Objectified art tells local stories

Exhibit’s mundane miscellany brings personal vignettes to life

For the exhibit Objects of Significance curators Talie Shalmon and Lisa Visser collected treasures, like this broken bike, from members of the community.
For the exhibit Objects of Significance curators Talie Shalmon and Lisa Visser collected treasures, like this broken bike, from members of the community.

Walk into the Union Gallery right now and you will stumble into a cache of possessions that feel like they could belong to either a stranger or yourself. Hanging from the ceiling and mounted on the walls are things like appliances, stamps, old toys, homemade and second-hand clothing and more. It looks as though these everyday finds were excavated from bedrooms, basements and drawers and brought to the bare, white gallery in an attempt to unravel local secrets and stories. The quotidian becomes art in the exhibit Objects of Significance. Curators and Queen’s graudates Lisa Visser and Talie Shalmon gathered these objects and their histories from members of the community and placed them on display as artefacts.

“It’s relational art—basically inviting people from a non-art group to be involved. It’s based on our relationship with [the contributors], their relationship to the objects and then our relationship to the objects,” Visser said.

The initial premise for the show was to create an exhibit that would involve the Kingston community and go beyond the Queen’s campus. Visser and Shalmon’s concept of inviting people to share mementos from their lives made it easy to involve fellow artists and non-artists from the area. Beyond that, “Objects of Significance” is also a point of convergence for people and art because of the attention it pays to the stories people have to tell, regardless of artistic ability or status. It suggests art can come from the most mundane object’s meaning.

Crack open a book like a beat-up copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and you might find a note from your grandmother. That’s what one contributor submitted.

To further the relational element, Visser and Shalmon weave a narrative about a fictional family to link all the objects together by assigning them to the family’s members and Kingston locations. They produce an entire history based on the stories of people from the community; suddenly, the contributors are implicated in an imaginative local history.

Unfamiliar faces from a family tree beam down at you at the entrance of the gallery beside a map of Eastern Ontario that pinpoints the locations of the family’s historic possessions. The objects are then spread throughout the gallery for investigation. The project demonstrates the art found in the connections formed between people and things as the items each carry with them a story about what makes them important to the contributor. The ordinary objects have idiosyncratic details and stories that make them quirky, wistful and even moving at times.

One piece is composed of cassette tapes that were found in a box of the contributor’s grandfather’s leftover things. The accompanying story recounts how the contributor imagines that the tapes contain recordings of the grandfather’s voice taping his adventures. Plain and black, the tapes are unremarkable except for their age and yet they show how the mind can’t help but wonder after someone has died.

Originally, Visser and Shalmon had planned to make up the objects’ stories only drawing from the material provided by the contributors, but they were so impressed by the actual stories they received that they decided to keep the real accounts—a move that strengthens the show’s appeal. Because there’s sincerity behind the contributors’ explanations, you’re more inclined to be drawn in.

By catching a glimpse of other people’s lives, it’s easy to begin to see traces of your family, friends, lovers and yourself. This seems to have been a result of the project: Visser and Shalmon note how people are able to relate to the stories that the objects represent.

A tattered Bad Religion shirt dangles in one corner of the gallery near an electric guitar—both belonging to one of the fictional family’s sons. The t-shirt originates from Warped Tour, according to the story attached to it. It’s one of Shalmon’s favourites.

“The t-shirt is something I can relate to too. Something like when I was growing up,” Shalmon said.

The exhibit displays many relics from childhood, youth, adulthood, relationships and post-relationships, chronicling different ages and experiences. The stories behind the objects may be foreign at times, but in wandering through the show, the pieces can trigger unexpected nostalgia. The memories the pieces describe aren’t your own but you can still find yourself reminiscing over similar experiences. Not sure whether to take the objects lightly or as witnesses to human experience, I’d say it’s best to slowly let the pieces soak in as you wander the space. The number of pieces and wealth of personal information available can be a little overwhelming. Fortunately, the Union Gallery’s white walls subdue any sense of clutter and leave enough breathing room between pieces so they can stand on their own and let you absorb the familiar yet uncanny. It’s intriguing what the contributors pulled from their homes and offered as artefacts. An object like a miniature, plastic Jesus from Japan can’t help but make you wonder what story lies behind it.

Objects of Significance runs at the Union Gallery until June 19th.

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