Conceptual Baby.


Art has the power to do a lot of things. The right piece whispers, or yells, a message to society, while another hangs quietly on a wall. A single piece can move different people in different ways: one person’s masterpiece is another’s piece of junk. The world may agree that a certain Van Gogh will sell for $250 million (a record), but that does not mean everyone who sees that particular vase of sunflowers will like it.

Emily Carr
Image: Glenbow.org

This past weekend we went to Vancouver to get away. It’s one of my favorite cities, anywhere. Surrounded by mountains and water, culturally diverse, fabulous food and entertainment and great museums, it has everything I want in a city. This weekend we got to visit one of Vancouver’s best museums: The Vancouver Art Gallery. Aside from a spectacular and ever changing exhibit of Emily Carr works (an artist I love), the museum features an incredible variety of changing exhibits. This past weekend only two floors were open, as the Gallery prepares for two new installations on the first and second floor. We got to enjoy Emily Carr and the Theater of Transcendence exhibit on the third floor, and an exhibition of Conceptual Art in Canada from 1965-1980, on the second floor. It was in one of these galleries that I had a moment of deep reflection and impact.

A simple piece by Robert Fones, La Table Ronde, consists of black and white snap shots of a single, small round table over the course of several weeks in 1972.  The photos, small prints, are lined up in order to show the viewer the passage of time on the table’s surface. Cups of coffee are put down and then disappear again, food, papers and a typewriter clutter the surface and are eventually cleared, with the passage of time. There’s a cat that moves in and out of some shots, not others. The clean surface becomes very messy and cluttered and then clears again over time. It is a simple photographic diary of a few weeks, that Mr. Fones thought to record and call art.

Rober Fones: La Table Ronde

I was drawn to this piece, more than the others, almost immediately. At first I couldn’t put my finger on what compelled me, as I studied each frame carefully looking for a clue. It all felt so familiar to me. I know many people who had had a similar bowl of nuts and a metal nutcracker on their coffee tables, in the 70s. Smoking was much more prevalent then, or at least in my world, and an ashtray was always present. A pile of cigarette butts might tell an observer how much time had passed, or who had been in the room. I could always tell how long my mother had spent getting ready for work, by the number of cigarette butts crushed in the ashtray on her vanity table. I noted all of these details in these photos, but continued to search for something to explain my strong attraction to this piece of art.

And there it was: a date, and the hairs on my arm stood up. I glanced around the gallery to see if anyone had noticed my sharp intake of breath, my strong reaction. Most people were too busy watching the frozen word “Imagine” melt, in an encased frame. Or the pile of sand that anyone could touch and maneuver into or out of a pyramid shape. Conceptual art, it is not really my cup of tea but it certainly can draw you in. In Robert Fones’ piece, it was the date on one photo: November 29, 1972. As I stared at that single frame, I thought of my father. That picture was taken on what would be his last birthday, his thirty-third birthday, six months before he was killed in an motorcycle accident.

I held my breath unconsciously for a moment as I scanned the photo for a clue. There was nothing of course. There is no rhyme or reason to my father’s death, nor to the enormous impact it had on my life at the time and for years to come. But staring at that single frame, I somehow thought I might find something that would shine some light on the events that shook my world, as if that table were my father’s and maybe I would find some missing message. These are the thoughts of a child. I know. But my ten year old head, my ten year old broken heart, took over for a few minutes and I searched the image with a singular hope for clarity, comfort, some kind of answer.

November 29, 1972
Robert Fones, La Table Ronde

There are none. I know that too. An artist, probably a bit younger than my father at the time, chose to photograph his table over a few weeks. There is no tie to my dad: his life or his death, aside from the date. But the image rocked me for a few hours. I walked through the other galleries and then slipped back to look at it again. Still nothing, aside from the sense that Robert Fones had somehow captured a moment that I didn’t have: my father’s birthday, in the minute details of that table. Did my father have a nut cracker and bowl of nuts like that? Did he drink coffee, and how did he like it- black or with milk? I don’t remember these things. I don’t know. So I studied the details of someone else’s photo, taken on my father’s birthday…. to remember? To feel closer to him again?

