When you were a kid did you ever go to a fun fair where they had a big glass jar of beans or buttons or candies and you could pay to guess how many were in there? The person closest to the real number would win a prize.
I suppose there is a knack or skill to estimating numbers of objects in a given mass, just as some people are good at estimating numbers of people in a crowd, or people’s ages. Well, come in to the Kelowna Art Gallery and see if you can tell how many little printed paper boxes are in Montreal-based artist Mitch Mitchell’s installation For Whom You Build.
Spoiler alert: the artist was planning on sending us 15,000 boxes but at the last minute he reduced our shipment to 10,000, as 5,000 were needed for an exhibition in Montreal. No matter, 10,000 is still a lot and they fill the space in our Reynolds Gallery really well. Two old wooden shipping pallets support two different stacks of the blocks, one in a fairly orderly pile, the other with a more entropic energy. In the corner of the room a large mound of boxes appears to be bursting forward from the walls, spilling out onto the floor.
One thing you might immediately start to wonder when you see this arrangement is: What happened here? Are the three groups meant to convey some sort of narrative or sequence of events? It is amazing how we humans tend to want to invent narratives no matter what we encounter. We want to imagine that something occurred and a chain of events ensued. But of course there is no story going on with Mitchell’s paper boxes, and the different energies of the three groups—the Apollonian, Dionysian and the explosive—give the installation some visual and visceral interest, but do not lend any meaning to the piece.
So what does the work mean? It stemmed from the artist wanting to move printmaking into three dimensions and to create a modular piece. In case you think he has gone overboard and into full-blown obsessive-compulsive territory with his box making, he is not finished and plans to make more until he has an inventory of 50,000 of them. The boxes give him the building blocks to make art installations.
At one point after he had piles of them sitting in his living space he realized there was an inner connection between the boxes and a pile of bricks that he saw as a child in his grandmother’s yard, after his grandfather had already passed away. So the work is something of a tribute to his grandparents, especially to the values of hard work and labour from their cultural milieu and time period.
The boxes are very beautiful to look at, printed as they are in a variety of deep pastel colours. The artist uses leftover ink from his students’ printmaking classes (he teaches at Concordia University) and packages of paper that printing companies intended to throw out due to variations spotted upon opening them. So his materials have been reclaimed, not purchased.
Visitors familiar with modern and contemporary art may see echoes of or nods to the works of well-known artists, such as Robert Smithson or Felix Torres-Gonzales, with their corner spill pieces, and Carl Andre, the American minimalist who made work from industrially produced modules such as cinder blocks.
I would love to be a fly on the wall in the Kelowna Art Gallery’s Mardell G Reynolds gallery space over the next several weeks to listen to what people talk about when they are in there. The conversations are going to be fascinating.
Mitch Mitchell: For Whom You Build will remain on view at the Kelowna Art Gallery until June 28, 2015.