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Contemplating the Void Through Art

Vanessa Brown’s exhibition ‘That Other Hunger’ bores into deep existential questions.

Dorothy Woodend 3 Oct

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

At some point in embryonic development, human beings are only a single orifice, a hole, as it were. The blastopore later becomes the anus and if things go well, other characteristics also develop, although some people remain giant a-holes their entire lives.

So, holes are us, in some sense.

That Other Hunger, Vanessa Brown’s solo exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery, takes the concept of the hole and goes deep. Born in Richmond, Brown has exhibited widely in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. She grew up close to the current Richmond Gallery location, swimming at the old Minoru Pool. Although her principal medium is steel, she has worked in a variety of different media including sculpture, textiles, film and installation.

The number of different holey and unholy iterations in That Other Hunger range from multi-purpose variety to the more esoteric type. One of the most familiar is the all-purpose black ovoid that Wile E. Coyote uses in his endless pursuit of the Road Runner in Warner Bros. cartoons. This is one magic hole. Used one way, it’s a pathway to escape. Slapped on a wall, a bridge or roadway, it’s a means to make a quick exit. Used another way, it’s a trap. Sometimes it’s both.

In addition to this handy-dandy existential void, there are endless amounts of other openings: sinkholes, underground pools, the Pantheon’s Oculus, black holes and even Hole's iconic riot grrrl album Live Through This.

That’s a lot of holes. But as Brown explains when she first started thinking about such openings, it only made more show up! “I see them everywhere. They kept coming to me,” she tells me.

But as she recounts, it was an early fascination with cartoons, in particular the Road Runner, that became a predominant theme in the show. The Road Runner Show’s storyline, if you will recall, takes place in a surreal world, where a sufficient amount of belief can turn a hole into “a channel across time and space,” as the show’s description reads.

On large panels that recall Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey monolith, these narratives play out in looped bits of cartoon zaniness. Loosed from their original narrative moorings, they cycle through repetitions of catch-me-if-you-can. The effect is strangely sobering, even a mite grim. It reminded me that as I child I found The Road Runner Show terribly bleak. There were no happy endings here, no closure at all, just endless hunger and ongoing failure in a dusty desiccated landscape. Fun for kids!

This aspect is heightened in the show, thanks in part to the soundscape from collaborator Michelle Helene Mackenzie. Sonorously ominous, it creeps into the experience, colouring even the most benign stuff with a layer of disquiet.

But Brown has a very different take. She believes that poor old Wile E. Coyote is something of an optimist, able to persevere in the face of perpetual loss. This difference in interpretation is a key part of the exhibition. Holes lend themselves to all manner of protean stuff. Viewed in one direction, they’re a pitfall, a thing to drown in. Viewed another way, they become a portal of escape, like The Shawshank Redemption tunnel out of one reality and into another.

In addition to the large-scale panels, there are textile works, peppered with a buckshot of tiny perforations, and wound round with images sourced from both art history and the natural world. With so many different and densely layered ideas and well as objects, some more literal than others, the bigger question snakes out. What is it all about?

As Brown explains, the aperture of a camera lens and the pupil of a human eye are also openings through which perception pours. Herein lies the biggest indicator that holes, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, are how the light gets in.

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Three stacked images depict dark hole against a blue background, an oculus, and eyes — some of the many themes and forms that holes take in Vanessa Brown’s solo exhibition, That Other Hunger.
Vanessa Brown’s solo exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery dives into a multifaceted universe of holes as both object and void. Gallery photos by Michael Love.

This is especially true of the Oculus (from the Latin meaning eye), the portal built into the Pantheon Ceiling. Constructed in 125 BCE, the Pantheon in Rome is still the largest unsupported dome in the world, capped off with an opening that serves multiple practical functions: sun dial, window fixture, bird entranceway.

As a means to bring light into the structure, the hole of the Oculus contains all kinds of different symbolic implications as well: it’s a symbol of the continuum between Earth and the heavens, an eye cast upwards towards a more celestial realm, a link between the divine and the prosaic. Ultimately, a portal towards some greater kind of understanding.

That Other Hunger functions along these lines as well, intermingling profundities with more goofy stuff. In one section, there is the star-tangled expanse of the cosmos, in another a metal crab dangling from a rope.

The entrance of crustaceans into the show comes as something of a palate cleanser. In between the two main gallery spaces there is a third, middle space. Brown calls this interstitial place the Red Room. If the intent is to offer a fulcrum point between the two main galleries, it is a curious point of intersection, populated by metal sculptures of various sea creatures (shrimp, crab, mussels) bathed in deep red light. I’m not exactly sure what it means, in light of the overall theme, but it’s strangely charming and weird (in a good way).

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Two stacked photos of crustacean art installations part of Vanessa Brown’s That Other Hunger. The die-cut creatures hang against a red lit wall.
Between sessions of staring into the void, crustaceans make a refreshing cameo in That Other Hunger. Photos by Michael Love.

Did Brown mean for these differing sections in the show to function as a kind of physical narrative, moving the audiences from one experience to another?

“I would say that dividing the spaces into three different sections came largely as a response to the architecture in the Richmond [Gallery],” she explains. “The floorplan of the gallery sort of resembles a vision diagram, and there I found another connection to vision, pupils, apertures, cameras... holes!”

In looking for any kind of ultimate meaning, there is a hesitation about killing to dissect, and the artist herself is somewhat circumspect about how ideas arrive. The inside of a hole can contain multitudes or nothing at all. You see what you want to see, a little like Schrödinger’s box?

This ambiguity is especially apparent in the video installation that takes pride of place in the third gallery space. The film elements contain a veritable cosmos of holes with the artist narrating over a series of images including a human hand chucking stuff into the void. Whether these different items — a hammer, a red rubber boot, a colander, a tennis racket, a book about Freud — have any connection to each other is unclear. Just as you’re searching hard for some bit of narrative meaning, they come boomeranging back out of the blackness.

The impulse to piece them together into some greater meaning is immediate, but the very lack of connectivity defies any easy or facile answers. The film is both fascinating and also a wee bit frustrating. It’s a quality that runs throughout the entire show.

The bottomless blackness contains all kinds of potential answers, but in order to get them, one must enter into the ultimate void, the big hole that awaits us all.

But before we get there, the current world with all its crustaceans and cartoons is still here, demanding contemplation in all its holy, holey glory.

‘That Other Hunger’ is on display at the Richmond Art Gallery until Nov. 5.  [Tyee]

Read more: Art, Media

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