In: public art

July 28, 2022

A – Maze – ing Laughter, 2009 | Yue Minjun 岳敏君
A bronze sculpture located in Morton Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

I NEVER knew anyone so keenly alive to a joke as the king was. He seemed to live only for joking. To tell a good story of the joke kind, and to tell it well, was the surest road to his favor. Thus it happened that his seven ministers were all noted for their accomplishments as jokers. They all took after the king, too, in being large, corpulent, oily men, as well as inimitable jokers.
(Edgar Allan Poe, Hop-Frog; Or, the Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs, 1849)

Art in the public sphere is often interesting: the intended meaning of the artist may be subsumed by the larger interpellation of the work by the publics or communities that interact with the artwork on a daily basis, or over extended periods of time. You don’t even need to consider the larger argument about monuments that proffer ideologies that were once celebrated and are now suspect (to say the least): Yue Minjun’s installation in Morton Park, in Vancouver, B.C., can’t help but have an unsettling quality, and critical analysis of his work has used the phrase ‘cynical realism’ repeatedly, though the artist seems somewhat neutral on that categorization….

Minjun’s larger than life characters are surely laughing at us, not with us – and their number, their intimidating nature, their grins and smiles that seem ready to eat us up, brought to mind Edgar Allan Poe’s dark story Hop – Frog (specifically the king and his ministers, with their ‘jocular’ abuses of those weaker than they) which I quoted at the beginning of this curator’s pick.

I do favour literary references when responding to visual arts, but this one is particularly apt. The synopsis of the story: The title character, a person with dwarfism taken from his homeland, becomes the jester of a king particularly fond of practical jokes. Taking revenge on the king and his cabinet for the king’s striking of his friend and fellow dwarf Trippetta, he dresses the king and his cabinet as orangutans for a masquerade. In front of the king’s guests, Hop-Frog murders them all by setting their costumes on fire before escaping with Trippetta. (from here)

But that description is a bit bloodless: Poe was erudite, especially in terms of more morbid, or caustic, turns of phrase, and his characters reflected this.

Hop Frog’s final declaration, in the story, and his last words before escaping, are these: 

“Ah, ha!” said at length the infuriated jester. “Ah, ha! I begin to see who these people are now!” Here, pretending to scrutinize the king more closely, he held the flambeau to the flaxen coat which enveloped him, and which instantly burst into a sheet of vivid flame. In less than half a minute the whole eight ourang-outangs were blazing fiercely, amid the shrieks of the multitude who gazed at them from below, horror-stricken, and without the power to render them the slightest assistance.

At length the flames, suddenly increasing in virulence, forced the jester to climb higher up the chain, to be out of their reach; and, as he made this movement, the crowd again sank, for a brief instant, into silence. The dwarf seized his opportunity, and once more spoke:

“I now see distinctly.” he said, “what manner of people these maskers are. They are a great king and his seven privy-councillors, — a king who does not scruple to strike a defenceless girl and his seven councillors who abet him in the outrage. As for myself, I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester — and this is my last jest.”

Perhaps that scenario that Poe wrote – where those who mock are held to account – is a good one, to keep in mind as you wander the maze of these towering, awing figures that seem to cow us with their dramatic poses. But it would be remiss to not consider a less dour reading, which coincides with what brought these works to my attention – and that is from a recent rewatch I engaged in, focused on the iconic television series The X-Files.

To steal another’s words on this: Maybe the problem is that we’re confusing the mirror for the window and vice-versa. The fact that Mulder and Dr. They are discussing these provocative ideas among the fourteen statues that make up the “A-maze-ing Laughter” exhibit in Vancouver’s Morton Park adds another complicating layer. These bronze behemoths, each in a petrified state of hysterics, were conceived by the Beijing-based artist Yue Minjun as exaggerated self-portraits, and fall under the movement known as Cynical Realism, a response to the Chinese government’s oppressive approaches to aesthetic expression. Yet they’ve paradoxically brought such joy to a populace an ocean away that they’ve been made a permanent fixture of the Vancouver cityscape….Pain in one place begets gaiety in another, and even a calcified smile has the power to counteract, if not necessarily defeat, the despots. (from here

All images are from Wikipedia Commons.

~ Bart Gazzola

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dream listener | karen elaine spencer, 2006 – 2007
February 4, 2022

dream listener | karen elaine spencer, 2006 – 2007

In a dream I saw a way to survive and was filled with joy. (Holzer)

I have dreamed a dream, but now that dream is gone from me. (The Matrix: Reloaded)

i wrote my dream on cardboard, went out into the street and held the cardboard dream in front of me. at the end of the day i abandoned the cardboard dream. over the year one hundred and ninety-four dreams were written on cardboard and shared this way. (karen elaine spencer)

There is a poetic brutality to karen spencer’s dream listener porteur de rêves works, and especially several that she’s shared online recently, looking backwards at this series. (The image I’m sharing here is from 2007)

These are stark images, both visually and in terms of what spencer has chosen to present. spencer and I became acquainted when she exhibited a postcard/billboard project (using an image taken from her first invitation with ATSA’s l’État d’urgence) in Saskatoon some time ago; we joked about how both of us liked to walk in the frigid temperatures of our respective cities, and how that gave us a different sense of the place and the people. spencer often seems to notice things that others ignore, in these images: sometimes those are discarded objects. Often they are detritus, or indicators, of discarded people. spencer’s work is very political, and often in the public sphere, as well.

“Her work questions the hierarchy inherent in use values and investigates how we, as transient beings, occupy the world we live in. The widely held belief in a linear movement forward, or “progress”, is confronted through her repetition of actions that lead nowhere. Rambling, dreaming, loitering and riding the metro are all activities spencer has previously undertaken as part of her practice. Actions are sustained over time (often a year or more) rendering her artistic practice indistinguishable from her daily life. She works with what is near at hand, materials that speak of our day-to-day existence: cardboard, oranges, bread, chalk. Through a détournement of materials or intentions spencer intervenes into spaces; hoping to shift, even if only ever so slightly, our perceptions of what is possible.” (from The New Gallery)

spencer’s words are plaintive yet engaging. There’s a sadness evoked that seems to speak to you, on a very personal level. Her other texts in this series are equally melancholic: I dreamed my insides were falling out astride a pile of domestic discards, i dreamt i wanted nothing more to do with death, i dreamt i was waiting but i don’t know what for and i dreamed i lay in a puddle and watched the rain fall on me (the latter two both on wood that we all recognize as that used to board up windows, an arbiter of damaged, empty – unwanted – spaces).

More of the dream listener interventions can be seen here. More contemporary works by spencer can be found on her IG feed: @karenelainespencer

~ Bart Gazzola

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