The image, some dreams and art I’ve seen.

Lauren Lavery is a Toronto-based visual artist, writer and editor of the exhibition review magazine Peripheral Review. Her writing has been published by LUMA Quarterly, Public Parking and she has written texts for Y+ Contemporary and Xpace Cultural Centre in Toronto. Please find below her essay on ARCs (artist run centers) and impressions on moving to Toronto, Canada.


As I approach the entryway to the gallery, I notice something peculiar hanging on the wall. It was so bright, radiant almost; it’s as if I (or you) had never seen anything like it before. Upon coming closer to the piece, the materiality of the work soon settled into its more permanent form. From this moment on it all became more clear to myself as a viewer: it’s art.

The more writing I read about art, the more self-conscious I become of my experience as a viewer. The walk-through guided tour strategy is a nice way to literally engage and introduce the work to a reader, but it’s starting to feel old. Of course I know I couldn’t be there and experience the feeling of walking past the threshold, but in the end it’s okay because I can piece together how the space looked through low fidelity images on social media. I always think that writing is a poor translator for documenting art, since in some ways, no amount of words could ever fully describe the complex nature of viewing art in person. It is called visual art after all. Even in this post-Internet age of instant accessibility, we may have come to rely on the instant-image as a crutch, photo documentation has usurped the importance of generating dialogue about the work. We all know the age of the art critic is dead, but I don’t think I’m ready to let critical writing/thinking die in exchange for the insta-image.

I’m in this gallery space. It’s an apartment converted into a gallery, so it’s unconventional you could say. But I’m excited to be here, I remember thinking, “Finally! An experimental space that is going to push that status quo—alright!” The work is hanging on the walls, but who knows maybe it’s also that little basil leaf on the floor in the kitchen, you can never be too sure in these kinds of spaces, darling. Then there’s this one painting hanging off the wall. I walk closer to inspect the mechanics behind such a cheeky feat. Then, just as quick as it was there, it was gone. “Weird”, I think as a cute girl behind me taps me on the shoulder, “Hey there you!”

Some days I feel weary. I think, “Why do I put all this effort into something that seems so frivolous? So self-indulgent? Why is anyone else in the world also interested in my opinion about someone else’s work?” I sometimes think of my work and my time going into a black void. I see it spinning slowly counter-clockwise, always turning, whether the sun rises another day or not. Do these ideas and lifestyles and often overanalyzed points really need to be shared with the world? In the constant states of emergency and crisis we are currently living in? I’d like to think so. The real problem is there’s ever so much to talk about, and yet everybody is only ever talking about the same thing.

I moved to this big city to be in a bigger pond, to meet the big-timers, to see what is not-to-be-missed. Since being here, I can’t say I’ve honestly seen too much. It felt overwhelming at first, but now I feel almost apathetic. This pattern of excitement and sadly, the (oftentimes) resulting disappointment, moved me. Of course in this economy could you blame the galleries? They have to show work that they know will be successful, work that will maybe even sell, could you imagine? Gone are the days in which you could exhibit work that could stand on its own, outside of the popular crowd, outside of what aesthetic everyone is insta-devouring at this very minute, this very second! Even during the most ungodly hours of the night, someone’s little electronic slab is lit up with images upon images upon images of this art. The mass circulation and digestion of this highly photogenic viewing phenomena provokes me, triggers me. I get caught up in the beauty of my various little screens which I like to look at as well, at all hours of the day and night. I can see why they like to show these same people in a way. We live as if we are in the Internet, if you make a “mistake” everyone can see, they will see, they will judge. Why run the risk? But the issue doesn’t only lie in what’s being shown, it‘s also deeply imbedded its way into how art is being written about.

My thoughts feel light and airy, rotating slowly between my conscious brain and somewhere else. I’d like to think I could tap into my unconscious brain at this point but can’t, only a monk could do something like that. I suddenly snap back into reality. I’m in a conversation of people I know, but don’t really, so it’s a lot of small talk that for some reason has the ability to go on infinitely. But as I prepare to ask the man to my left a question to which I already know the answer to, (I saw his event invite to his upcoming show on Facebook) I start to get an uneasy feeling about these people. Something’s not quite right. Then I see it, his right hand has a small, additional finger next to his pinky. I try not to stare, but then notice everyone else also has one. Unable to directly ask anyone about it, I withdraw from the conversation to go see who is having a smoke outside.

