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Issue 133

Primary Research Lab
by Jesse McKee

Bellingham is a sought-after destination for Vancouverites looking for cheap flights to destinations within the US. This modest town, with fewer than 100,000 citizens, is just an hour and a half south of Western Canada’s largest city, lying in the shadow of Mount Baker and resting on the edge of the Pacific. Rather than paying for the convenience of taking a flight from YVR, you can take a shuttle bus from downtown Vancouver to the Bellingham Airport and often save hundreds of dollars. As Fran Lebowitz has said, her generation wasted their time on drugs and promiscuity, while my generation is content to waste our time trying to find cheap cellphone plans and plane tickets. Another writer on my mind these days is Marcel Proust, who tells us that many potentials are found in lost time. This past summer I encountered another proposition through the Primary Research Lab.

Mostly a collection-based exhibition and series of live events curated by Lee Plested at Western Washington University’s art gallery in Bellingham, this exhibition played partly outside across the balmy season, hosting weekly performances and scenarios enacted by contemporary artists from the Cascadian region. Different aspects of Primary Research Lab responded to the notable and crucial public art collection on campus, which features major works by Anthony Caro, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Nancy Holt, Richard Serra, Isamu Noguchi, Bruce Nauman, Lloyd Hamrol, Joel Shapiro, Mia Westerlund Roosen and Mark di Suvero, among many others.

In the gallery, Plested pulled from the collection to organize a spacious yet engaged approach to Minimalism across schools, from the inclusion of works like Josef Albers’ Gray Instrumentation I (from a portfolio of 12 prints he made in 1974); the slightest and most transcendent drawing in the show by Agnes Martin, Untitled (1965); and Michael Heizer’s Dissipate/ runic casting/a match drop (1968), a collage – unstable and full of potential – made with instructional drawings on several pieces of paper and a couple of fresh matches stuck to the surface with Scotch tape. The most recent work in the gallery was by Vancouver-based design duo Amber Frid-Jimenez and Joe Dahmen, whose They Grow Without Us (2016) is a honeycomb-shaped sectional bench, made of composite sawdust brick that’s brewing with mycelium networks so that every so often the furniture sprouts an oyster mushroom overnight. The works are further accompanied by a dense, lab-like area of books, drawings and research materials by these same artists, held in the archives of the university, as well as recorded interviews and moving image works that echo the reductive and generative spirits inside the gallery.

Throughout the summer, across the campus, artists enacted their own forms of research and presentations that responded to the public works collection. Gareth Moore encouraged his audience to lie on the ground blindfolded while he played a sculptural soundscape inspired by Mark di Suvero’s For Handel (1975), dedicated to the composer of the same name and located on the grounds of the Music Department. Moore performed many sounds, including: a mouse decoy, a dog biscuit rattle, a gong, a mosquito coil, an electric car engine, deer rut incense, a jar of curdling milk, outer space, mud, peanut butter on steel, tossed white bread and an old tire rolling. Seattle-based dancer Matt Drews focused his engagement towards Scott Burton’s Two-Part Chairs, Right Angle Version (a Pair) (1983–1987). Flanking the entrance of a building, Drews and another man framed the sculptures as a site of connection, while the performers’ bodies become active through both utilitarian and weight-bearing positions, referencing a sacred series of movements while appearing as individual and contemporary bodies soaked with personal knowledge and personal encounters. Adding to a further collaborative spirit in these acts, Seattle-based artist Dawn Cerny and Vancouver-based artist Colleen Brown paired up to offer a series of campy tour-guidelike excursions, heightened with props and costumes for improvisation by the artists and the audience. Mostly focused on the iconic male artists on the campus, Cerny and Brown poked at the seriousness with which Minimalism was embedded at its point of creation. Relaxing things to a conversational tone, away from the weighed histoires, they led the audience into a series of primary and personal encounters with works that allowed for a sincerely playful mode that earnestly reanimated the sculptures towards the transcendental experiences alluded to inside the gallery. Other situations enacted by the exhibition included curatorial gestures that collided the personal, social and spatial qualities of campus life and public sculpture. For instance, a picnic was hosted on Bruce Nauman’s Stadium Piece (1999), inviting us to sit on the wide, raised, staircase-like structure and commune, meeting the artist’s ambitions for the work to be a model or form for students to learn how to communicate and perform in larger environments.

Through Primary Research Lab the public sculpture collection at Western Washington University was imbued with moments of virtue around that notion of lost time. Time spent with art, time spent outside in the summer, time spent with friends and strangers who may become friends. Through these moments, the American Minimalist school was re-schooled, and perhaps deskilled a little, by the contemporary artists encountered through the project. This dose of the messy and more fragile ecologies of life, at the eclipse of capitalism that was 2016, revealed the longevity and evolving roles of this kind of work. This longevity is born thanks to the alchemy of time that the works are able to continue to create amongst groups and communities, newcomers, those from away, students, artists and the appreciatively curious. We may not have been millionaires by our bank accounts or pocket books, so those deals on phone plans and plane tickets may have been at the backs of our minds. But, amongst these works and these activities, we were made to feel like millionaires by our calendars and watches. And with that kind of shift in perception, the possible becomes visible.

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