“Housing is absolutely essential to human flourishing. Without stable shelter, it all falls apart.” (M. Desmond)
Almost ten years ago, a Quebec-based activist art group Folie/Culture were engaged in a project Nomadic Dwellings across Canada. When I experienced Dwellings out West, they’d been creating this work for about two years. It resonated in every city they visited, with rising rents, plummeting wages and precarious employment making the idea of having a safe roof over your head (let alone home ownership) a dream slipping away. The idea is as relevant now – more so, bluntly – as it was then. Nomadic Dwellings called on “architects / artists to conceive nomadic dwellings for itinerants. The shelters had to be designed for one person, with materials that were easily found in Canada, inexpensive, and recyclable if possible. They also had to be reusable and easy to set up by one person alone.”
Two ideas made this a worthy project. One was as an intervention intended to bring communities that perhaps don’t always “see” each other together. And that, for more than a decade previous, Folie/Culture had “facilitated contemporary art projects with a specific focus on awareness building in mental health. They encourage the work of artists who intervene in the field of social perceptions, engaging a public who may not otherwise encounter contemporary art.”
Even though it was long ago and far away, Dwellings came to mind at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery, among the various mixed media works by John Notten, all presented (sheltered, if you will) under the title of The Tent Project. His words: “A thin membrane of fabric is stretched over an armature; such is a tent. A simple yet ingenious architectural form, it appears across countless centuries and virtually every culture. It is an ancient shelter that has protected both royalty and the homeless.” Further: The Tent Project is described as “a body of work that explores the many personalities of a simple and familiar object.”
The GPAG is packed with various works, of various styles and sizes, united through the recurring tent “shape”: Flotsam and Jetsam is a massive interactive piece where you can make the tiny blue tents (reminiscent of Monopoly markers) undulate. Vault, with its stereotypical camping chair invites the viewer to sit under the ramshackle “tent” roof. Works are also two dimensional, and video works can be found along the back part of the gallery (Pop Up Tent City is one of these, but Notten melds and incorporates various media together under – pun intended – the idea of “tent”, as with Plan for Pop Up Tent City #1, which is collaged).
It’s a dense installation. However, I left feeling somewhat empty. Perhaps the reason I was also reminded of Nomadic Dwellings was because that was something that didn’t use “art” to sanitize a serious issue, nor did it neutralize a serious social issue through aesthetics. The reason many public art works fail, and why many have little time for art that cite social capital, is because it – to paraphrase Sontag – “tourists in someone’s reality”, using their lived experience, their genuine hardship, to not help the situation – or those within it – but instead references (perhaps exploits) their suffering for an artwork of arguable moral and ethically value. (like an online petition or “likes” on social media..)
When I attended part of Notten’s opening talk, I found that in speaking to several pieces the formal aesthetic – or the idea of “tent” – was the defining, perhaps dominating factor (one piece that incorporates an overhead shot of a tent city was talked about in aesthetic language, with no regard for what – and who – was being presented – or ignored). Some of the pieces used “tent” more like a formal Modernist “shape” absent any clear acknowledgement of the people and concerns that so informed Folie/Culture’s work….
Notten has shown in Scotiabank Nuite Blanche: a valid critique of many NB artists has been that the works are variations on “plop art”, a term used for art parachuted into a public sphere and has no relation or respect for that community or that area. Alternately, a simplistic use of the idea of “tent” is aimed at a less discerning or critical audience, and a clearer message. I’ve commented in the past how GPAG is an uneven curatorial space (shows that featured Carl Beam, or Shelley Niro, or Tony Calzetta were all excellent, but GPAG is a community centred gallery, and I know many curators who talk about how public galleries have diverse – and often conflicting agendas around showing individuals in their community who may not be of the same quality, but that have great relevance to their public and regional stakeholders).
Go see The Tent Project, but consider artists who’ve worked with similar subject matter – and have not eliminated the people from the imagery or objects – like Karen Spencer with her project employing billboards and postcards sent to public figures, from journalists to politicians. Amusingly, Spencer and I disagreed greatly on her work, and how it related to the people she was dialoguing with / depicting (this was, I feel, her larger goal, as I suspect is the same with Notten). Perhaps, considering the current situation with “America”, tents are simply incapable of being simply forms, and are now too charged, too tainted, by our current world, to not illicit darker implications….
The Tent Project will be on display at the GPAG until August 12, 2018. All images are from the GPAG or the artist’s web site. Clockwise from left: Occupy (detail, 2017), Plan for Pop Up Tent City #2 (2017) and No Name (2017).