The Value of Art: A Visit to the Audain Art Museum

There is a posture to fine art that implies that it is only art if it is elevated to a place where few will see it, and even fewer will understand it. Art’s aura, as described by twentieth century cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, is the cult value and relative distance that make it unattainable. How does the fact that it seems just out of reach for most of us make it more valuable? And why does the value of art seem to be intrinsically tied to this inaccessibility, rarity and exotic nature?

The Audain Art Museum opened in March 2016 in Whistler’s Upper Village. This is a not-for-profit institution founded on major donations from Michael Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa. The building, designed by Patkau Architects of Vancouver, takes delicious advantage of its forested location and mountainous “nest” with gorgeous views from its walkways. It boasts “one of the world’s most important collections of Northwest Coast masks”, two dozen Emily Carr works and a collection of impressive works by E.J. Hughes on loan from Jacques and Margaret Barbeau. I was able (I will avoid saying “privileged”, even though privilege was exactly what it was) to view the museum with a group under the guidance of Chief Curator, Darrin Martens on a recent Saturday. It is a relatively small, but impressive collection of about 200 works.

James Hart, The Dance Screen (The Scream, Too), detail. Photograph by Casey Hrynkow.

I came away with a feeling of discomfort that I am having trouble resolving. I have less of a problem with this new collection than I do with how it came to be collected and how and where it is being displayed. The works in the Audain Museum cover British Columbia art, from time immemorial to present day, within a narrow window of one collector’s tastes. Everything from Nuu-chah-nulth masks of well in excess of 100 years old, to works barely one year old, made by Rodney Graham. The majority of this collection most recently belonged to one family. They had the wealth and the knowledge to accumulate the works that are now the backbone of the Audain Museum. These pieces were kept in the the private homes and offices of a small group of people until the Audains decided to make this collection a legacy to the public. It is a noble gesture. And if I posit that one of the implied roles of the wealthy is sprinkling bits and pieces of their good fortune down to the common folk, then this is indeed a grand gesture. The ecology of art in western society runs on this top-down feeding of the system, and it also makes it less available to the rank and file. This particular museum is located an hour and a half by car from Vancouver, in Whistler, to be “found” by those who have a level of education that arouses them to seek it out, in a destination known for its expensive accommodations, restaurants and sporting pursuits. And, of course, there is an $18 admission fee to pay. This art is elevated by its inaccessibility, its rarity and its exotic nature. Some of it had been purchased directly from the artists, some (in the case of First Nations art) from other collectors who may originally have acquired it nefariously and then moved it up the value chain through barter and sale.

When we view this art we see it, consciously or unconsciously, through a lens coloured by perceptions of exoticism, rarity and wealth — perhaps even envy. This isn’t unique to the Audain Museum, but the choices that were made in this modern setting do nothing to turn the tide of elitism in art circles in our culture. The true accessibility of art in our society is a discussion worth having.

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Langmann Gallery:  Something for Everyone

“Every painting has a story.”

Those were the opening words of our private tour of the Langmann Gallery located at 2177 Granville Street. Uno Langmann, an antique art dealer and storyteller extraordinaire, first came to Vancouver in 1955. With barely $50.00 in his wallet, Langmann started buying and selling art almost as soon as he arrived in Vancouver, with one of his first modern pieces being Jack Shadbolt’s Greek Farm. From that point on, Langmann spent the next sixty years dealing art and building his reputation as an internationally known art dealer, consultant, and influential leader in his field. He is recognized for his knowledge, preservation and promotion of arts and culture.[1]

LangmannUno Langmann with his first modern art purchase, Jack Shaboldt’s Greek Farm.

His renowned gallery contains eclectic pieces from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries such as dishware, sculptures, candlesticks, and paintings. Most pieces are European; however, he does carry pieces from Asia and North America, and even has a room dedicated specifically to Canadian and Indigenous art. As we toured the gallery, Langmann stopped at each major painting to passionately tell us about the era in which the piece was created, how and where he acquired the artwork, and of course, information about the artist him or herself. His eyes lit up as he told us about some of his favourite paintings or painters. What struck me about Langmann was his ability to remember the fine details of each of the artists such as his or her artistic influences, ancestral background, and even where he or she vacationed. In addition to a plethora of historical knowledge, Langmann also shared his personal anecdotes and interactions that he has had with some of the artists. My favourite story being the time he first met Jack Shadbolt and learned that the only piece of artwork that Shadbolt was missing from his exhibit was Greek Farm, the first Shadbolt piece that Langmann had purchased and had hanging at his home.

