Viewing and experiencing The Material Turn

Fibres and material practices student Ryth Kesselring records the sound of a loom, activated by sensors in Tajima Sound Wave. Photo by Alex Hutchins.

Why does the way we look at and interact with art matter?

Fibres are a classic art form. Cultures all over the world have adopted fibre ‘art’ and material practices in some form. While today we can look at a tapestry for purely aesthetic reasons, fibre pieces aren’t always as untouchable as most artworks. Fibre work is known to be useful, providing warmth, shelter and even utilities or tools.

According to the Harvard Gazette, flax fibres dating back to the paleolithic era (34,000 years ago) were discovered in the Republic of Georgia. The archaeologists who found these fibres believe they would have been used for warm clothing, multipurpose cloths and as a binding material, like rope.

Archive of the (Un)Loved invites viewers to feel fabric samples from the artworks featured in The Material Turn. Photo by Alex Hutchins.

The Material Turn acknowledges the traditional methods of fibre work, and pushes the craft to new levels. The 13 artists featured in the FOFA Gallery’s latest exhibit introduce contemporary materials and technology into their work, questioning the context and forming new relationships between traditional fibres and these new-age materials.

Artists Robin Kang, Louise Lemieux Bérubé and Shelley Socolofsky incorporate new, metallic fibres into their work, while artists Ryth Kesselring, Barbara Layne and Janis Jefferies sew wiring and computerised elements into their fibre work—an innovation between the electronic and traditional means of art-making.

I experienced these pieces in a gallery game led by part-time art education professor Christine Stocek and her teaching assistant, Jacob Legallais. Gallery games are generally dedicated to breaking down the intimidation of art galleries, as well as deconstructing the composition of featured artwork; participants question the context in which the artwork was created and the choices made in the process.

Detail from studio arts graduate Emily Hermant’s Reflections on Perseid (No. 1). Photo by Chloë Lalonde.

In an effort to recontextualize my relationship with a medium I am unfamiliar with, I was inspired to consider the types of experiences held at art galleries in relation to my own experiences with liberal and utilitarian forms of art-making. Instead of standing around the gallery in silence, the game permitted us to sit down on the gallery floor, talk loudly and get up close and personal with the artworks.

The game was twofold; first we were asked to describe an artwork of our choice to a classmate, who then had to create a drawing based on the description. The second part of the gallery game was completed individually. We answered a short series of questions by creating three small drawings. I chose Emily Hermant’s Reflections on Perseid (No. 1). Captured by the static flow of the piece, I doodled spools of wire and sound waves. There was no sound emanating from Hermant’s piece, but I was inspired by the sound of a loom recorded in Kesselring’s piece, Tajima Sound Wave. Hermant’s piece seemed to expand Kesselring’s, adding colour and texture to the low humming of the loom. From my experience, observing work from multiple artists within the same context widens the viewer’s perspective. The viewer becomes an active member in the exhibition process by creating links between unrelated artwork that at times, the artists themselves would not have considered.

Inspired by Emily Hermant’s Reflections on Perseid (No. 1), I doodled sketchy lines, spools of wire and sound waves. Photo by Chloë Lalonde.

I realized the pieces could be observed as artifacts, products of their time and place in society, and results of the artists’ own experiences. On their own, they don’t exactly have a use, other than the garments developed by Layne and Jefferies. The projects featured in The Material Turn  provoke conversation between digital matter and physical matter. My experience participating in the gallery games forced me to consider another pathway, relationship or difference between the viewer of artworks and a participant in art, and the value viewing and/or participating has in the artworld.

The exhibition at the FOFA Gallery also contains an interactive component, a feature I think is so relevant and important in this context. The Archive of the (Un)Loved invites ‘viewers’ to participate, to feel samples of material discarded by the artists featured in The Material Turn.

In addition to the gallery games, The Material Turn itself attempts to demystify the norms of comportment within a gallery setting by allowing visitors to interact with the artwork, and consequently, the artist’s creative processes.

The exhibition is part of a larger project within Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts and the Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology. The Material Turn Project is concerned with the materiality of digital matter. The project facilitates a dialogue and exchange of research among artists and the community at large, and included a symposium (held on March 10) alongside The Material Turn curated by Kelly Thompson and WhiteFeather Hunter.

The Material Turn will be at the FOFA Gallery from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday until April 23.

Photo by Alex Hutchins

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