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.
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.
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.
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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