As I walked through the gallery, I couldn’t help but notice the substantial price tags of some of the pieces … $1500, $18,000, $48,000… and wonder, is there a market for antique artwork in Vancouver?  Someone must have been reading my mind because soon after the question was raised by someone from our group. “It’s hopeless. Only 2.5% of Vancouverites are interested in antique art, and out of the 2.5%, only 5% can actually afford it” he replies. With such an ominous response from a long-time art dealer based in Vancouver, I ask how art dealers are able to succeed in this increasingly expensive city. “Build it and they will come” he says which is exactly what he had to do to be successful in this industry. It must have been a gamble to invest in antique artwork in a city lacking art aficionados but with his knowledge and reputation, Langmann has built an extremely unique gallery, attracting individual collectors, investors, and museums buyers from all around the world.

As we ended the tour, Langmann closed the evening with, “Every good painting has the soul of the artist in it.” These are fitting words coming from someone whose soul is unmistakeably embedded in his love and passion for the arts.

If you are interested in browsing at century old artwork, purchasing a piece of art, or perhaps having an art history lesson, I recommend stopping in at the gallery and meeting Uno Langmann himself. Located on South Granville’s Gallery Row, the Langmann Gallery is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm.

[1] UBC Library. Uno Langmann. Accessed June 1, 2017. http://collections.library.ubc.ca/featured-collections/langmann/about-langmann/

Pianist: athlete

My eyes wandered back once again, involuntarily, to his forearms.

No elegant, long-limbed evocation of romantic Chopin here. Andrew Czink, pianist, could have been a boxer. Certainly his concert is as much a dramatic athletic feat as a musical exploration. But isn’t that how it is? Isn’t playing any instrument the culmination of long years of intense physical training? Didn’t I have to give up rock climbing when I started learning the standup bass?

Czink’s primary stated goal was to explore a sonorous practice.

”It’s really exploratory. What can happen if I play this note as fast as I can for five minutes? What kind of impetus and motion does this scale compel me into?” the audio engineer, teacher, GLS doctorate candidate and classical performer said of his structured improvisation. “It’s about movement, tactility and sound.”

And so he pummelled. As fast as he could. As loudly as he could. As fiercely as his forearm muscles would allow, and all the while as attenuated, differentiated and delicately phrased as those self-same, well-trained muscles would allow.

Andrew Czink is interested in the embodied physicality of playing music, or “musiking,” a term used by Christopher Small to underline that music should be thought of as a verb rather than a noun. Czink is interested not only in the pitch and duration of notes, but also the noise of the piano hammers hitting strings. “This is a compositional resource,” he said in a pre-performance presentation.

Czink’s 30-minute musical performance seeks to combine his physical body, his mind and emotions, the entire physical piano as well as its conventional ability to create musical tones, a pre-composed musical outline and in-the-moment/in-the-location improvisation.

I heard eight movements. The first consisted of increasingly long and complex variations on a short motif, each separated by held notes which allowed the piano strings to ring and waver into discordant distortions. It was an exploration of pacing and space. I began to worry if I’d last the full 30 minutes.

The second movement involved repetition of a note and variations. The third movement introduced physical, repeated hammering on some notes and included a transition to a more melodic line.

The fourth movement was clearly melodic with the introduction of chords. As a listener, I was now grateful for the more obvious melody and 4/4 rhythm. I found it intriguing that Czink made a mistake in this movement. His face twitched but he kept going. I wondered how many in his audience detected this mistake in a performance piece that was so complex and unpredictable.

The fifth movement may actually have been an extra long 4th movement. Did I miss a transition? He started using a bass note to lead the melody.

The sixth movement had a clear flow. There was phrasal movement in the non-stop flood of repetition and chordal notes.

The seventh movement returned to the clear, physical hammering with roots and fifths in the bass interspersing an ever higher drone reminiscent of The Flight of the Bumblebee. The physical virtuosity came to a climax as Czink shifted on his piano bench to play higher and higher registers.

The eight movement started moving back down toward the bass registers. For me, the sheer physicality of the feat dominated my response. Finally, Czink dropped his entire forearm onto the piano and waited for the sound to subside. I felt as though I’d watched an extended, tension-building athletic feat, and I was grateful for the release.

So here’s the rub. My engagement was largely a matter of watching Czink’s engagement, and Czink’s engagement was inward. Czink didn’t seem to mind, but I think I did.

Czink’s perspective?