None of it makes sense, practically. I know that there is no rational connection between the photo and my father, but from that moment on, the entire exhibit impacted me differently. As I walked through the exhibit, all those photos of people in the 1970s felt so familiar. The full sideburns and hair that is a bit longer than it maybe should be, the clothing, the cigarettes in so many shots, and the expressions of so many people that seem to mirror each other… Those faces are faces that were around when my father was alive. The faces of the early 1970s hit me harder than the later images, because that time period is seared in my memory. It is a time when my young world was rocked to the core and I looked everywhere for answers… that could not be found.

Perhaps this is the essence of Conceptual Art.  The images in the exhibit capture both the mundane and the creative for that time period. People looking into the camera from a busy intersection, faces looking directly at the artist’s lens, movement and time are captured in the images of the artists shown. Rober Fones piece is the simple concept of clutter on a small table, over the course of a couple of weeks. We all have tables. We all have clutter at one time or another. Dishes are put out, and dishes are collected to be washed. To see that captured compels us to associate it with our own lives. What would my table look like over time (Well, of course many of you know what my table looks like!)… ?  For me, the date grabbed me and shook me by viscerally. November 29, 1972, the last birthday my father celebrated. Did he enjoy it? Did I make him a card? None of us knew that it would all change so much, six months later. Robert Fones had no idea that he was capturing a moment that would impact me forty-one years later, for very different reasons than he probably conceived of then.

As an adult, I have moved on of course. I don’t seek many explanations or clarity around this topic. It is what it is, a piece of who I am. However, at the Vancouver Art Gallery this past week, I was transported back in time for a while and I felt those things afresh. Conceptualize that baby.

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About Dawn Quyle Landau

Mother, Writer, treasure hunter, aging red head, and sushi lover. This is my view on life, "Straight up, with a twist––" because life is too short to be subtle! Featured blogger for Huffington Post, and followed on Twitter by LeBron James– for reasons beyond my comprehension.
This entry was posted in Aging, Awareness, Daily Observations, Death, Death of parent, Honest observations on many things, Life, Musings, My world, Personal change, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Conceptual Baby.

  1. I love art galleries. I usually “pick” something to virtually take home…

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  2. Valery says:

    Funny thing about art. You just never know. The artist creates something as self-expression, then it takes on a life of its own. Not unlike releasing a child into the world as an adult.

    I have 2 paintings in my house, done by the same artist – watercolours that I have loved since my earliest memories of them hanging in my childhood home. Both are landscapes, one with a boat ramp leading to water.

    A few years ago, my husband bought a boat. We took it to the local boat ramp & launched it into the Ipswich river. It was a beautiful day, we followed the river out to the sea. The last thing on my mind was art, until we approached the boat ramp on return: and, well, you perfectly described the reaction I felt (above). I was inside that painting!

    I raced home to the internet & Googled the artist’s name. Nothing. I remembered how to pronounce the name (Howard Von Suck: like souk, not like chuck), from hearing my grandmother say it. So I called my mom and demanded that she tell me about the artist. She thought that was a little odd, but went on to tell me that she gave me the paintings because she went to the artist’s home when she was little. Guess where he lived? Yup, my new town, Ipswich. Mom told me he had been a dear friend of my grandmother’s from art school, even working together in the same company afterwards for many years. After more research, I still could find nothing, so I took a shot & sent an e-mail to the local historical society. Got a lovely reply from a woman who grew up next door to the artist. She mentioned the address, and that a different artist lives there now. Yup, I know the house. I had just taken a tour of historical houses in Ipswich, and that had been my favorite. Next time my mom came up for a visit, I drove her past & she remembered it. You just never know. I think that art is meant to connect people and sometimes it really does just that!

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    • Wow! That is an amazing story Valery! I think that we each have our own internal experiences that tie us to art in some way. It’s always the much more powerful when the artist’s world and our own cross paths. That’s how I felt seeing those photos… like I’d been linked back to my father, even though I know the two never met. Thanks for this wonderful comment; thanks for sharing!

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  3. Jonesingafter40 says:

    This post really drew me into your connection with the art and trying to make sense of the loss of your father. I totally got it and I have to think that you were meant to have that moment there in the gallery on that day. It’s a little bit mind-boggling.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    I really liked this….that is all….

