LEAH GARNETT: DIMENSIONS OF INTERPLAY
Rebecca Duclos, January 2018
All kinds of things make their way into galleries. Objects, obviously. Art objects, specifically. And, for the past many decades since the 1950s, we’ve seen multiple appearances of other-than-objects in the form of performances, projections, and pronouncements; indices, referents, residuals, and displacements; critical interventions, spatial interruptions, or replicated architectures; nothingness and abundance; the inside world, the outside world.
There are few surprises for the gallery anymore, particularly in a time that is squarely beyond the concerns (and convulsions) of theatricality and objecthood, when institutional critique feels almost entirely academic, and in which social practice has sought its more radical potential outside the institution’s walls. When we look back, a significant current across that triumvirate of previous practices, rooted as they were in the era of the “posts-” (postminimal, postmodern, postcolonial, poststructural), has been a consistent concern for the gallery architecture in which, and sometimes against which, the work in question operated.
Toggling between the Confederation Centre of the Arts Gallery in Charlottetown and the Owens Art Gallery in Sackville, the installation When One Space Meets Another offers an opportunity to think now, in 2018, what at least one particular artist’s relationship to gallery architectures is in this contemporary moment. Uninterested in using the institutional frame to legitimise aesthetic modes of display in either the Charlottetown or Sackville sites (anything even vaguely plinth-like is approached via a ramp, has Garnett’s beloved casters attached, or swaps out a pedestal with builder’s scaffolding) she, instead, presents a field of dispersed structures which hold themselves resolutely—in workaday fashion—to the floor. These are further bisected, punctuated, accented, surrounded by yet other structures, mostly linear or tubular in nature. The whole show operates more like a landscape than an exhibition.
Other prim art conventions are also ignored. Exposed birch and Russian plywood is abundant. Planks, shingles, clamps, grommets, masonry twine, multiple tape types, and lumber tarps predominate. “Framing” in this installation has nothing to do with paintings and everything to do with studs, sill plates, and floor joists. Handmade and industrial artefacts infiltrate the pristine space hanging from ceilings, jutting out from walls, rolling across the room. Indeed, the floor itself becomes another object animated through the application of electrical, dance floor, and vinyl tape. Things can be touched, moved, sat upon, entered, exited. And, perhaps most strange of all—the space of the gallery itself is seemingly exceeded (broken through) as horizontal rows of garish pink flagging tape either zoom out over staircases and ledges, or quiver on the walls optically, at once marking and yet dissolving the solid periphery of the entire room. On second glance, the show is not so much landscape as it is building site.
In Garnett’s hands, the gallery is (just) another object, another site, to be included in her considerations. Its exalted status is not manipulated, critiqued, or interrupted from a classic interventionist stance; rather, its physical presence becomes grafted, overlayed, nested and nesting in relation to what she chooses to emplace within it. We could say her concerns are material. But hers are not concerns in the material-conceptual sense (cue Michael Asher, Robert Irwin, Louise Lawler, Martin Creed, or Maria Anwander) that would draw attention to ceiling heights, staff attendants, lighting fixtures, wall treatments, text panels, gallery furniture, etc. Instead, the acknowledgement here of the gallery’s materiality simply calls out its dimensional existence as a room. Just that. It’s a room like any other that Garnett has (lovingly) enjoyed for temporary periods of time.
In line with her other briefly inhabited rooms—artist residency spaces whose physical footprints are translated into the two iterations of When One Space Meets Another (the Fire Station in Dublin from 2014 and the Sirius Art Centre at Cobh from 2015)—the floor plans of the Confederation Centre Gallery and the Owens Art Gallery are, themselves, actualized in both installations as “blueprints” of a sort. (This explains the bold rows of flagging tape in each of the two exhibitions that become the de facto “walls” of the other absent gallery space, now made to appear here in Charlottetown, there in Sackville). Distributed amongst these to-scale, transposed room plans of residencies and galleries existing in incomplete built or referenced form are various objects, clusters of objects, drawings, and mobile seating that exist in relation to the gallery’s floors, walls, and ceilings. These are largely referential or indexical in nature (pointing to aspects of the original sites), residual (relating to usable or excess material resulting from the fabrication of the artist’s works and the exhibition itself), or peripheral (“side” projects of Garnett’s that support the show’s interest in construction techniques and worksite materials).
