Objectified items & identities

Union Gallery show creates strange sense of intimacy, questioning how our lives are constructed and defined

Kyle Topping and Julia Stephens question the objects and intimate details that compose our public and private lives.
Kyle Topping and Julia Stephens question the objects and intimate details that compose our public and private lives.

I don’t know Kyle Topping or Julia Stephens but I do know this: Topping is allergic to peanut butter, on December 10, 2004 he spent $413.31 at Steve’s music store, he received a 62 per cent in PSYC 100 and in Kindergarten he missed nine days of school—he was never late. I know what Stephens’s make-up looks like, I’ve seen a photo of her mother’s old jacket and I sat for moment in her great-grandfather’s chair. You too can know these things, if you venture into the Union Gallery and comb through the very personal exhibition, You are not your car.

This is also true: Stephens is in the fourth year of her BFAH and Topping is a graduating BFA student, both from Queen’s University. Their exhibition explores personal identity and calls into question what specific, tangible, material objects define us. Perhaps this is a fruitless pursuit, and we won’t discover who these two people are, but their pieces are still thought-provoking, interactive, and beautiful to look at—or read or sit in.

Topping’s two installations I am a 77.875% successful human being and sept 10 1991 to dec 29 2007 put on display what many of us keep shoved under our beds. I am 77.875% successful human being is a neat presentation of Topping’s photocopied report cards from kindergarten to his most recent transcript from Queen’s. One cannot help but nosily compare marks or carefully read the comments. How many E’s did he get? Was he good in math? Did he excel in art at the tender age of nine? Do I know him now that I know he took drama?

In big black books, below his report cards are Topping’s journals. sept 10 1991 to dec 29 2007 are Topping’s own words, sketches, music notes and clippings. Unable to disclose any of the information, snoops must sign a confidentiality agreement before prying through these diaries. Without citing any specific examples, the dairies are a lot of fun to look through. Topping’s words and images resonate and you’re allowed to look through them. He’s not going to come storming in, scream at you and tell mom. After reading his most personal thoughts, will you know Topping then? Maybe, maybe not. He’s brave, that’s for sure. Very few would feel comfortable putting years of “teacher’s comments” on the walls of the Union Gallery. An even slimmer few are able to stomach their own dairies.

Stephens doesn’t get quite as up close and personal compared to Toppings. Life Preserves is a collection of found and personal objects, including her great-grandfather’s chair. What’s interesting about this piece is that it’s hard to know what’s found and what’s personal. Maybe it’s her family in that photo. Or maybe she actually found that jar at Value Village. It’s hard to tell who’s who and what’s what. Identity is confused and pinned to objects.

Several of Stephens’ works make use of wood, such as It’s ancient history now, Before the war, and several others. Her works on paper have the lines and texture of old trees, an expression of an almost untouchable past. Stephens’ work imagines what memory looks like and although we might not understand every reference in her work, the distance is what makes it interesting to gaze into.

The exhibit is chockablock full of many other objects. Stephens and Topping have made a huge effort to preserve and chronicle the little bits of their lives that define the self. This exhibit might repel those who revel in throwing things out, and because the works are deeply personal, they run the risk of seeming self-indulgent. Never Got The Email is a collection of digital prints of Topping in various posses, wearing different clothes. The multiplicity of the self is made evident, but the sheer number of photos is overwhelming and repetitive, making it harder to relate compared to some of the more honest pieces.

You are not your car, as the title suggests, claims that objects and our method of defining ourselves is questionable. Surely we aren’t just our journals, our allergies and our receipts, but after walking through Topping and Stephens’ exhibit, it’s hard not to feel as though you know them—at least a little bit, anyway.

You are not your car runs at Union Gallery until March 10. Recpetion for the exhibit is Saturday March 7 at 6p.m.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.