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  5. Dawn:

    I was so touched by the text you wrote about my work, La Table Ronde, that was included in the Traffic exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was beautifully written and articulated your response to the piece so carefully. I am flattered that you spent so much time with this piece and that it struck an emotional chord for you.

    The title, La Table Ronde refers to the Arthurian legends of The Round Table and all the adventures experienced by the knights who gathered at Arthur’s court from time to time. I felt that my table was equally magical in the number of objects that made their way on to it and then migrated somewhere else. Of course, as you point out, each object got there because someone put it there, so many objects are things related to people who visited me. But the people rarely appear in the photographs.

    The cat that appears in several photographs was named Nadja (after the Djuna Barnes novel, Nightwood) and she miraculously survived a four-storey fall (or a jump as witnesses told me) and lived for many more years after this photograph was taken. Most of the objects that appear on the table in the photograph are also long gone. Where did they go? I really don’t know. I still have a few things but mostly everything has vanished.

    It is therefore, quite touching to hear that this work evoked for you, your father’s last birthday and now, his absence from your life. When I look at this piece now, as I did when it was included in the exhibition’s stop here in Toronto, I was struck by how much I remembered about that time, and yet how far away I felt from it. Life is peculiar that way: it is both beautifully tangible in the present and hauntingly remote, as it slips into the past. It sounds as though this work brought your father’s spirit back to life for you.

    It is so rare for any artist to receive such thoughtful comments about their work. It is also rare to have someone express their reaction to a single artwork. I thank you for both and hope that we get a chance to meet sometime in the future.

    Robert Fones

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    • Mr. Fones, I am truly stunned to receive your reply and deeply honored. It is far rarer for a writer, a blogger no less, to receive such a thoughtful acknowledgment of their work. Call it coincidence or call it providence, but I was pulled to your piece, La Table Ronde, even before I noticed any dates. The photos, the composition, the intrigue of the table spoke to me. When I saw the date, the impact was very powerful! When I said that it brought chills, it did. It drew the “tangible” and the “remote” into a new focus.

      I think of my father, Robert Quyle, often. The loss of him had an enormous impact on me then, and has contributed in many ways to who I became. I was not with him on that date. So, while I don’t need art or anything in particular to make me think of him, looking at the photo, of November 29, 1972 I couldn’t help but wonder what his table looked like that day. What did he eat, who sat there with him, what “magic” happened at his table? How did he move around a room? What did he bring to the room, the table? At 33 years old, he would not have anticipated that he would be dead in 6 months, and so the idea of a table filled with his (any one’s) daily things, is especially compelling to me. Your photo drew me in and made me wonder what might be the same/different in my father’s life vs. your own. The table is merely symbolic of a time and place, and the date brought me back to my father in a way that I haven’t thought of.

      I really appreciate hearing the “back story” of Nadja, the tie to Arthurian legend (something my son loves!) and the conceptual pieces of the story. I took a photo of your work and have looked at it several times since, as if there is a piece I’m missing. The piece, of course, is my father… Who I still miss. Thank you for making me think in a different and unique way. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my work. I too hope that maybe we can discuss this in person some time; it would be very interesting. If you’re ever in Vancouver, do not hesitate to contact me! If I’m in Toronto, I’ll stop by the gallery.

      Dawn Quyle Landau

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  6. Terrific exchange of comments, Dawn. Wonderful that you sent him your post. True, artists and writers really have little knowledge of how their work impacts viewers and readers. Thanks for sharing his letter. To me this sort of letter is worth 1,000 FB likes or being FP any day.

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  7. Jonesingafter40 says:

    I was reading through the little “Comments I made” tab this morning and saw that the artist responded to your post. I actually got chills. How awesomely wonderful was that notification for you???? Wow. 🙂

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    • It BLEW ME AWAY! I got an email from his rep first, telling me that she had read and forwarded my post to him… that they both loved it. I didn’t expect to hear from Robert Fones directly, to be honest. I thought it was such an amazing letter! Love the details he shares and the time he took to appreciate my work… VERY cool indeed! Gave me chills too. Frankly, I wanted to write a post about that comment… but worried that it might be presumptuous of me to share his response so broadly. Any thoughts? I think it’s very encouraging to all bloggers.

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