“People say you’re expressing yourself in your music. I don’t know if I’m expressing myself. I’m configuring myself,” Czink said. “I have no stories. I don’t think that way as I’m making this stuff.”

 

— Jenny Lee

6-7 things about the Audain Art Museum

  1. The pile of drums in one corner of the Audain Art Museum is a piece by Indigenous artist Sonny Assu. Curator Darrin Martens explained on his tour that this piece was called ‘57 things’, and that there were 57 drums, one for each year the potlatch was forbidden, and I thought, ooh, that’s good.  I wrote it down.  Later, however, I learned that the piece is not called ‘57 things’ after all– it’s called Silenced: The Hidden.

the hidden

2. I decided to use that information to write a piece for our class blog called 57 things      about our field trip to Whistler. But then I googled artist Sonny Assu and realized there is no basis to the ‘57 things’ idea.  The piece is indeed representing the years the potlatch ban existed, but that was 1886-1951—67 years.  I counted the drums in my photo and that seems to be the number.  (67 is way too many things for a blog though.  Hence my title of 6 – 7).

  1. There was another Sonny Assu piece in the gallery, same theme, and this one is in fact called 1886-1951:

1886-1951

I remembered seeing it at Audain and looking around for the title and artist name and not finding it. It’s only now that I’ve googled Assu that I know it’s his.  Again, the 67 years of the potlatch ban are represented, this time by coffee cups (the status symbols of modern Vancouverites); they’re made of copper because that was a valuable material the Kwakwaka’wakw people used to share.  The cups have been abandoned on a Hudson’s Bay blanket that depicts the colonialism the Kwakwaka’wakw people were forced to endure.

4. When the curator was asked if the First Nations whose masks were displayed here had been consulted on how to display them, he said “I had no time to do that.” I could feel our entire class collectively wince at this answer.  The curator did, however, tell us that the museum makes time and space available for First Nations who want to borrow or use the masks that tell the story of their heritage.  Magnificent!   I want to assume the nations have been told that they can do that, and hope they borrow these pieces and share them if they find them meaningful.

5. The new First Nations masks by a variety of artists and the pieces made by Brian Jungen out of Nike Air Jordans and golf bags are a hopeful wonder. I saw there some of the same cheekiness we read about in Michael Yahgulanaas’s work and I want to see more.

6. Stephen Waddell’s large photograph Termini, stopped me dead in my tracks.

waddell

 It’s not First Nations art but it’s also not out of place here; old women wearing plaid blankets and plastic bags on their feet overload their wheelchair cart, and arguments could be made for themes of excess, and shame, and ignorance and relentless progress in this picture.  But the truth is I’m drawn in because I know Waddell.  We went to high school together and he was funny and smart.  Thirty years ago we went on a day long date to the PNE and then shared a kiss the night before I moved away to university and I never saw him again….

 7…. and I think I was supposed to contact him when I came back to visit and I never did. I didn’t make time because I was a dumb teenager. So, while I apologize for this overly personal reflection and weighty metaphor, I will say this: as the Audain Art Museum curator stated, the role of art is to create a dialogue and to communicate.   It’s easy to fail and to let things slide since we’re all busy.  But learn the names of the pieces in your gallery and the pertinent information about them.  Make names of artists and art easy to find.  Open that dialogue with the nations whose masks are displayed at Audain.  Maybe you were too busy before. Start now.

  • Cathy Collis

 

Dorothy Dittrich’s The Piano Teacher: moments of wisdom from an unlikely source.

 

Elaine has long come to terms with the arthritis which sidelined her performing career as a pianist – or so she thinks.

She’s remade herself into the kind of inspired piano teacher who comfortably accepts a student’s desire to not perform on recital day knowing, perhaps, that the music lives already in the child.

When Erin, a celebrated pianist so grief-stricken she can’t even bear to sit on a piano bench, asks Elaine to be her teacher, playwright Dorothy Dittrich uses their relationship to explore grief, loss and the potency latent in music.

“Music is a language. You have to learn to speak it, not just play it,” Elaine (Caitriona Murphy) says in the Arts Club’s production of The Piano Teacher. “Music played from the heart is healing.”

When Erin (Megan Leitch) recounts the recital day incident in an imaginary conversation with her husband, I want to cheer in solidarity for all young music students. “Imagine the freedom, Kevin. Imagine the space not to play,” Erin says.   The child said, “’I learned a bunch of songs,’ and sat down!”

