Living Arts: Artist Talk

How’s this for a timely comparison: I feel the same way about artist talks as I do about baseball games.  I have to be very careful about how I attend either.  To be sure, when they work, the good ones fuse energy with an intellectual narrative that exhilarates me long after they’re finished. However, the bad ones have no through line, and feel bloated with details that are either extraneous or light years beyond my grasp.  Bad ones make me swear a blood oath to never put myself at such risk ever again.

I have been to two artists talks in the last two weeks.  They were both worthwhile, thank the Lord. 

A few weeks ago, I went to “The Builders” at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. It featured three of the institution’s past curators—Glen Cumming, Ihor Holubizky, Shirley Madill, as well as Katharine MacDonald, the daughter the Gallery’s first curator T. R. MacDonald.   The talk was arranged as four parts of a chronology, the story of the evolution of the gallery’s permanent collection. I had always thought of curators as somewhat standalone entities, but this talk positioned them more like generations of some exalted and eccentric family, each trying to use guile, luck, and connections to expand the ancestral holdings.

Last week, I attended and participated in a five-person artist talk as part of an ongoing series called Inc. Spots at the Hamilton Artists Inc.  This event borrowed its form from a recent phenomenon called Pecha Kucha, devised in Tokyo more than a decade ago by an architecture firm who wanted to intensify and truncate the experience of an artist talk to make it more accessible.  Pecha Kucha demands that an artist use only twenty slides, and that each slide is only viewable for 20 seconds.    Each artist talk therefore has to be contained to six minutes and forty seconds in length.  

It sounds like a gimmick, but it has a lot to recommend it.  At the Inc., five artists were able to present the story of their practice and answer questions in little over an hour’s worth of time.  Artist Daniel Hutchinson was able to successfully communicate the overlying conceptual premise behind his body of work.  Svava Juliusson was able to build a narrative using only slides from international residencies. Cornelia Peckart told about her work from a more personal perspective, intermingling slides of finished work with studio and installation shots, as well as slides of art which were key inspirations to her.  Ric Rojnic was personal but much more interior, giving a painting by painting account of the kinds of formal and intellectual issues he tries to resolve with his brush.

The format in other words supported a wide range of tones, but the time constraint cut out the fat, destroyed any possible self-indulgence and made the whole thing zip along like a theme park ride.  Obviously, some potential for depth went missing, but as a form of introduction to artists’ work, it was beautiful.

There’s not much really in common between the curators’ talk at the AGH, and the artists’ talk at the Inc.  One was fast and informal, the other was stately by comparison.  The AGH had what looked like a hundred people in attendance, the Inc. had this small, yet deeply engaged group.  

Nevertheless, they both got me thinking about why artist talks are important. 

When I think about it, art is a very dissociative experience.  Artists create these things, mostly objects, in what is usually a very private circumstance.  And they create these objects so that they can travel and communicate of their own accord.  Patrons subsequently encounter these objects, and are themselves encouraged to have personal intimate moments of engagement with them, particularly when they encounter them in the quiet of a gallery.  In other words it’s easy to focus on the art object, and turn the people who contributed to them into an abstraction.

The public talk is not just a service put on by a gallery to educate.  I think it is also a kind of public declaration, a rare moment to remind people that all these objects of significance have human lives attached to their fabrication, evaluation, and upkeep.  The artist talk is the moment where those human lives can come out of the shadows to be publically appreciated as well.