whitehot | June 2011, Ron Tran @ Charles H. Scott Gallery
Ron Tran spent weeks scouring Vancouver’s thrift stores and junk shops looking for an object to inspire an upcoming exhibition in Toronto. He was unsuccessful, but in his search Tran walked past a man selling goods on a sidewalk blanket. It was there that he found the stick. The stick meant nothing to Tran, but once meant something to someone, having been selected and put up for sale. He was looking, he says, for an object with no “functionality, market value, or attachment to anybody;” - a blank slate to inscribe with meaning as an art object.
The stick takes on many forms in the hands of the artist. The stick is a good worthy of six dollars, and an object to be revered and reinterpreted in the context of a university art gallery. It was once Tran’s cane when going through airport security; it would have been considered a weapon otherwise. In It Knows Not What It Is at the Charles H. Scott Gallery, curated by Cate Rimmer, the stick has been exalted. The exhibition explores the capacity of art gallery displays, of collaboration, of belief, and of repetition to metamorphose a thing from the mundane to the divine.
In place of the usual open-concept gallery and adjacent bookstore (Read Books), the gallery has been closed in for this exhibition; one now enters through a small wooden door in the corner. The gallery’s windows have also been built over and it is illuminated only with candle-lit wall sconces, creating a theatrical space of worship, a liminal zone in which we remove ourselves from the everyday goings-on of the art school on the other side. The art gallery or museum has indeed always been a secular space of devotion.
Instead of the intended solo exhibition, Tran invited eleven artists and writers (Angus Ferguson, Devon Knowles, Pietro Sammarco, Anne Low, Kevin Chong, Justin Patterson, Nicolas Sassoon, Sylvain Sailly, Erica Stocking, Paul Kajander, and Seth Landman) to deliver interpretations of the stick, creating, as Tran often orchestrates, a situation that relies on others for its meaning.
The work nearest to the door is a video in which the camera follows the stick in the act of divining. The stick-as-dowse tramples noisily through an artist’s studio space. We do not know what is pulling the stick; perhaps it knows not. On the opposite wall, a geometric drawing of the stick is projected, rotating and hypnotic. There are, in fact, several holographic, blue-lit, and fluorescent projections of the stick in the exhibition, evoking Ken Lum’s iconic Monument for East Vancouver, the cross on Montreal’s Mount Royal, or the logo for a twenty-first century New Age institution.
The gallery’s ceiling opens up at the far end, where Tran and his cohorts have created an altar. Another outline of the stick in neon tubing holds the place of a crucifix, hanging high at the end of the nave, flanked by tapestries with embroidered stick emblems. In front, the real object of devotion lies in a vitrine, like a holy relic. It is hidden from sight wrapped in black velvet, but we trust that it’s there. In the far right corner, a series of oversized crystals are embedded in the wall – beautiful and violent, like a sign of the occult, or a ritual gone wrong. Reinforcing a nagging sense of foreboding, wooden accents throughout the gallery (the gallery door, the supporting pillars, the church pew in place for watching the video) evoke the materiality of the stick: what it could have been had it not been severed, sold, and reborn.
We have been told via the text panel outside that the exhibition is an exercise in creating value, itself an ambiguous process. And in keeping with the affective powers of the supernatural, the exhibition is purposefully enigmatic: there are no labels indicating the expected title, date or creator of each piece. Tran’s collaborators become part of a secret society, one that the visitor is invited into but kept at bay. The artists exist as named but anonymous members of the cult of the stick. The exhibition thus raises questions, but refuses answers. Knowing too much voids intrigue, after all. The stick’s own narrative – its original possessor, its exchange on a Vancouver street – remains hidden, reinforcing it as an empty symbol.
If the exhibition smacks of the Duchampian readymade (it’s art because I say it is), it is redeemed by what Tran does best – bringing others into his projects to explore relationality. Tran works across disciplines and often in public spaces, orchestrating scenarios in which he relies on the trustworthiness of strangers and they him, removing the door from his apartment and installing it in a gallery for a month (Apartment #201), or offering to walk strangers home at night on Vancouver’s streets (Walking Strangers Home). If this performative, conceptual work seems to look beyond the object, Tran now explores an object’s potentialities. But, Tran defers authorship to his fellow artists, so that it becomes an exercise in collective valuation. The collaborative element is key, drawing out the correlation of importance awarded to an object in relation to the number of people who devote themselves to it: how icons are created through repetition.
It Knows Not What It Is provides a tongue-in-cheek intervention into the art world’s reverence of the object, an opportunity to think through very relevant spheres of objecthood, authorship and worship. Like in the Marxist concept of commodity fetishism, the reification of the object creates market value and creates subjects (of the stick). In turn, the stick takes on a transformative power. The artists have transformed the stick. Has the stick transformed us? Who can say? That is the magic. Does the stick fall prey to art world commodification? I would venture that it avoids this process by acting as the locus of collectivity, and in its breakdown at the end of this uncertain journey. Removed from the art gallery and returned to its original owner post-exhibition (or so Tran hopes), the stick will again be stripped of meaning, thingness, and capital. But can it ever go back?
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief