The Field Trip Revisited
An art lover’s journey into the peripheries
Words by Brit Bachmann + Photography by Sheng Ho
The initial gathering of our Field Trip group is almost too reminiscent of awkward school days. Slowly and cautiously, people funnel into the foyer just outside the Audain Gallery. It isn’t until the animated Andrea Creamer of SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement extends a loud welcome that people loosen up. Unintentionally falling into a buddy-system we walk in pairs towards our long yellow school bus to embark on a tour of four galleries.
It would be a lie to say that being on a school bus again isn’t a main attraction. As the group takes their seats, everyone excitedly rediscovers bus dynamics. The bench seats which once felt so spacious, now feel cramped. The smells and textures of the school bus do not change, though. I press my forehead into the vinyl in front of me, and it smells like fresh rubber.
Our host Steven Tong humbly explains that the concept of a school bus trip around the peripheries of the Lower Mainland was conceived in rounds of beer. In collaboration with SFU, Tong had decided to coordinate a fun and affordable way of experiencing exhibitions in galleries that seem difficult to get to. It is Vancouver’s first attempt at an art tour that is already popular in Toronto.
Our first act of mischief as a student body occurs in the parking lot of Presentation House in North Vancouver. As the bus makes a 10-point turn to park parallel to the building, a woman in her jeep was temporarily trapped on one side of the lot. With the tinted windows acting as barriers between us and the world outside, we are free to laugh together at her frustrations, which become increasingly aggressive in the two minutes her vehicle is impeded. Participating in loud, immature laughter as adults is an ice breaker– the first of many throughout the day.
We gather in a loose formation in the parking lot, suddenly realizing that none of us knew where the entrance was. Am Johal takes the lead. We follow him along the side of the building, dodging wet branches and puddles with soggy leaves until we find marked stairs. Inside we are greeted with hot coffee and a tray of cookies, and encouraged to explore the exhibition.
To the right is a small room constructed within a larger room, acting as an eerie, monochromatic still-life of a vase on a table. Passing through and behind the temporary structure is a second table with lights overhead. A small camouflage write-up on the wall hints at the meaning of this work, which is reminiscent of a dystopian interior design showroom.
The left gallery acts as a foil to the right. Abstract photos on the walls create the illusion of spaciousness. Each wall is subtly painted a different shade of white or grey, deliberately matching the colours in the photographs. A vertical structure in the centre of the room mimics the angles in the photography, transforming the space from photo exhibition to site-specific installation.
After thirty minutes of meandering, artist Kelly Lycan – who had quietly slipped onto the bus at SFU Woodwards – offers to speak to us. She explains that her exhibition is informed by the layout and design of traditional gallery spaces known for avant-garde works. The smaller room is a reconstructed ‘salon des refusés‘ while the other is a White Cube. Together, the rooms depict literal and abstract methods of representing space. Lycan had taken inspiration from the archived exhibition imagery at Presentation House, placing her work both within the context of the building’s history and the history of art exhibition as a whole. One of the most animated moments of her discussion is when she stomps her boot into the floor, bringing awareness to the sound the floor makes when walked on. Lycan explains that her art practice focuses on small details.
We are dropped off at the SFU Burnaby bus loop as streams of students rush past to catch public buses. In hindsight, this may have served as an introduction to the surreal sight we are greeted with inside SFU- the hallways are filled with science fair booths, managed by vampires and ghouls for the Science Spooktacular. Our group weaves around the chaos, finding the gallery as a quiet sanctuary in the centre of the building.
The current exhibition is Negative Space by Berlin-based artist, Antonia Hirsch. The works are beautifully curated to create an abstract narrative that seamlessly links themes of space exploration, isolation and narcissism. Hirsch’s art is based on metrics, or technical systems of measuring. She explores the obsessiveness and narcissism of human desire through reflections and projections – one of her tools is a black mirror, a dark glass reflection commonly used for scrying in witchcraft. On this surface, the artist believes we project our own desires. In one of her pieces, Hirsch uses blackened cell phone and iPad screens to illustrate her point. Asteroid 433 Eros is alluded to in all her works. It has been photographed with technology, but never seen with the naked eye.
The group clusters around a stack of books that are either written by Antonia Hirsch, or refer to her work. It is reminder that while this gallery operates independently within a university, it is still linked to the academic resources of an institution.
Our next stop is a complete mystery to most. Maillardville Cultural Appreciation Society, or MCAS, in Coquitlam is located up the hill from Ikea and it looks like just another house in a residential neighbourhood. The only indication of a gallery is a minimalist graphic sandwich board on the street outside.
The curator and Cultural Appreciation Society founder, Zebulon Zang, greets us on the porch and welcomes us into the house. The interior is cozy and comfortable with an instant chill vibe. Zang serves the group tea in mismatched ceramic mugs, along with cheese squares arranged neatly on platters, and Oreo cookies displayed in two chalices. Waiting for the artist to show, Zang gives a brief history of the surrounding area and motivations for opening a gallery:
Coquitlam, like so many other areas in Canada, was founded under false pretences. Lured here with the promise of fertile land, early settlers with French background arrived to no infrastructure or agriculture. They were forced to help build and work in a mill, which created heavy resentments. Secret societies were formed, functioning like contemporary worker’s unions. They met in houses to share their woes, but also to share their music and art. MCAS is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage in the area by exhibiting established artists alongside periphery craftsman. To date, MCAS has hosted 9 solo art shows and 1 group show.
The gallery is a small room adjacent to the living room, visible from the exterior of the house through a window. The current exhibition is Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit by Jamie Ward. It is an installation of ballpoint pen drawings on magazines and strategically stretched black vinyl tape, accompanied by soft drone groans. The intention of the exhibition is to figuratively compress the gallery space to suggest a creative vacuum within the neighbouring suburbia.
The artist arrives eventually, rushed and wet from rain. He opens his talk by laughing at the Oreos on the table, explaining they reference a cookie addiction he suffered while installing the exhibition. Ward discusses the themes in his work alongside Zang, who speaks to the curating angle. Opening the floor for questions, Ward gets an opportunity to describe the use of sound in his exhibitions, mentioning that his bursts of creativity are unfastened to a single medium. His works may start in song, but end in drawing. A second question, which could be considered our second act of collective mischief, asks what he dreams about. Without hesitation or frivolity Ward responds, “My dreams are insane.”
We ride to Surrey Art Gallery next, where the juxtaposition between unconventional and orthodox exhibition space is difficult to accept.
On display at the Surrey Art Gallery is Flora And Fauna: 400 Years Of Artists Inspired By Nature. It is a travelling exhibition from the National Gallery of Canada. The show is clean and institutionalized; all the pieces are hung at gallery standard height, and their labels are informative and level. If the audience’s eyes were to wander, decorative vinyl nature quotes adorn each wall. While the initial pristine appearance of the exhibition lacks a certain DIY authenticity, the works themselves are brilliant. There are 74 pieces in total, dating back to the 16th century. Apart from one photograph, the pieces are all from the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent art collection. Flora And Fauna provides a reminder of how privileged we are to interpret nature in such a variety of ways.
Just outside the main gallery space is a small room featuring Open Sound 2014: Sonorous Kingdom, a three-part sound installation. Between now and January 4, 2015, Stephanie Loveless’ Cricket, Tree, Crow is playing. It is a dramatic piece that explores the voices of cricket, the maple tree, and the crow.
The last official stop of our field trip is Central City Mall, a unique space in the heart of Surrey. The upper floors belong to the SFU Surrey Campus. Architecturally, it is an award-winning repurposed space. Psychologically, the combination of a university within a commercial mall is mind blowing. The epicentre of the building is modelled after the hull of a ship. From classrooms and study spaces, students can look down into the shopping mall below. There is a liquor store, cheap watch kiosks, a Target, The Dollar Store, and more. As the group stands at a railing looking over the mall, the mind warp of having ridden on a school bus all day seems to circle around perfectly.
While some people branch off, most of us go for drinks at Central City Brewing Company. The brewery is known for their signature Red Racer beer. They had prepared a long table for us near a stage, where a cover band clad in polyester and crushed velvet is setting up. For the first time since arriving at SFU Woodwards, the group is able to chat face-to-face, unhindered by tall school bus seats. We discuss the exhibitions and galleries we visited to the soundtrack of Blue Oyster Cult and Bad Company.
The bus ride back to Vancouver is a sleepy one. Napping intervals are interrupted by stops at red lights, and the occasional bump in the road. As we approach the city centre, however, people begin to perk up. In a final surge of thirsty spontaneity, Tong asks the bus driver to let some people off at the corner of Main and Hastings for an optional and unsanctioned finale at Avenue, a small independent gallery and studio space next to the Balmoral Pub. Amused, the bus driver complies. He bids us farewell and good luck as we run off the bus and into the rainy street to continue what would become an even longer, surreal night of gallery-hopping.
Field Trip was hosted by Steven Tong, an independent curator and co-director of CSA Space. It was organized by the Vancity Office of Community Engagement and SFU Galleries.
SFU Woodward’s first Field Trip took place October 25, 2014. A second Field Trip is scheduled for Spring 2015
Brit is Editor-In-Chief at Discorder Magazine, Community Engagement Coordinator at VIVO Media Arts Centre, and frequent contributor to Vandocument. When she isn't writing or sneaking into studios, Brit draws.