Saturday, January 28, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #7: Guided Tour at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Anyone who saw City of Dreams at last year's PuSh Festival knows of UK artist Peter Reder's uncanny ability to reveal a city anew to its residents. In that piece the pleasure of rediscovery was facilitated by the creation of an evolving historical and geographical map of Vancouver on the floor of the Roundhouse using a succession of everyday objects and found artifacts. This year Reder is back with Guided Tour, a site-specific work co-presented with Boca Del Lupo and the Vancouver Art Gallery that transports an audience of 30 after hours through the hidden corridors of the latter institution.

The fact that Reder first premiered this piece at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005, and has since toured it to different galleries, museums and auditoriums in Russia, Romania, Singapore, Spain, and the United States should clue us in to the fact that, as our guide, Reder is not particularly interested in revealing the complete history and design of a building about which many of us in the audience know as much, if not more, than him. And, indeed, when at the start of last night's 9 pm tour, while we were standing in the magnificent first floor rotunda, one man asked a question about the concrete construction, Reder happily admitted that he hadn't the faintest idea what the answer might be. This is not to say that Reder hasn't done his research, delving into the building's origins as a courthouse and discussing with some authority its architectural conversion into an art gallery in the 1980s by Arthur Erickson.

But he is also up front in telling us that, as far as he has been able to determine, that's all the history there is to the place, just two layers: its present use and its past heritage. The competing dialectic between these temporal and spatial poles, and between which is real and which ersatz (the preserved courtroom that's now used as a film set or the representations of representations on the gallery walls?), obscures all of the sedimented layers in between, piling them up like rubble before the leaden feet of Walter Benjamin's recording angel. We actually meet that angel at the end of the tour: deep in the bowels of the building, among piles of crated art and empty display cases, she appears before us on a video, a sweet old granny wearing fluffy white wings, sipping tea, and reading Proust.

This is not the first juxtaposition of the two writers. Earlier in the tour, when we are shown into the gallery library, and someone in the group comments on the smell of old books, Reder launches into a discussion of Marcel biting into the tea-soaked madeleine in La Recherche, and the involuntary memories that come flooding back to him as a result. Afterwards, in the hallway outside, Reder pauses briefly to discuss Benjamin's angel of history being blown backwards into the future. And this, I would argue, is the more compelling dialectic at work in the piece: the juxtaposition of the violence of institutional history, which seeks not just to obliterate the past, but to re-purpose it, with the counter-narrative of personal memory, which always partially exceeds or escapes or resists aesthetic capture and exhibitionary display. How else to explain Reder's family slide show near the end of the tour, which far from containing his experiences within the gallery setting actually succeeds in taking us out of what we think that space should be for?

At the outset of the tour Reder informs us that in preparation he has been reading various "how to" guides on being a guide, and among other things learning various phrases to deploy on his audiences. The most important one, he tells us, is "follow me." And that, by the end of this intimate and revelatory piece, is precisely what we have done.


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