They say Canadians are polite. Too polite, to a fault, perhaps. In many ways I can liken this to why I can never convince myself to pay for a year’s subscription to Canadian Art magazine, even when they offer that once-a-year discount pricing. It feels sad really, but I also know deep down that I won’t be missing anything I didn’t already read about or see somewhere else. I can’t pinpoint what about it never convinces me, maybe it’s the mediocrity that bothers me the most, since it’s also a fear of mine. It feels as if a lot of art writing in general isn’t giving anything new to consider, it often lacks a kind of deeper insight into the exhibition or artist or site-specific context which I tend to read articles for. It’s not that I’m arguing for more criticality, or an extreme criticality, definitely not. But it always feels as if something is missing, something that I feel uneasy about and can’t quite put my finger on. Lately I’ve been thinking that this missing thing in art writing is a concern for the reader missing out on the “real” experience. It’s like the sudden prevalence of these travelling, instagrammable museum art exhibitions, one of the most popular being Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, having just taken place at the AGO, with an extension on their ticketed tours due to popular demand. Sure I’ve seen a few of the thousands of images on the Internet of this exhibition, but can I say I really lived if I didn’t experience it for myself and post a selfie? Cue the art review that walks you through the show room-by-room, with every little surprise along the way, as if I was really there! But in the end, what was gained from this piece of writing? Is there an obligation of art writing to, at the very least, make reference to something greater than what was physically there in the room that day?

It’s maybe not fair to criticize art writing for not discussing more poignant or meaningful topics within the exhibitions they review, especially when the material they have to work with can be just as bland. I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with why I always saw (and see) the same roster of artists showing work through the gallery circuit. What do they have that the artists I admire more don’t have? Do they even sell? Is it all a facade?

I had a dream I was at Art Toronto again. I was walking through the endless winding hallways of gallery booths, the spotlights reflecting so intensely off of the white walls it hurt my eyes. It was so overwhelming, and I remember thinking, there’s no way I can really see all of this, but as I started walking through, I realized it might actually be possible, since the majority of it was ignorable. Different variants of the same object/subject/medium. Suddenly I realized I hated art.

Commercial art is different. Galleries who represent artists are different. They can’t necessarily be as experimental because at the end of the day they gotta pay their rent right?

I like going into basement galleries. There’s something about them that automatically gets a cool card, like it’s punk or something. It feels exclusive. But when I’m here, I want the artwork to feel as exclusive as I feel, something truly unexpected. I want to see something cool. Maybe it’s just the shitty real estate market here in Toronto, but for all the dingy basements out there, it’s hard to find a gallery that really pushes the boundaries of who and what they show. I feel like I haven’t been really stimulated or moved by an exhibition in an “alternative” space in a while. Why is it that even when we seek out the unconventional, to gain traction there is the inevitable pressure to return to the conventional? Perhaps now the real critique is on art writing again?

I’m walking around in this large museum and have an urgency to my activity, as if I am at work and should be thinking about what I will need to do next. Continuing to move about, I open a set of double doors. An overwhelming stench of feces envelopes me, making me nauseated. The room is dark and the floor is covered with small, neat piles of poop. There’s a plastic bag dispenser on the wall to the side. Clearly I am suppose to clean these up, but I’m hesitant. I grab a bag from the wall and begin picking them up, like a dog-owner cleans up after their pet on a walk. Suddenly a man opens the doors behind me and yells, “Hey you! Why are you touching the art?”  

But then again this isn’t totally true. Just yesterday I was at an opening where the task of the artists involved was to ruminate and commit to working on a meditation technique for the exhibition, and then continue the practice for a year. It was everything I expected it was going to be at first, a small gallery full of beautiful, pallid-hued works, and lots of uptown looking ladies holding pillows in their arms while they gabbed about how wonderful this all is and how wonderful their yoga class is and so forth. And yet, in spite of it all, the opposite of what I expected happened. The artists’ chose to do a sound performance in lieu of a final talk elaborating on (as we artists love to do) about their process, their practice and how deeply it affected them. Instead they chose to show the viewers the meaning of their process, through a collaborative, shared sound experience. It was an alternative yet unpretentious realization of what I feel I keep looking for in a show. It was a risk for the artists, since the gesture could be too abstract or not tangible enough and fall flat, but it never did. So there, maybe it can exist.

Maybe the real issue is that it doesn’t have to be black and white. One method shouldn’t have to end just so another can take its place. Clearly the translation of art into the written word isn’t enough, but it will never be enough. Photo documentation is the same way. Some work seems to be made with the notion of documenting it online in mind, and is all the more successful for it, but it still doesn’t mean it’s a good exhibition or a stunning show in person. It’s just not enough. And I’m okay with that. The fact that art still exists in an economy that seems to increasingly value monetary gain and materialism is hopeful. Of course art has its own very large role to play in this game, but if you ask any artist if that was their end goal, I know the majority would deny this as a motivator for creating. Art is a complicated beast, and the artist is even more so, but it makes it all the more interesting and important to talk about our experiences, to continue to separate our work from the end goal of becoming a status symbol for the wealthy. If we are persistent in our efforts, and keep talking honestly without fear of being alienated, it will change. I don’t think we’re ready for criticism to die just yet.