Winnipeg Free Press 



Artist goes Around, About to get materials

Sat, Dec 8, 2001


GERMAINE Koh's work treads lightly.

I'm referring not only (or even primarily) to the fact that this celebrated, thirtysomething Canadian artist recycles all manner of urban detritus (plastic water bottles, scrap lumber, discarded amateur snapshots, ball bearings, public signage) to make her work.

There's something else about the eight pieces in Around About -- their understated elegance, wry humour, simple means, modest sensuality, subtle poetics and slightly annoying cleverness -- that gestures towards a particular ethos. It's as though the work is tentatively proposing a way to live in the world; an adaptive means of negotiating the hyperactive, image-glutted, overconsumptive spectacle that is 21st-century North American life.

Or maybe not. Take the work entitled Lumber. Between 1991 and 1994, Koh scavenged various cities collecting 700 discarded scraps of 2x4s of various lengths. Subsequently, she rehabilitated or renovated this "urban driftwood" by applying layers of enamel and marine varnish. Her painstaking, almost painterly treatment has given the boards a lush, shiny, aromatic clay-coloured finish that emphasizes their knots and nail holes -- irregularities that indicate something of their former lives.

The lumber leans up against a wall. It's arranged in a single grouping that suggests a cluster of people of various heights and makes.

Look again and a city skyline comes to mind.

Look yet again and Lumber becomes nothing more than what it literally is: A bunch of freshly painted boards that nobody but Koh wanted.

According to written material that accompanies the exhibition, it's this delicate and somewhat precarious balance between the "mundane and the wondrous" that Koh strives for in all her work.

For another, recently completed piece called Sighns, Koh scavenged bits of text. After photographing an array of public signs (billboards, traffic signs, corporate logos, etc.), she enlarged and assembled these photographs into poster-sized concrete poems.

One work reads "Here Here"; another, "If Ever."

As with Lumber, Sighns derives its ever-so-subtle enigmatic edge from the interplay between the wide spectrum of experiences and memories it evokes: The banal, all-too-familiar public signs from which it was constructed, the cliched phrases we utter to one another in our most intimate moments and the poignantly pedestrian desires that fuel public and private acts of communication.

The Winnipeg Free Press's classified ad section serves as a medium for another piece entitled Journal (ongoing since 1995). For the duration of her Winnipeg exhibition, Koh is placing daily journal entries in the Personal category (642). These entries record everyday, ordinary activities, observations and feelings in a manner that is so nondescript that they do little more than mark the passing of time.

The exhibition, which was curated by Christina Ritchie (who recently took up the post of director/curator at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver) and co-produced by Gallery One One One and Plug In, is actually housed in two galleries. Due to each institution's unique spatial configuration, the more sensual and materially based installation work ended up at Plug In's McDermot Avenue exhibition space, while the more conceptual text and photo-based work was installed in Gallery One One One at the University of Manitoba.

Though unavoidable, dividing the exhibition in this way serves to suppress the fact that in the hands of a dexterous and accomplished artist like Koh, any material whatsoever can serve as an equally fruitful medium -- whether it be as simple as a scrap of found text or as sophisticated as a digitally operated smoke-making machine.

There's an undercurrent of melancholy in much of Koh's work, which isn't surprising given that it focuses so determinedly on the transitory and quotidian aspects of life. I wonder, though, if the gentle sadness I detect in Around About has something to do with the ethos of casual disengagement it seems to embody.

Treading lightly may be an adaptive and responsible way for 21st-century citizens to proceed. However, it also implies that contemporary social, cultural, economic and political conditions are so messed up and resistant to change that efforts to transform them would be futile at best and catastrophic at worst.

In this respect, treading lightly may be a defence against anxiety and hopelessness as much as anything else.

Or maybe not.


Sigrid Dahle is an independent curator.

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