In search of the sublime

In search of the sublime

Summer at the Vancouver Art Gallery offers a retrospective by Canadian author and artist Douglas Coupland and nine pieces by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Normally I wouldn’t be tempted to compare these artists because their ways of working and the kinds of work they do are very different. However, since their exhibitions are occurring at the same time, the works are inevitably juxtaposed in one’s mind while travelling through the VAG gallery spaces.

Douglas Coupland’s everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything reveals an extensive range of materials and approaches to art making. He uses traditional art materials, toys and random found objects to make drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations. The exhibition is filled with things we have seen before whether it be boxes of goods made in Canada or toys we have played with as a child. The casual viewer approaches the exhibition with a recognition of the familiar and a sense of nostalgia. It would be very hard not to enjoy Coupland’s fantastical Lego towers (below) as this is something we have all played with as a kid but never with this many pieces or colours. Who knew their was purple Lego? His work revolves around popular culture and how our experiences are often mediated by the internet. Coupland does a good job at depicting a particular time in our sociological history, and he has created exhibition spaces that are full of works that can be appreciated by many; an art and non-art audience alike. Throughout the exhibition there are signs that say ‘photography is encouraged’ and consequently everybody is constantly taking photos of the work, reiterating Coupland’s idea of art as a mediated experience. Rather than encouraging an intimacy with the work, these signs encouraging photography seem to keep the viewer at arm’s length, leaving them to see the work through their iPhone.

The installations by Cardiff and Miller start with a piece called Lost in the Memory Palace and includes Opera for a Small Room (above). An earlier piece called The Paradise Institute consists of a small theatre set in which while you are watching a film, you hear the voices of imaginary audience members. Sound is often a main component of Cardiff’s and Miller’s work. It is used to create a sense of expanded space. There are often speakers inside and outside of the installation itself so sound comes from unexpected places, creating a sense of space beyond the physical installation itself. Cardiff and Miller use sound to create an uncanny sense of intimacy by bringing the viewer closer inside the work.
The difference in experience between these two exhibitions is that Coupland presents us with a reality that is basically as is. We don’t have to wonder what his work is about, or what it is made of, or where the materials come from. What we see is what it is, whereas Cardiff and Miller present worlds that are a little more ambiguous in nature, often leaving the viewer in a place of uncertainty. In their work we are not sure what we are looking at, or what our role is in the experience. Are we a participant? Are we a voyeur? Or are we just a casual bystander viewing an art exhibition? This ambiguity gives the work a poetic resonance and brings it to the level of the sublime. The work of Cardiff and Miller transcends the ordinary and everyday materials that comprise their installations, and reaches the viewer on an existential and metaphysical level. The work is often very moving and stays with you long after you leave the confines of the gallery. Coupland’s work while also made of everyday materials, does not encourage us to think beyond the surface of the original forms. Coupland’s work does not bring us to that deeper intellectual and emotional state that we experience as we negotiate our way through a Cardiff and Miller work.
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