Lisa Smolkin and Neil LaPierre: Belonging(s)
by Ryan Josey
Belonging(s) set out to address the mistuned relationship between belongings, as in physical possessions, and belonging, as in the feeling of being a part of something: a place, community or relationship. Fresh out of a three-year partnership, and with this review as some kind of shield, I chose to attend the exhibition and its program of performances as a kind of post-belonging self-care regime. If I attend the comedy shows and go shopping with Lisa Smolkin and Neil LaPierre, will I come away feeling a little more like I am a part of things? Like I belong?
Like its title, the exhibition functioned in many forms. An installation at the Khyber consisted of new photo and video works from each artist; a collaborative audio piece, which played overhead; and, a set of interviews with both Smolkin and LaPierre, conducted by Amy Lam and Jon McCurley of Life of A Craphead. The opening night featured stand-up comedy sets by Smolkin, LaPierre and Halifax-based writer-comedian Cheryl Hann; a site-specific performance by Smolkin was hosted at the Halifax Seaport Farmer’s Market; and a night of performances, “Best of Doored,” shared works Smolkin and LaPierre originally presented at Doored, a performance art and conceptual comedy show series organized by Life of A Craphead in Toronto.
Each performance was a poetic proposition. Hann was a younger version of herself; Smolkin was an emotionally available hostess at The Keg and a contestant on “Survivor: Empathy and Attachment Challenge;” LaPierre was a tyrannosaurus rex in love with a seagull; in another, he re-enacted his end days working at Sears, proposing that his superb in-store modelling abilities would save not only his job and back-to-school modelling prospects, but Sears and its (fictional) manager overlord Rob Ford from their respective, untimely demises. Each used the language of stand-up—costumes, props, voice acting and gesture—to propose the impossible and to invite in the audience. Comedy, here, is a premise for connection. The absurdity of the scenarios made way for metaphors about relatable contemporary situations, like working in retail or in the service industry, negotiating the pressure of media on self-image, or finding ourselves in queer or unconventional relationships. The point doesn’t seem to be to be funny or to make fun, so much as to be as honest as possible about the collision between the self and the world at the moment; to reveal through sincerity the absurdity already in the world around us.
This intention was underscored in a site-specific performance Smolkin hosted for self-identifying “highly sensitive people” at the Halifax Seaport Farmer’s Market. She explained that we were there to “feel each other’s sensitivity” and because she needed witnesses as she rebuilt herself on a cellular level. Smolkin then walked us over to a health food vendor and ordered a green smoothie and a salad. That was all. An ordinary interaction. A performance only in the sense that Smolkin had invited us as an audience and a support group. Later, sitting in the sun and Adirondack chairs on the market rooftop, Smolkin explained to the group that having witnesses to her everyday encounters was important to her. She talked with us about why she felt alright with making an unsuspecting service worker a subject in her work. Revealing that she too works in a health food store and that she had visited this particular vendor a few times prior to feel out how the interaction would go, she underlined the care and seriousness of her gesture. Rebuilding herself on a cellular level began to look much less like an abstract notion and conversely, all the apparatuses between her and the items that would allow her to do so suddenly seemed more intrusive.
Like the stand-up performances, the meet-up blurred the line between art and life. What is metaphor and what is real? And when should we laugh? In the elaborate act of bringing together a group of strangers to witness her purchase health food, Smolkin touched poignantly on the contrast between the promises contemporary consumerism makes of good health and belonging, and the actual difficulty we are collectively facing in finding social fulfilment in an increasingly networked world.
The titular work in Belonging(s) was a slideshow by LaPierre of an empty apartment and instructions on how visitors could request objects they would like to see Photoshopped into the images. As the exhibition progressed, the apartment filled with an increasingly impractical collection of objects. It made me think of the absurdity of trying to build a life with another person—let alone with any stranger who passed through the gallery. For me, it reflected how difficult it feels to construct spaces for love with the objects and systems in the world at the moment. It’s like trying to make queer utopia happen in a Landlord Beige two-bedroom. And while it didn’t look fit to live in, by the end of Belonging(s) it started to look familiar, like we might start to feel at home in the absurdity.