Monday, 6 March 2017

MARIA HUPFIELD: THE ONE WHO KEEPS ON GIVING

EXHIBITION REVIEWS

BY: TABITHA CHAN

First room in the exhibition
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)
Maria Hupfield is an Indigenous Canadian artist who combines hand-sewn sculptures and multimedia video installations to create a dynamic conversation about the complex relationship between humans and objects. Her work encourages viewers to consider the significance of objects beyond their physical materiality and to reflect on the process of how objects become embedded with meaning. These ideas are illustrated in her current solo exhibition titled “The One Who Keeps On Giving” at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery.

Hupfield is a member of the Anishinaabe Nation at Wasauksing First Nation, Ontario. Her work often draws from her Indigenous heritage to explore the relationships between people, places and objects. She replicates objects that are typically seen as “Indigenous” or regionally specific in industrial felt to neutralize their materiality and to examine what it means for them to take on a new “contemporary” identity.


Second room in the exhibition
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)
The exhibition is presented in two adjoining rooms. White walls and bright lights characterize the first room that visitors enter into, while the second room is distinguished by darkness and shadows. The first room features six groupings of work that are related to each other thematically, but can also be viewed as standalone installations. All of the groupings use similar materials such as industrial felt and poplar plywood, highlighted by neon yellow panes of colour. The second room features Hupfield’s newly commissioned installation for the gallery, which stems from an oil painting of a seascape by the artist’s late mother.

In the first room, there are three video works. In the film, It Is Never Just about Sustenance or Pleasure (2016), the artist is seen walking through the desert of Santa Fe wearing handmade mitts and boots (the same ones that are displayed in the gallery). In this desert, there once existed a waterway. The objects themselves are a reference to wetlands, as the mitts are typically worn for snowmobiling and the boots for river fly-fishing. Hupfield replicates these objects in felt to emphasize that they have been adapted to serve a new purpose in the midst of climate change.

It Is Never Just About Sustenance or Pleasure (2016)
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)
The tactility of Hupfield's handmade objects make them feel personal, like they belong to someone and that each one carries a story beyond its functional purpose. The chosen objects are readily recognizable and accessible, both in size and purpose. Objects include: a canoe, a cassette recorder with headphones, a snowsuit, a snowmobile helmet and a light bulb. 

Most visitors will have encountered a similar light bulb fixture in their basement, and have a memory of turning it on by pulling on the metal chain. Hupfield has even replicated the electrical outlet that connects to the light bulb in felt. Hupfield’s felt objects are compelling enough to provide an entry point for visitors to venture their own guesses as to what the work is about and why the artist chose to replicate them in this way.

Handmade replicas of objects in industiral felt
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)
Without having some knowledge of Hupfield’s biographical details, her sculptures and installations in the first room may still be intimidating for viewers who are not comfortable or experienced in looking at contemporary art independently. The second room helps to diffuse this tension, as visitors are able to partake in a shared experience, while learning about Hupfield’s personal heritage and narrative. 

The second room has an intimate and solemn atmosphere. The only light emitted in the room is from two floor-to-ceiling video projections that face one another, and from a small cut out rectangular window that looks out onto the Lake Ontario harbour. There are two objects in the room: Bound with Georgian Bay by Peggy Miller (1974) and Jingle Spiral (2015). Both objects make appearances in the projected performances. 

Small cut out window looking out onto Lake Ontario
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)
This painting below inspired Hupfield’s performance with her siblings, which took place in their hometown of Parry Sound, Ontario on Georgian Bay. In this performance, Hupfield holds the painting facing inwards, as her siblings dance and sing around her to celebrate the memory of their mother. Hupfield and her siblings re-enacted the same performance in the gallery space to ground the work within the exhibition.

In the gallery version of the performance, Hupfield holds the painting facing outwards. These recorded performances are projected one after the other on opposite sides of the gallery. The running time of each performance is 15 minutes – this means that visitors could potentially not even realize that there is a second film if they enter the room early on in the first film.

There are five square boxes configured in a circle in the middle of the room for viewers to sit and watch the performances. This seating arrangement resembles a campfire setting, encouraging viewers to have a community experience. This room is successful in being able to tell a very personal story to the artist, while inviting visitors to collectively partake in it. As visitors look out onto the Lake Ontario harbour, this act gives them the ability to ground their own experience in the exhibition. Their act of looking outwards is a parallel to the oil painting of the Georgian Bay seascape.

Bound with Georgian Bay by Peggy Miller (1974)
(Photo: Tabitha Chan)

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Being in the same room as objects that are seen in the performances gives visitors a way to connect and reflect on Hupfield’s personal narrative. Although the objects are often worn in the performances, the same objects that are displayed in the exhibit do not invite visitors to interact with them. They are remnants of the performance, and in this way, a symbol of past memory.

The two rooms are not binary opposites, but compliment each other through their differences and give viewers the opportunity to form their own interpretations based on what is revealed in the artworks themselves. In trying to understand the relationship between the two rooms, viewers are able to grasp the big idea of the exhibition.

Regardless of visitors’ familiarity or comfort level with contemporary art, the key to understanding this exhibition is time. This exhibit can only be fully appreciated if visitors have time to experience it and to take the initiative to personally reflect on the meaning of the exhibition. To properly engage in the content of the artwork, visitors have to spend time watching and listening to the performances.

The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery uses an interpretive strategy in this exhibition that is quite open ended and largely reliant on the viewers’ own agency to think actively. There is a quality of poetic abstraction with regards to how this exhibition has been curated. Viewers are able to develop their own conclusions, as long as they are willing to embark on their own journey and physically, as well as metaphorically, travel between the two rooms.

“The One Who Keeps On Giving” is open until May 14, 2017 at The Power Plant. The gallery has also made it possible to virtually visit all of their current exhibitions on their website.

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