Show at the Agnes has mass appeal

‘Crowd Conscious’ explores contemporary ideas of identity and group culture

Barbara Hunt’s collection of hand-knit land mines and John Abrams’ ‘Figure Painting’ address the issue of group and individual identity from different perspectives.
Barbara Hunt’s collection of hand-knit land mines and John Abrams’ ‘Figure Painting’ address the issue of group and individual identity from different perspectives.

Ideas about how humans self-identify and interact with each other are far from new, but changes in technology, travel and economies have drawn new attention to these questions.

An exhibit on display at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre aims to contribute to the conversation through a group show called “Crowd Conscious.”

The show is a diverse collection from 16 artists working with different mediums and subject matter, all addressing issues of identity and society, the way individuals work within a group and how these things are changing.

Barbara Hunt’s collection of hand-knit land mines is an eerie juxtaposition of a warm-looking, pink homemade craft in the shape of a weapon of death. The exhibit’s curator, Jan Allen, said a piece like this is not only about the finished product, but also about the process and intent in making it: that is, Hunt’s labour to create the collection is one individual’s effort participate in what has now become a worldwide protest against the use of land mines.

“For me, that work and the whole exhibition raises questions about how we act within a larger whole, how we are affected and also how we make a difference within it all,” Allen said. “It’s kind of a proposal to see ourselves differently.” The fuzzy pink bombs stand in stark contrast with John Abrams’ “Figure Painting,” hanging on the opposite wall. “Figure Painting” is a black and white, slightly blurry image of a young man being arrested, with head down and his hands spread wide in a pose that is obviously a response to a command to put his “hands up.” The painting’s perspective is voyeuristic—the scene is partially blocked by a car door, and neither of the subjects meets the gaze of the viewer. It’s reminiscent of a scene from COPS. Looking at the painting is to become a bystander, and the painting questions the right of the watcher to watch.

The idea of “bystanding” is again addressed in Sue Coe’s painting “Grey Rape.” The charcoal on paper makes use of shadow and light to produce a hyper-real scene of horror: a gang-rape on a pool table that is being perpetrated by four men while five others watch. The men who watch are implicated in the crime, and in some ways, the viewer of the piece is drawn into their guilt.

The show deals not only with crowds, but also with the concept of the individual. Germaine Koh’s collection of posed studio photos, all found in streets and other public places around Ottawa, and framed in cheap plastic, becomes a crowd of strangers. And though all of the photos follow a specific system—muted backgrounds, forced smiles and unnatural poses—that similarity serves to underscore the individuality of the subjects.

The gallery room’s bare and open spaces further call to mind the idea of isolation—the bare cement floors evoke prison imagery, a feeling of being watched—while its public setting, and the sensation of being surrounded by the art, maintains a certain societal awareness.

That awareness is a big part of the exhibit’s focus: not only crowds, but consciousness itself. Allen said the show’s title is meant to play off of the idea of “self-consciousness” and the exhibit is intended to question our understanding of sentience or awareness.

“Crowd Conscious” has a decidedly contemporary feel, and indeed most of the works are not only recent acquisitions of the Agnes, but were created relatively recently as well. Allen said the work is a timely reflection of global trends in a post-9/11 and Internet-savvy world.

“I think society itself is changing, becoming more of a mass, almost global, society,” she said. “At the same time, there is almost an atomization, in that the individual is more isolated. We tend to be more mobile, and we’re not as embedded in traditional structures of connection.” The exhibit’s key lies in the way it makes the familiar seem unfamiliar. Urban life and the feelings it can bring, the state of loneliness in the crowd, and a person alone in a room yet connected to millions through the Internet are now recognizable parts of everyday life.

“The show is a mix, and it’s intended to be a bit provocative,” Allen said. “We have demonstrations against war presented next to a factory cafeteria in China and a study for wallpaper of unconscious men. It’s meant to be a bit playful about the serious issue of how we see ourselves in the world today.”

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