The Poetics of Space
Vancouver Art Gallery
Through 24 May 2015
“…[E]very corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house.” — Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Carole Itter’s The Pink Room: A Visual Requiem is the sad, chambered heart of The Poetics of Space, an exhibition about representations of space — physical and psychic — currently on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The show takes its name from French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 book, which meditates on images and experiences of intimate spaces, like drawers and wardrobes, nests and shells, miniatures and corners.
The Pink Room is installed around the corner from the show’s main path. I peered in from the room’s threshold at three pink walls and pink light shining down on a suspended collection of texts, a chest of drawers surrounded by framed photographs of a girl at various ages and a hanging quilt. In lieu of a baseboard, patches of ruffled fabric border the walls. The rosy light and soft textures are haunted, though, by the story they cloak: the childhood sexual abuse, mental illness and eventual suicide of the artist’s daughter. Itter offers up her heartbreaking story, but not completely. A cord strung waist-high keeps visitors from entering the installation. They can see into Itter’s pink room, but they’ll never examine its fragments up close or inhabit its secluded corners. Itter shelters memories in place of the daughter whom real rooms, real houses, couldn’t keep safe from harm.
The Pink Room is in the show’s second of three sections, “Psychic Weight of the Domestic.” The exhibition is at its strongest here in the middle, where works, many by contemporary Vancouver artists, ask us to examine houses and the everyday objects with which we surround ourselves. It’s here that the connections to Bachelard’s book and his evocations of intimacy and memory are also greatest. The 21 graphite drawings that make up Alex Morrison’s Every House I’ve Ever Lived In Drawn From Memory, another standout, are architectural evocations of transience. One is a simple box. Another is thick to the point of illegibility with layer upon layer of right-angled rooms. Photographers Karin Bubaš, Thomas Ruff, Myfanwy MacLeod, Reece Terris and James Nizam, meanwhile, recall absent owners and probe the subjects of waste, abandonment, consumerism and gentrification. Nearby, in Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore’s installation Wild, hair and fur adorn a four-poster bed, coupling the human and animal, the indigenous body and the spoils of the fur trade. Accompanying wall text quotes Belmore about her piece and its original setting, the master bedroom of Toronto’s historic Grange House: “This placement of myself in the most private part of this house — an Indian woman in the white man’s historic bed — is for me a vulnerable position and the warmth of my skin, unsettling to the careful composure of the household.” The sensuous bed also unsettled the museum’s rules about how to behave. Many visitors reached out to touch its hair and glossy coverlet.
Bookending these works about interior spaces, both physical and emotional, are two other sections of the exhibition. The first, “Fracturing of Form,” features paintings that move away from the tools of illusion, like perspective, to render space abstractly. It’s an awkward appendage to the exhibition’s dynamic middle. Aside from their tenuous connections to domestic space, the works here are not a cohesive group even on their own; most painters, after all, think about how to reconcile a three-dimensional world with a two-dimensional surface. However, a handful of more recent pieces, like Robert Young’s watercolor Infrared Scan of the Prince’s Chamber, help move between abstract space and domesticity.
“Mapping of Space,” the final group of works, looks beyond Bachelard and the house to investigate the borders between the private and the public, between the built environment and the natural world. Apartment #201, Ron Tran’s projection of the doorless entrance to his apartment, is an experiment in vulnerability and self-surveillance. Christos Dikeakos’s etched glass and panoramic photograph pairings show how successive layers of industrialization and development have transformed the fishing and hunting grounds of local Coast Salish peoples into modern Vancouver.
In these sites of contest and conflict, the personal spills out past the sheltering confines of Bachelard’s house. And just like that, I, too, stepped out from the security of the museum’s circumscribed rooms and the interior space of my own quiet imaginings and into the ferment and jostle of the city.