Humour lightens what could be a heavy theme. Erin doesn’t like Beethoven because he was “too big, too loud. Probably a bastard.” Elaine admits Chopin’s music “reminds me of clammy hands.”

But for all the levity, Megan Leitch’s Erin is a painfully accurate depiction of the desperate loneliness and emptiness of depression. Jenifer Darbellay’s costumes are perfect in everyday simplicity. Although we never actually see Erin’s thin, bare, brave shoulder-blades, we feel them.

Patrick Pennefather’s spare sound design skillfully walks the line between appealing to intellect and emotion, and never descends into overblown indulgence.

While Elaine’s love interest, Tom, is a lightly sketched character played with amiable animal warmth by Kamyar Pazandeh, there’s no real need for Tom to be fully-fleshed. Depression flattens perspective and if one is emotionally ready, as Elaine becomes, even the smallest event or interaction can be enough to help spark a return to life.

As a musician, I warmed to Dittrich’s theme. Playing music is indeed “a relationship,” that transforms both player and listener. The chord “unbroken” can  sound “banal”, but broken, can indeed be “sublime.”

“The broken chord acts as a container for the melody,” Elaine says poetically. “It supports without imposing itself.”

In one heart-stopping moment, Elaine asks Erin “What’s (composer Aaron) Copeland to you?”

Erin answers with one word: “Space.”

“This man has found a way to make us hear the landscape and the space around it,” she continues. “He’s given space a voice.”

As Erin regains her ability to play music, Elaine finds the space to explore her own loss. “I wasn’t prepared for Erin,” Elaine says. “How could I be? She was the teacher.”

Yet while Erin and Elaine’s dialogue is clear, spare and delicate in its dance between emotion and rationality, Elaine’s lecture/musings occasionally jarred with painful banality. I felt an almost physical affront from inane lines like “Life changes you,” and “I think you just have to be grateful for what you have and do the things you love.”

Does the blatancy of these lessons, along with the obvious metaphor of Elaine installing a giant new window on her landing at home, originate from the playwright? Dittrich, afterall, also wrote this sensitive, illuminating observation: music is “sounds and silence in motion. It has to have space and time. Sometimes it gets too intense and it has to breathe.”

Or does the responsibility lie with the Arts Club looking to provide its paying audience with simple answers nicely wrapped up in a picture window?

– Jenny Lee

This Week in GLS: A Poem

This past week I must confess
the art we saw in GLS
was tough for me to analyze
(of graphic novels I’m not wise,
And piano from the ‘Peanuts’ show
is more the kind and style I know.)
But I lent a sympathetic ear;
I tried to swallow my own fear
and pretend I wasn’t feeling meek
at the notion of critique.
I’m glad I did! From MNY
I learned a lot of Haida Gwaii,
and how a painting can be turned
for new perspective to be earned;
that playfulness is above all
in works he makes, both large and small.
And then we heard from Andrew Czink
whose piano concert made me think
that maybe piano is percussion?
(I guess that warrants more discussion.)
That playing’s a demanding task
(and physically a lot to ask).
His tests with form are like Monet’s
When painting on a cloudy day.
(At first the critics loathed his views
Cause he was trying something new.)
Andrew experiments with song
and different’s not the same as wrong.
Then Wednesday brought our talk on art;
where it belongs when things fall apart.
And Susan, Max, and Larry said
Rejoice! The world of art’s not dead.
That art is what our culture needs
if society is to succeed
and answers aren’t what art provides
but questions that can be our guide.
Art’s ‘lightning flash’ illuminates
but does not fix, does not dictate.
So let’s jump in! Our role is clear;
as critics we should have no fear.
Let’s be open, let’s be brave
Like the artists, we want to save
the plays, the music, paintings, dance,
they’re much too great to leave to chance.
Let’s make the role of critic heeded
and show the world that art’s still needed.

Removing the Primary Horizon in Canadian Culture: MNY and Wyman

In his talk on May 16th, 2017, Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas’ proved that an artist, no matter how globally celebrated, could be authentic and accessible. He expressed worry that the art might lead art gallery patrons to feel diminished because of the literal scale and figurative power of the art. Arguing for dialogue between artist and audience, he gave us permission to remove the artist’s authoritative position. He argued for the removal of a primary horizon in art.

Yahgulanaas’ attempt to undermine a primary horizon is best expressed in the interactive “Bone Box” piece he exhibited at MOA. This piece’s playful form mirrors its playful content, since it encourages interaction while featuring the Trickster character and visual puns. Still “Bone Box” addresses the dark colonial realities of cultural appropriation and desecration of graves, since the material likely held the looted remains of First Peoples. Yahgulanaas finds the thin edge between playfulness (which he believes is primary to artistic engagement) and serious issues of colonialism; he allows us to have works with multiple horizons and multiple tones.