In detailing what makes up Garnett’s two intertwined installations in the PEI and NB sites, it becomes more obvious that, in addition to the many analyses which could be made of them (medium-specific, formal, narrative, and so on), When One Space Meets Another also exists as a crucial, if somewhat unexpected, case study in contemporary museological practice. Garnett’s own early life (b. 1968) coincides almost exactly with emergent concerns about how objects function—or changed function—within gallery space (Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” 1967, Robert Morris’ various “Notes on Sculpture” published 1966-1968, Lucy Lippard’s 1973 book Six Years: the dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966-1972, and Rosalind Krauss’ Passages in Modern Sculpture 1977); how the museum’s status was tested by contemporary practice (Alan Kaprow and Robert Smithson’s 1976 dialogue “What is a Museum?,” Douglas Crimp and Louise Lawler’s illustrated 1993 essay “On the Museum’s Ruins,” Brian O’Doherty Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, 1986); and how site specific and site responsive practice necessarily implicated the gallery space (from Robert Smithson’s 1968 “A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites” and Victor Burgin’s “Situational Aesthetics” 1969, to Thomas Crow’s “Site-Specific Art: The Strong and the Weak” 1996, Ralph Rugoff’s “The Scene of the Crime” 1997, and Miwon Kwon’s 2002 One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity).
In the first thirty-five years of Garnett’s life (and of her formation as an artist, we must assume) nearly every critique of the gallery that could be launched, was. And vociferously so. Yet, its easy now to take for granted the paroxysms of art object angst that preoccupied practitioners and critics from the 1960s to the 1990s especially. All this was in the air while Garnett was developing her expertise as an artist and—more importantly, perhaps—while she was honing her métier as a builder. The studio and the construction site were, in some emergent ways, interchangeable for her in these early days. Skills, tools, strategies… materials, techniques, rules… visions, plans, built forms… it is not hard to see why the porosity of practices that informed art fabrication and architectural fabrication were of equal interest to her. It is also easy to presume (shall we?) that by the time Garnett rolls around to getting gallery shows, two significant factors are in play: first, the era of the “posts” has done its work, and the gallery (to a large extent) has become less-aestheticized (although not de-politicized or de-colonized) and, second, that Garnett’s idea of a “site of fabrication” included—without hierarchy—the building site, the studio site, the gallery site. To be blunt: she swung a hammer just fine, no matter where she was working.
These unusual confluences in Garnett’s background might serve partially to explain, or at least set up, why When One Space Meets Another holds a special place amongst a long lineage of museum-based works, and yet why it also presents us with a new model within the genre of institutional intervention. For many artists during the 1960s (and even more so by the early 2000s), works and actions that directly inculpated the museum construct became increasingly present. Garnett doesn’t seem to have that urge; where her projects stake more of a claim is within the realm of what we might call interplay rather than intervention. The gallery is not something to be one-sidedly critiqued or co-opted by the artist acting upon it. Garnett’s is a relationship to the cultural space that acknowledges first and foremost its existence as a place for staging: empty galleries are sites like other constructed forms which act as containers for latent, as yet unrealised, action to occur. Sometimes (most often) these actions will eventually revolve around aesthetic concerns, but not always. Galleries are also aesthetic spaces in themselves whose physical aspects are present as material with which to work and whose unique or, in some cases, mundane architectural features make the container “part of the picture” rather than simply a framing device or interpretive foil.
Where she differs from previous practitioners interested in museums is Garnett’s reassessment of the gallery site from an operational or structural perspective—remember, she has the eye of a builder—which allows her to incorporate these institutional spaces differently in her thinking. With the physical drive of her projects (that nevertheless have emotional and conceptual currents) she opens up the potential to treat the gallery not so much like a space, but more like an object, a large-scale, three- (or, should we say, four-) dimensional object that becomes a thing amongst other things to be handled. In this way she object-ifies the Confederation and Owens art gallery sites in the same way that she also makes her father’s woodlot, the Fire Station and Sirius studios into other “objects” that can be rematerialized and remobilized within new constructs. Her method for beginning such a process of (positive) reduction and reassignment is simple and in keeping with Garnett’s intertwined art and construction practices: she translates dimensional space into drawn form. Her didactic notes (the interpretive key made for the first iteration of When One Space Meets Another in Charlottetown) illustrates this transpositional process of reifying lived space into architectural plan.
This preliminary move of abstracting “real” locations into their constituent representations is the germinal moment that set Garnett’s direction for the two shows. And with this, the idea of dimensionality gains particular significance: not only do we see in her “plan of plans” the nesting of spatial footprints overlaid on top of one another, we can also sense the dimension of time interfolding. The Owens Art Gallery becomes the anchor point, bookending five years of a durational sequence that takes the artist back to her childhood haunt, through two residencies in Ireland, and onwards into preparations for interlinked gallery exhibitions across partnering sites. It seems that once the artist has galleries-as-objects, studios-as-objects, and good old fashioned object-objects in her mind, she creates the conditions for interplay—literally the reciprocal play of multiple things upon one another. From there, in her own way, she quietly re-addresses some of the concerns that had preoccupied previous generations of artists engaged in museological intervention: the function of (art) objects, the status of the museum, and the effect of site-specific practices on the institution.
