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Echoes of the Bunnymen

Bill Pechet’s new art show is a playful exploration of abundance and late capitalism. With 500 rabbits.

Dorothy Woodend 16 Nov

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

One of something is cute. Five hundred of the same something is quite a different experience. Think of the scene in the Hitchcock classic The Birds. A few random crows land on a children’s jungle gym. No cause for alarm. It barely even registers. But a few moments later and Hola!! Terror from above, annihilation in apiary form, big feathered fear. Anything en masse demands a different kind of engagement. Even sweet-faced little bunnies.

At first sight, the wall of blue-green bunnymen in Bill Pechet’s exhibition Who’s There at the Bothkinds Project Space in Vancouver’s Gastown is kind of funny. But the longer one stares at them while they stare back, the less funny it becomes. An ominous feeling goes spider-walking down your spine as their gaze turns pitiless.

While the figures featured in Who’s There aren’t quite as terrifying as Hitchcock’s flying enforcers, there is something that isn’t altogether comforting about them either. Think Borg bunnies, plague rabbits, Watership Down killer-drillers. The connotations are legion.

So, how did this wall of bun-dom come to be and why?

The project is still something of a mystery, even to its creator. The original painting of the bunnyman that dominates this outing was part of Pechet’s 2007 solo show called Finding Sudoku at the Helen Pitt Gallery in Vancouver. In 2012, Pechet sent out inquiries to different factories in China about the possibility of creating 500 copies of the image. A company in the port city of Xiamen was sourced, the original item dispatched, and a deal was struck. But when the copies arrived in Vancouver, Pechet stowed them in plastic bins and kept them in the bathtub. And there they remained. Until now.

In his artist’s statement, he seems charmingly baffled by the initial intent and the eventual outcome:

“Many friends and colleagues have asked me why they have been hidden and the best answer I can give is that I was afraid of them... imagine that, afraid of bunnies. I was afraid because, like many experiments, I was truly unsure about what the project was about and wasn’t ready to confront the conceptual underpinnings of what it meant, as a well-off westerner, to participate in an act of buying copies of my own work from people that I know are not as privileged as myself.”

Beneath a seemingly simple idea lurks all manner of complex and thorny stuff, prickly and sticky, apt to trip a body up. Things like value, power, ethics, culture, even art itself.

In addition to making confounding creations, Vancouver-based polymath Pechet has a lively art practice that encompasses an array of disciplines ranging from illustration to designing cemeteries. With his business partner Stephanie Robb, Pechet represented Canada at the 2006 Venice Biennale of Architecture where he filled the Canadian pavilion with bright orange fleece sweaters.

Who’s There ropes in many Pechet-ian interests: quirky characters, serendipity, a sense of play, and an openness to the randomness of the universe. All of these are embodied in the different qualities that make up the collected bunnymen. There is also a strange aura of mystery and uncertainty that clings to the project — or whatever you’d like to term the uncanny valley between impulse and execution. Maybe this is why the emotional quality keeps shifting like the surface of the sea. It’s an experience that Pechet is well aware of. One moment, the bunnymen seem chipper and upbeat. In the next, they’re all menacing.

“Definitely, as a big group they become, if not menacing, somewhat disturbing because of how repetitive they are.... One is cute, but hundreds are verging on creepy and why are they all looking kind of a bit uncomfortable,” Pechet tells me. “Actually, my latest thinking is that for this piece to really work on that level, maybe I should have ordered 5,000.”

A close-up of Bill Pechet’s Who’s There features a corner of a tiled wall featuring many seemingly-identical seafoam tiles with a dark illustrated silhouette of a bunny’s head. Look closer, and each rabbit’s face is hand-painted with a distinctive facial expression.
Bill Pechet’s Who’s There brings together the artist’s appreciation for play and quirkiness as we contemplate the big questions that shape our world. Photo courtesy of Bill Pechet.

In the midst of this flux is a search for understanding and meaning.

This search is mirrored in the correspondence between Pechet and a woman named Vera, who oversaw the project at the Jingyi Work of Art Co., Ltd. in China. This email exchange between the two, collected and displayed in the show, is filled with pleasantries. Some of the correspondences are mundane, covering things like money, invoices and shipping. And other missives are strangely poignant — especially when communication isn’t always clear, and meaning is misconstrued.

In addition to the bunnies and the email correspondence, an animated video that cycles through all 500 images, capturing the variations in colour and form is also included.

So, what’s it all about?

Value, capitalism, globalism, art in the age of mass media. Do multiple copies of an image change the fundamental nature of the original, taking away some of its specialness, or do they do the opposite and shore up its meaning?

These questions have been around a very long time. Since 1935, in fact. They form the meat and bread of Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” As Benjamin states: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.”

The key word is mechanical. As Pechet explains, part of the impetus was to engage with the human element. “As a person who sometimes explores the effects of multiples, and/or has things I’ve drawn rebuilt by others, I was curious as to how the non-mechanical reproduction of the painting would affect the bunny’s aura and oddly emotional conveyance.”

In the age of NFTs and digital artwork, real live hand-painted copies carry with them an anachronistic quality. They’re throwbacks to old-timey methods, recalling the work of students and would-be artists copying the masters as a means to build skills. In this aspect, do the bunnies retain something of the people who made them?

The answer is a resounding yes.

As part of his process, Pechet asked if the individual artists who painted the copies could be photographed at work. The resulting images are anonymous folks, largely caught with their backs to the camera. They’re dressed in street clothes, such as leather jackets, T-shirts and jeans with brushes in hand. The photos are obviously staged, but nonetheless they possess an interesting beauty all their own. In the photos, the backdrops behind Pechet’s bunny paintings are daubed and streaked with a palimpsest of earlier other works, so that they function like an archeological dig of sorts.

Even as one’s brain is searching for pattern and discovering difference, some form of intimate human transference is taking place within the minutiae. Whether it’s the curious expression reproduced over and over again, a slight pursing of the mouth, a widening or narrowing of the round eyes, a fudged line here, a subtle change in colour there, it all adds up to peculiarity amidst the collective. Even the tiniest discrepancy in the line that forms the mouth can make the difference between a smirk or a snarl.

In one particular bunny, there is barely a face at all, only two blank round eyes, spooky and a bit otherworldly, like someone in the process of being erased or coming into being.

As Pechet explains, “On the rare occasions that I have opened the containers of paintings and really looked at them, I still wonder if they, in fact, did communicate with me somehow through the nuance of the rabbit’s eyes, expression of mouth and tilt of head.”

So, where do they go after the show is over? How does Pechet feel about having to break up the band and return them to the bathtub?

“To date, I’ve been pretty passive about figuring that out... hoping that the exhibition might entice someone to take them all,” says Pechet. “However, in the last few days I’ve been thinking that, if I do give them all away, that the only thing I would ask of the new owners would be that they give me the permission to use their names so that I can make a matrix of who took which painting and who the artist was that painted that one….so the artwork would still stay with me as a kind of ridiculous bit of information expressing the exchange of place and ownership. Maybe they could take pictures of where they end up?”

Has the experience of seeing all the bunnymen assembled and displayed changed Pechet’s feeling about them?

“They certainly produce a feeling of strange strength en masse, both in the replication of image and colouristically/phenomenologically…. This collective strength is not conveyed at all in the single, original image. Returning them to their containers will put them all to sleep and I will imagine them quietly speaking with one another about their momentary light of day.”

Who knows what might come out of these whispered conversations. Best not to think on it too long, lest the invading army with ears haunts your dreams.

Bill Pechet’s ‘Who’s There’ runs until Nov. 28 at the Bothkinds Project Space in Vancouver.  [Tyee]

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