I’m Amazed We Made it Out of the Mall
By writer in residence Blair Brennan
After months of planning and preparation and a few intense evenings stretching into early mornings of installation, six artists and one curator/organizer were informed that much of their work had been taken down and that the exhibition Capricious!, originally planned to take place in Londonderry Mall from October 1 – 28th , had been cancelled. Despite previous negotiations in good faith, the exhibition curator, Miranda Sayer was informed by mall officials on Monday October 1 (the day the show was scheduled to open) that much of the work of Carly Greene, Jes McCoy, Hilary Mussell, Patrick Reed, Megan Stein and Alma Visscher had been abruptly removed because there was a need for “the mall to look as corporate and mall-like as possible.”
No doubt many communications flew back and forth between the mall and Sayer regarding the cancellation. Sayer would be at a distinct disadvantage in this conversation. Whenever larger organizations are forced into a corner (i.e. when someone points out that they are doing something borderline unethical) they turn on a special bureaucratic force field. The company would remind Sayer that they have an obligation to other tenants, that the mall is a private not a public space, business first etc. “It is our mall, our choice” they might as well have said. We should be thankful to some (s)mall pencil pusher for reminding us that contemporary art can be a significant disruption to the mall-ification of North America.
The show was well conceived and the work interesting (you can see pictures of “The Art Show that Wasn’t” on Facebook). I mean no disrespect to the exhibiting artists, but there was nothing very socially or politically confrontational about most of this work. This is worth noting because the decision to present these art works in a mall (not the works themselves) seems to have been objectionable to some. Taking art to the people, rather than expecting people to come to the art, turned out to be sufficient enough threat to the established order that decisive eleventh hour action had to be taken by the mall. “We’re shutting you down! We gotta get this stuff outta here before the shoppers arrive!” Many issues surround this cancellation, not the least of which is the hasty removal of delicate art works by untrained security staff acting as ad-hoc art preparators.
It is significant that this unexpected cancellation takes place so close to the decision of Strathcona County Council not to shut down Spyder Yardley-Jones current exhibition, I’m Amazed We Made it Out of the Swamp at Sherwood Park’s Gallery@501. Yardley-Jones satirical style will be known to many readers. It bears both a genetic and artistic legacy of the political editorial cartoon (Spyder is the son of well-known political cartoonist John Yardley-Jones). It is an effective technique in Yardley-Jones hands as it was for 19th Century French artist Honore Daumier (lest you think there is no legitimate precedent for a fine art/cartoon cross-over). Yardley-Jones work is not subtle but it is relatively tame by the standards of contemporary graphic novels, music, television, film etc. Still, a number of pieces were just too much for Strathcona County. Debate seemed focused on the issue of a publicly funded gallery presenting “objectionable” art – Strathcona County’s version of “our mall, our choice”.
In their decision to keep the doors of the Gallery open, Strathcona County Council cited free speech. That would be noble except, from the outside, it just looks as if they weighed out which decision would make them look worse: close down the show in a spectacular moment of tyrannical control freakery; or leave the show up and ignore the capricious whims of (one suspects) a vocal few. “We understand that the content of this exhibit is offensive to some” the county’s media release reads. I was sure they would shut the show down. Without the distraction of welcoming art galleries and intelligent, imaginative and informed curators and arts educators making a genuine attempt to help people discover and discuss potentially provocative art, there would be more time for the citizens of Sherwood Forest to get back to book burning (I stole that joke from a professional humorologist – thanks G!)
I am most concerned because someone went to a lot of trouble to make this a “problem”. Someone ignored the warnings on the front door of the gallery, ignored the warnings posted at the entry of a curtained off area that contained the most “objectionable” work, entered this area and photographed this work (which is an infringement of copyright law), leaked these photos to the media, all the while being careful to avoid any burdensome awareness about this art work (including the artist lecture the evening of the opening, the public discussion with the artist the following day and the copious interpretive material provided by the Gallery staff). It is hard not to see some petty disagreement between the gallery, some tax paying citizens, members of council or the mayor behind all of this. Was Yardley-Jones’ show a pawn in some political maneuvering? The people of Sherwood Park may be hicks who don’t understand satire or political savants who pretend not to get satire for political gain. I’m not sure which is worse.
If you came of age artistically in Edmonton in the late 70’s early 80’s you know that the city was associated with a certain kind of abstract art. The AGA’s recent “7 Years in the City: Art from the AGA Collection” exhibition was a flawed survey of this kind of work. As the title suggests, the show was limited to works available from the AGA collection and further hampered by the small gallery space but the show illustrates the type of work that I’m talking about. We were accustomed to pleasant abstract compositions that would be at home in any corporate collection. Edmonton had no “Hans Haacke” to make oil company executives, shopping mall administrators and local politicians uncomfortable. This makes these recent events gloriously shocking (or ridiculously predictable). In Edmonton we’re used to art not making waves and people not caring about art (for now, I suggest only a correlation, not causation).
As sad as it is, Edmonton artists and art lovers are accustomed to art not making a difference in most people’s lives. We should, therefore, celebrate every time an intelligent and opinionated artist like Spyder Yardley-Jones challenges authority with art and forces those in positions of power to reveal themselves as control-obsessed-crypto-fascists. We should cheer every time a smart young curator takes a great risk and gets shut down by mall cops because the mall management did not end up with the visual equivalent of Muzak. We should applaud the talented young artists who won’t make that Muzak. When all of this happens (and when Edmonton police resources are used to look for a graffiti artists) you can get angry or you can stand back and think “Wow, art really matters to these people!”