011). Halter currently lives in South Africa, and draws his inspiration and materials from his current home as well as his birthplace of Zimbabwe. This piece is one of many works Halter constructed out of large checkered-patterned, woven plastic bags. Worn and tattered, the bags seem to hold a visceral history, a broken past that left them discarded and destroyed. The title is written in embroidered lettering on the bag’s front, blending in with the fabric’s gridded pattern. Drawing on his own background, and his own experience as a refugee fleeing civil war in the 1990s, Halter’s piece speaks of the same internal dissolution of identity and sense of belonging that Strachan examines. The bag is often used by refugees or people who have to “travel with a lot of luggage in a hurry”**. . He employs the language of craft and curio, examining issues in a fine art context, and using familiar objects and fabrics to bring attention to larger issues. His particular interest in materials that are ubiquitous to South Africa, and to Zimbabwe, reflects the frayed relationship he has to a place that has been devastated by civil war, and a home he can never return to. Like his own past of fleeing a war-torn country, the bag’s own fabric is a fragmented version of its former self. Many visitors have commented on the bag’s damage as a symbolism of the torn or broken spirits of those experiencing isolation and degradation as refugees. Others have noted that while the bag in Halter’s context comes from South Africa and Zimbabwe, the bags are seen all over the world. Many recognize them from their own neighbourhoods or everyday uses. This familiarity is a focal aspect in Halter’s work. Using common, intimate materials to discuss broader political issues, it brings the problem very close to home. What happened to this bag when it was taken from its home could just as easily happen here, it seems to say. Although the bags are mass produced, factory-made objects, their recognisability is undeniable.

The feeling of being displaced is persistent throughout the exhibition. Each room brings up issues of racial discrimination, terror bombings, and the prejudice of language that doesn’t always tell the entire story. This disorientation appears to be an intentional consequence of exhibiting such a global diversity of artists together. As a viewer, your own perspectives are brought into question, as well as values and how cultural backgrounds and learned histories construct our existence in the world. With the works of Hank Willis Thomas, Brian Jungen, Kerry James Marshall, Mircea Cantor, Rashid Johnson, and the many others who question our place and our perceptions of the world, we are left feeling like there’s been a world of chaos we haven’t been seeing properly, if at all. We’re left discombobulated, dissected, and unbound from a sense of a cohesive world we thought we’d understood. Tavares Strachan and Dan Halter give us a glimpse into the fragility of human existence. Their stories echo through the exhibition, and resonate with many of the museum’s visitors. The Winter 2015/2016: Collected Works exhibition brings our own place in the world to the fore, and in doing so, allows for a change of perspective, a different vantage point from which to assess the chaos that surrounds us all.

* Viveros-Fauné, Christian. Interview with Tavares Strachan. Art Review. 2013. Web.
** Mansfield, Susan. “Art in the Bag”, September 28, 2010. The Scotsman.