Thanks to the generosity of the attendants, I was given a last minute appointment to see the recently opened Rennie Collection. Real estate mogul Bob Rennie’s private art gallery is now housed in the newly renovated Wing Sang building, the oldest building in Vancouver’s downtown Chinatown, built by businessman Yip Sang in 1889 (the Wing Sang building was also once home to Steven Tong and Sally Lee’s 69 Pender, one of Vancouver’s more vital contingent art spaces of the past ten years). The Collection fashions itself somewhat after The Ydessa Hendles Art Foundation, one major difference being that the Rennie Collection is only open by appointment.
In terms of the building, Rennie kept some of the original materials and architectural details after renovation. So, for example, a brick wall running through the third floor galleries is one of the last remnants of an early twentieth-century network of back alleys in Chinatown. And wood from old growth trees (roughly 1,500 to 800 year old wood) that was used to build the original building frame was recombined into a panel at the entranceway.
Mona Hatoum, Silence, 1994, laboratory glass tubes
Rennie’s current exhibition highlights his extensive collection of works by Mona Hatoum. Since guided tours are the only way to see the Collection, the first piece the viewer encounters (in fact, the viewer waits in front of it for the tour to begin) is Hatoum’s sign Waiting is Forbidden, a literal translation of the Arabic “No Loitering.” The irony of placing the sign in the waiting area is not lost on the Collection and it is one of things the guide mentions first. Next to the sign appears A Couple (of Swings), Hatoum’s pair of glass swings facing each other. The three floors of work focus on her career through the 1990s and 2000s. The fragility in Hatoum’s work is haunting, as in the piece Silence, a baby’s cradle made of glass test tubes.
The opening of the Rennie Collection comes at an unfortunate time, squarely fitting into the trend toward privatization of the arts in BC. Of course, Rennie doesn’t have to display his collection to the public and he should be acknowledged for making it available, but it’s disquieting that this is happening at the same time that there is a significant loss in public funding. It opened in the same season that the Helen Pitt lost its permanent location due to funding cuts, Absolut Vodka announced an embarrassing “competition” for $120,000 for public art projects (the results aren’t even worth mentioning, but the embarrassment is), the Woodward’s Building’s commercial spaces reopened (with a new Stan Douglas photo-panorama), and the Olympics loom. Just for good measure, I’ll also mention cuts to civic services, including the closing of the Blodel Conservatory. It feels like a very different set of circumstances operating in Vancouver now.
The socio-economic implications of increased privatization are taken to a literal extreme in the Rennie Collection’s stunning rooftop sculpture garden. Overlooking Chinatown and False Creek, with its back to Hastings Street and the Downtown Eastside, Martin Creed’s Everything Is Going to Be Alright is installed high above the city. The neon illuminates the horizon of Pender Street (it’s quite stunning to see from the Expo Line Skytrain), but the irony (or unchecked optimism) of the installation on the edge of the Downtown Eastside nonplusses me.
Also on the roof, Two Half Cylinders, a new pavilion by Dan Graham was installed a few weeks ago. Having a Graham pavilion in the city is, well, awesome, and that picturesque rooftop is perfect for playing with reflections of yourself and the city’s skyline. I’m thrilled it’s there.
Dan Graham, Projects for Publication 1966-2009, installation view (photo: Scott Massey)
Graham was in town for the debut of this pavilion, along with a retrospective of sorts at the Charles H. Scott Gallery. What I liked so much about Dan Graham: Projects for Publication 1966-2009 is that it makes no sense. Is it an archive? Is it an exhibition? Is it display? Is it – god forbid – an extension of READ books, the bookstore adjacent to the Charles H. Scott? I couldn’t figure it out. It didn’t seem to be any of these, each of which would have had different aesthetic consequences. A gathering of Graham’s print ephemera, some of which is presented in frames, some in vitrines, some in books scattered about a series of couches, this retrospective of the artist’s contribution to print confounded me. It includes framed magazines opened to the essays he wrote, even essays written by others about him. The books on display in the exhibition are on sale in the bookstore (the first issue of Art-Language, Rock My Religion, etc.). But something about the installation, regardless, made it feel substantial. Perhaps that substance had to do with the ambiguity of the presentation. No doubt, some of it works just because of the fact that it’s Dan Graham. So the exhibition – or is it the exhibition’s status as art? – rests on the artist himself.
Reece Terris, The Western Front Front - Another False Front, 2009, production sketch
Lastly, and to continue with the sub-theme of architecture, Reece Terris has re-modeled the boomtown façade of the Western Front into an even bigger boomtown façade. As is often the case with Terris’ work, I am impressed by the feat but not certain of how it addresses the relationship his work has to design. The execution is near flawless, but his earlier work seemed more ambitious and ultimately gave me more to think about. Then again, highlighting the boomtown mentality of the city’s past is a welcome reminder as the city approaches that potential Olympian debacle known as an “international celebration.”
Aaron Peck is the author of The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (Pedlar Press, 2008). His reviews have recently appeared in Canadian Art and Fillip. He lives in Vancouver.
The Rennie Collection: http://www.renniecollection.org/
Mona Hatoum: Collected Works continues until January 28.
Charles H. Scott Gallery: http://chscott.ecuad.ca/
See website for current exhibitions.
Western Front: http://front.bc.ca/exhibitions/events/3295
Reece Terris: Western Front Front – Another False Front continues until March 27.
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