Thinking Again and Supposing. Trajectory of an Exhibition: Sarah Greig + Thérèse Mastroiacovo
September 7–October 29, 2022
September 7–October 29, 2022
What is the role of relationality and chance in contemporary art? In artworks meant to be relational, as the works in Thinking Again and Supposing. Trajectory of an Exhibition: Sarah Greig + Thérèse Mastroiacovo are stated to be, what is the role—and, indeed, the responsibility—of the viewer once the artist has left the gallery space? The black, white, and grey show, presenting works by Sarah Greig and Thérèse Mastroiacovo (including geometric drawings on graph paper, blown-up abstract photographs, and pencil drawings of the covers of art theory books from Mastroiacovo’s series Art Now [2005–ongoing]) purports to be about the relationality between these two individuals working with and against each other in photography (Greig) and drawing (Mastroiacovo). I know this only from the introductory wall panel, written by curator Michèle Thériault, that was provided in the antechamber of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery at Concordia University. The text states, “This project is a process of us [the artists] to reflect on and inquire into the mechanisms of working together, circulating thoughts, relationality, and giving materiality to a common project.” As it turned out, it was an accident catalyzed by selfie culture that made the exhibition speak of relationality, but not in the way the artists had intended.
When I first attempted to visit the show on September 14, a week after it opened, the gallery was closed “due to unforeseen circumstances.” When I returned the following week, the show had reopened and a new wall text had been created, written by Mastroiacovo, which stated that she had “added a drawing on top of this drawing as a layer to indicate a moment of infringement” on the graphite drawing on paper that was displayed horizontally on a low platform. The original drawing, ON NOW? CONTEMPLA-(2022), is intended to be “wave-like”; it is white paper filled with pencil lines, a “drawing of duration,” according to the artist: “The work is first and foremost about contemplation, about continued thoughtful observation and study.” Mastroiacovo alludes to an incident that took place three days after the show opened, when a visitor sat down and stretched out on the drawing in order to take a selfie. Despite the artists’ interest in, and desire for, relationality, this was an unintended intervention. The docent told me that Mastroiacovo was “surprised”—if not distressed. Nonetheless, the traces of the visitor left on the drawing, including smudges indexing her body and a handprint, added an interesting aesthetic to the abstract grey drawing. Although Mastroiacovo states that she had added a drawing, in fact the selfie-taking student had added the “drawing,” using her body rather than a pencil.
There are no other didactic panels in the exhibition, so the viewer is unsure whose work is whose. In the first large room of the gallery, in addition to ON NOW? CONTEMPLA-, there is another set of drawings—black-filled paper—exhibited on a line of tables, but without wall labels, so I did not know the relational background of the series. In white lower-case lettering on one of the pieces of paper are the words “reimagined after intersec,” and on the opposite side of the same piece of paper are the letters “ism.” Without any textual guidance, what is a viewer to do with this limited information? There is no need to lead visitors around by the nose, but some information about what the artist is setting out to do would be greatly appreciated.
The next room in the gallery also has a sparse display of works. On one wall are large curling photographs (without titles) of abstracted forms, on the wall opposite is a small framed black artwork (without title), and against a third wall are what appear to be deconstructed boxes. This room is dedicated to Greig’s photographic body of work, but I know that only from the docent’s answers to my questions. Again, I was at a loss to know how any of the pieces were relational; this could be easily remedied by adding didactic panels that explain to visitors how exactly the two artists collaborated on the exhibition.
The final room is dedicated to Mastroiacovo’s series Art Now. A catalogue from an earlier exhibition, Unfinished After, is provided in this room, which at least gives the viewer an idea of the artist’s intentions with regard to these drawings. According to Mastroiacovo, the series is a “performative action”: “I draw not to describe next, next, next, but to perform the present tense.” Some of the illustrations are unfinished, some are blurred; all of them, as end products, are inevitably static. Mastroiacovo’s words point to the relentless onslaught of art theory (“next, next, next”), and she notes, “I could have done this an easier way but drawing brings it closer.” The embodiment involved in drawing implied in this statement was manifested in an unexpected fashion through the accidental “drawing” on top of ON NOW? CONTEMPLA-, significantly the only perceivable instance of relationality in the exhibition, at least for this viewer. The introductory wall panel states, “At this point in time, the layers of succeeding exhibitions, of works, of layout and display strategies is thick and dense.” The accidental relationality initiated by the student added a layer of meaning to the exhibition that had previously been lacking in visible, material ways, as without textual guidance (and the added wall text about the new “drawing”) there is no way for viewers to know how the various drawings and photographs fit together. How do the geometric drawings, for instance, function in relation to the rest of the exhibition? The show as a whole does speak to the power of relationality and accident in contemporary art by moving a static artwork in new, unanticipated directions, keeping conversations and discourses evolving, and reminding us that despite the behavioural norms expected in art galleries, once an artwork is in the public sphere, it is effectively out of the artist’s hands and control. I suggest, cautiously, that this is not a bad thing, although perhaps we need to cut it out with the selfies.