Travels with a stranger: Gareth Moore at the Power Plant
The other night, I went to a much-hyped
performance by Vancouver-based artist Gareth
Moore at the Power Plant. Moore's part of that priveleged cabal of
next-generation Vancouver conceptualists represented almost exclusively, it
seems, by Catriona Jeffries, whose stable includes international art stars like
Brian Jungen and Geoffrey Farmer, among others.
So Moore's reputation -- by association, at least -- preceded him. But that's not why I went. I was intrigued by Moore's contribution to the current Power Plant show of Canadian sculpture, Nothing to Declare. All the other artists -- somewhat naturally, it being a sculpture show -- offered actual objects, rough-hewn and workaday though they may have been. Moore, by contrast, offered an opportunity: He installed an unassuming suggestion box in the gallery, complete with paper and pencil, entreating viewers to offer ideas he would later try to execute.
That happens next week. This week's performance was the warm-up, and it was a little worrying. Moore casts himself, according to the gallery description, as "(W)orking in the tradition of the journeyman apprentice and the itinerant artist/storyteller." It's an intriguing notion, to be sure, and one with obvious roots in a early conceptual practice of the late 60s and early 70s, where a bleak, worldwide recession coupled with the sudden deflation of an art market gone mad (sound familiar?) helped spur a generation of young rogues to shift art-making away from objects and into ephemeral manifestation: Stanley Brouwn counted his footsteps on long meanders through cities; Bas Jan Ader rode his bike into an Amsterdam canal (writing in the New Yorker on a MoMA show of such work last year, critic Peter Schjeldahl summed up the ethos of the period nicely: “it scarcely mattered what you did,” he wrote, “so long as it wasn’t much, and you documented it.”)
In his recent performance, Moore seemed to take this to heart. He spent nearly half of the hour-long experience unpacking his bags (he had just arrived from India; they were brightly-coloured woven synthetic, items spilling out the top). Slowly, he arranged them on the table and the floor – a ragged blanket, a multi-coloured plunger, a candle, a package of drinking straws, a bundle of grass, the dessicated corpse of a rat.
“There are some things I’ve found on my travels,” he mumbled. The crowd grew restless, pained expressions creasing foreheads around the room. A couple of yawns escaped as Moore fiddled with a tape recorder, and a small film projector throwing indistinct images low on the wall in the corner. Moore, silent for much of the event, would occasionally murmur something about where he found some of his objects; when he knelt to alter their arrangement on the floor, the audience would stand and lean forward in anticipation, hanging on his tiniest gestures, hoping that something, anything, would happen.
But there was no build, no climax – just Moore, mumbling, fidgeting, seeming to be trying as hard to make sense of his grab-bag of objects and experiences as the rest of us. Which surely says something about the general dislocation of being cast adrift in a world of post-modern otherness; but as a viewing experience, it’s excruciating.
Afterwards, speaking with some of the
artists that had made the trip through the snow, we wondered if in fact the
point of the performance was at least partially a forced surrender to the
artist’s authority for its own sake, just to
give it its own presence -- that the piece’s content void was a deliberate test of
what an audience would endure when being told they were coming to something
significant, important. This is art only in context, not form or intent; the point, it seemed, was confounding
expectations, and then completely deflating them.