Yahgulanaas’ consistent iteration that some stories are his to tell and others are not, acknowledges the issue of appropriation which has become a key concern within and alongside the Aboriginal communities. Throughout, Yahgulanaas continually acknowledged the coexistence of multiple cultures within Canada.  He expressed worry that Haida art’s scale might diminish observers as though they were visiting a cathedral. His egalitarian and irreverent approach to art was a huge relief and profoundly charming. His ability to acknowledge privilege and exclusivity, while also discussing the display of his works at the British Museum and MOMA dampened my cynicism.After reading our excerpts from Wyman’s The Defiant Imagination, I noticed a distinct contrast to Yahgulanaas’ tone. While Yahgulanaas and Wyman both address society at large, Wyman’s text evokes the Royal We. He seems conflicted in his aims- at once trying to inspire unity (and cultural allegiance against the American “threat”) and dignifying the diversity of voices within Canada (23). Unfortunately, in Wyman’s work this paradoxical stance is not identified, and thus the text’s approach appears muddled.

Some of the assumptions upon which the The Defiant Imagination relies are plain inaccurate. When Wyman claims that Canada is a society “built” upon “compassion and shared values” (8), he perpetuates Canada’s identity as a nation of peace, order and good government. The characterization of Canada as a cooperative bastion in a sea of human rights abuses is simply historical revisionism. Participating in these narratives, dismisses the myriad groups who have been mistreated and abused throughout our history, and upon whose suffering Canada was built. In contrast, Yahgulanaas’ talk acknowledged the paradox of commonality coexisting with individuality. In his narratives, he addressed the ugly underbelly of his own heritage arguing that he needed to own the fact that his own ancestors traded slaves. Rather than historicizing fascism (as Wyman does) Yahgulanaas acknowledges Canada’s current fascistic tendencies. Wyman’s overarching aim may be cultural inclusion, but positioning Canada inaccurately may have the unintended effect of further alienating Canadians who feel marginalized from the arts. In contrast, acknowledging historical wrongs and conflicting identities offers a more authentic entry point into cultural expressions.

 

 

The Piano Teacher

Arts Club Theater Company

Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theater Centre

April 20–May 14

It is sometimes difficult to see the forest from the trees and yet, some moments in time remain more memorable than others as it slows and provides a crystalline clarity as we recognise the frailties that come with being mortal or appreciate the beauty within each moment.

The Piano Teacher is a play by Dorothy Dittrich and touted as being about the lessons on life and love. It is!

From the very moment that Act I begins, Megan Leitch who plays Erin, Catriona Murphy playing Elaine and Kamyar Pazandeh who plays Tom, create a gentle tension of heartbreak and loss that is connected by the power of music and love, as they weave their way through this remarkable story of grief, compassion and joy.

For any of us who have experienced the paralyzing effect of loss and grief, it is difficult to not open our hearts to Erin (Megan Leitch), as she walks on stage and shares how she lost her husband and son in a tragic automobile accident with the hope that Elaine (Catriona Murphy) the music teacher who is gradually losing her hands to arthritis, might light the path back to her music and the concert hall.

David Robert’s has designed a simple and elegant set complete with a baby grand piano that becomes the central point in the homes of the two women as they remind us of the frailties that we all share. As for Tom, he was a welcomed metaphor for distraction and rebuilding, and he offers a playfulness and an interesting human touch to contrast the stories of Elaine and Erin.

In the May Edition of Vancouver Theater, arts critic Jerry Wasserman wrote, “ the play has a lot going for it—in particular, lovely classical music and a beautiful performance by Caitriona Murphy in the title role. It also features nice sentiment about the power of music to heal. But in other areas it needs significant work to develop it into something more than just a bromide about how things that are damaged will inevitably get better”.

As a reluctant critic I am struck by how different each of us sees, hears, smells and feels each moment in this world that shapes who we are. This doesn’t make any of us more right or wrong or something good or bad. Depending on how we enter this forest will determine how we see it, and how we are moved by the gentlest of movements, nuance, memories or sound. I applaud Dorothy Dittrich for a brilliant play and for having the courage to allow the cast and an extremely talented creative team to take it and breathe life into The Piano Player.

If you walk far enough into the forest, you can’t miss it!