Communication In Action, by Yang Lim
Date: Sunday, July 2, 2017
Author: Yang Lim
As the former home of the Reuse Centre, the Vignettes building has provided a unique opportunity for art exhibits to be showcased as it constitutes the recycling (literally) of an otherwise empty space. In particular, the state of the building enhances the aesthetic effect and psychological impact of some works, particularly those that appear in the building’s basement as part of a pop-up exhibition entitled Self-Disclosures, which was curated separately from the Works festival.
If one considers the setting of basements, both positive and negative connotations may come to mind. It could be perceived as a harbour of secrets, a site of things forgotten, or a dumping ground for detritus and unwanted items. In movies, venturing into the basement can either be a good thing—as someone may uncover a hidden treasure or long-lost tale—or otherwise a bad thing—as someone may encounter something frightening or horrific.
These contrasting characteristics associated with the basement contribute to the effect of certain works in this exhibit. For example, Nathan Levasseur and T. J. McLachlan’s Happiness Objects appears to be a rumination on the transient nature of happiness and the fluidity of emotion as perhaps a process and a moment to be captured in time, frozen momentarily and gone the next. The installation itself is completely yellow, which is a colour that people may associate with happiness, brightness, summery weather, and the sun. At the same time, contrasting elements may clash with people’s initial impressions of this installation. A table near the installation entrance has two vases containing yellow flowers, but against the right wall is a trough of water with the word “Violence” on the sign above it. In addition, beside the entrance is a yellow flower with its stem covered in plastic, which provides a contrast between the natural and artificial.
On the far side of the room is a yellow platform that the public is invited to step onto, in front of which they can see a funnel with a sad face on the front, which is attached to a pipe. If people stop to watch the yellow funnel fill with water, it eventually tips over due to the increasing weight of the water that fills it. As it does so, the funnel spins around and people can see the happy face on the funnel’s back side for a brief second before the funnel rights itself back up and water starts filling it again, thereby repeating and perpetuating the cycle. With its contrasting connotations, the basement setting complements this work’s effects by highlighting the contradictory meanings that may be inherent in and underpin people’s emotions. For example, are Levasseur and McLachlan suggesting that there is an undercurrent of violence that is present in any expression of happiness?
Similarly, Michelle Duchamp and Caitlin McCann’s untitled installation takes on a particularly poignant effect in the Vignette’s basement, since this space may bring to mind similar settings that have become associated with drug addicts in television shows and other mainstream media. Although Duchamp and McCann do not deal directly with drug addiction per se, their exhibit speaks to this issue as they appear to be focusing on gender identity and mental illness in the context of capitalism and consumer culture. In this context, they contemplate the issue of addiction within a broader conceptual frame that defines this as any pattern of behaviour with negative effects that someone is unable to stop.
As such, Duchamp and McCann’s work appears to prompt us to consider some questions: How is mental illness or other psychological problems perceived and how are they treated? Is there an overemphasis on treating these with drugs, which is a simple solution, rather than trying to discover and address the root causes of them? Significant progress has been made in this regard in the last couple of decades, but there is still a social stigma associated with mental illness. Although one may desire quick solutions to deal with these or an easy way to understand what mental illness is about, this is not possible as it differs from one individual to another. One part of this installation is an animated image of a Google search page that illustrates how one can easily find information about any type of psychological problem, but does this really help people to understand what it is about and what it is like to live with a particular condition? In this respect, this installation appears to expose the gap in understanding and communication that surrounds this topic.
Megan Gnanasihamany’s work “Utility Island” takes the issue of communication to the extreme by representing a situation in which no communication occurs at all. She considers the environment of the corporate office and parodies the ways in which it is regimented, perpetually monotonous, and unchanging. People can read the “Code of Conduct” on the cubicle wall, which contains many rules including one about communication: “No communication may be undertaken which could constitute as progressing a relationship or addressing an issue relating to a relationship, shared responsibility, or mutual interest.” In other words, nothing of significance will happen in this space, nor will any attempts to do so be successful. The basement setting enhances the effect of Gnanasihamany’s installation as it contributes to the sense of isolation and depersonalization that some people may associate with the corporate setting.
During this exhibit’s opening reception, the artist Megan Gnanasihamany sat at the office desk in her installation and would greet each patron who chose to sit down. However, nothing of significance is discussed and, in her role as the performer, she would ask the patrons whether they would like to have a printout. If they do, she would proceed to print out a piece of paper with an essentially meaningless statement of fact; in some cases, she may also hand patrons an object without any explanation or elaboration, whether it is a photograph, trinket, or some other object. This usually signals the end of the conversation and patrons will leave with puzzlement and bewilderment.
As suggested by its title, the exhibition Self-Disclosures asks us to consider what it means to self-disclose and the conditions that are needed for such disclosure to be possible and for this to be acknowledged by others. In their own ways, the three works mentioned earlier deal with this issue. Whereas Nathan Levasseur and T. J. McLachlan’s piece considers self-disclosure in the context of emotional responses, Duchamp and McCann’s work seems to point to how self-disclosure is only possible when there is a mutual understanding and empathy between the people involved. Megan Gnanasihamany’s work takes this further as she seems to be suggesting that without any contextual reference points or a mutual willingness to engage among the people involved, communication or any meaningful interaction is impossible.