In relation to these, Garnett’s primary instinct is curious:
2012. Dimensions of Owens Gallery transposed into the woods behind dad’s shop. Set up plank walkway. Mapped location of all 43 trees inside the “gallery.” Mapped the plank walkway. Pink flagging tape the height and length of the original Owens Gallery walls.
In an uncanny reversal of Robert Smithson’s non-sites, which originally introduced tangible remnants of landscape into the gallery space, Garnett takes architectural representations of the gallery out into the space of landscape. Her father’s woods become the site of intervention where her pre-assigned exhibition space is rematerialized as a “flagging tape footprint.” The ephemeral structure operates as a kind of “non-site” now, displaced from the home territory of Sackville and emplaced within the Maine woods. And if that is not enough of a reconsideration of spatial interplay, Garnett then proceeds to layout a plank path that animates her proxy space through bodily movement: a transversal inside a transposition. By making this “room” within the woods—its walls and walkways drawn in environmental space—Garnett (knowingly or unknowingly) sets up the preconditions for When One Space Meets Another to take shape some five years later. In the final turn of the wheel in 2017, the exhibition brings the Maine woods (tarp tubes act as tree stand-ins) into the galleries with the plank walkway laid out (in brown dance floor tape)—each according to their original relative location on site in Maine.
This conversation between two sites—the gallery and the woods—which, in Garnett’s hands, take their turn as abstracted and concrete entities mapped onto one another, might be interpreted metaphorically as the classic conversation between culture and nature. But given the other two key transpositions that appear in the final iterations of Garnett’s exhibition (framed out and platformed footprints of the Dublin and Cobh studios), a more nuanced reading might look, instead, at how Garnett sets up a new conversation between spaces for making and spaces for looking at what has been made. This is a significant evolution from the site/non-site dichotomies of art/non-art, interior/exterior, passive/active, exalted/mundane. Rather, Garnett proposes a dialogue between spaces of invention (noodling around in her dad’s woods over the years), spaces of contemplation and fabrication (the various residency sites she has occupied) and spaces of experimentation (the gallery as a room hosting unexpected conceptual and physical encounters). In this way, the spaces that are made to “meet one another” in Charlottetown and Sackville have more to do with the concept of the studio than they do with the cultural configuration of the gallery. But here, too, she moves on from the museological trope of the “artist in the museum” that had once been a staple of interventionist activity to, instead, de-emphasise the artist’s presence by re-emphasising the studio’s presence. The Fire Station and Sirius residencies—like the woods and plank pathway—gain their own status in physical space as objects-to-be-occupied by gallery-goers. These structures resist regular readings: they are not exactly sculptural, nor are they replica architectures. They do not recreate the artist’s lair, but they are accurate built “sketches” of original sites. They do not display Garnett’s in-progress (art) work, but they are in some ways her (built) work in progress. All the angst about what constitutes “art” and what is the role of the museum seems like a distant memory when rolling around on Garnett’s mobile seating, inspecting her adroit joinery, admiring the industrial integrity of scaffolding, or staring at the stark simplicity of a wooden plank.
And yet, what Garnett has done to the idea of “the cultural site” with this project is compelling within the legacy of institutional critique. For not only has she called into play the dynamic of the studio and de-sanctified its preciousness as she does with museal space, she also brings into view the notion of the construction site as a locale that operates, both literally and metaphorically, as “studio” and “gallery” simultaneously. The ultimate in creative arenas that allows individuals to both make and to see what is made all at once, the building site offers an unexpected vantage point from which to conclude a (necessarily incomplete) reading of the ways in which When One Space Meets Another works upon us. With what might be seen as a late coda to Robert Morris’ idea of the “visual field” taking precedence over the autonomous art object, we see the whole space when we take in Garnett’s project. The building site—like Garnett’s installation—welcomes scanning so that constituent parts continue to make up an ever-changing picture of something that is not at all made up of pictures. Additionally, the very idea of construction is one of intentional incompletion. Work is always in progress. Garnett’s purposeful exposure of preparatory materials, stations for ambiguous interaction, encouragement for physical touch, and the offering of “clues” to piece the show together builds an environment of continuous investigation. “Scaffolding” for Garnett is more than one of her favourite tools; it also a verb that encapsulates for her how we make sense of the world around us.