Today I was invited to visit an artist, and a student, who has just finished her summer residency at Camosun College. Her name is Sarah Stein. Her work, created over the course of the last 3 months in Camosun’s sculpture studio, has been available for viewing, as they say, for the past 3 days. Tonight is the official celebration party, an opening and closing all in one. Later, in October, a part or parts of the whole will be reinstalled in the school’s library.
Although it seems most vile to write about the machinations of the artistically studious variety, it appears that Sarah Stein has something special about her. She is interesting to certain people in Victoria who consider themselves to be in the know. The invitation to see her work did not come from Sarah herself, but from a rather well known personality in the art scene, a personality who seems to harbour an artful snobbery in regards to the makers of art. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the makers of art that this individual considers to be beneath contempt, unworthy of attention, and utterly despicable. Sarah Stein appears to be none of these things.
In all fairness, I would never, in a million years ever write that Sarah’s work was beneath contempt, unworthy of attention or utterly despicable, even, if, indeed, it was. No, no. What I will say is that I’ve seen very similar looking work created by other artists. There was a strong sense of the familiar about the installation, but that is not uncommon, I think, especially among students who are generally in the process of learning, exploring, testing, pushing, and reworking. And, although the conceptual angle seemed to swirl around some particularly typical concerns, (love & loss, surrender & control) I was struck by a certain complex and alluring thoughtfulness, especially in relation to a series of ready made cardboard houses.
My physical experience, in brief, was that, on entering the dimly lit gallery space the first object in view was a small glowing tv sitting on a chair (possibly the tv could have been a different size and perhaps the chair could have been more or less domestic, who knows?). A little ways away was a paper rainbow road leading to and continuing around the corner of a wall. By following the road, I found a well-ordered and perfectly uniform neighbourhood of cardboard houses, in miniature. By turning the corner, I passed in front of a sensor, which activated a double, outdoor, security- style light fixture. This in turn activated a digi-cam duct taped to the wall, at which point, the image of the neighbourhood could be seen on that small glowing tv, but the neighbourhood and the tv could not be viewed at the same time by the same person.
Essentially, the neighbourhood does not exist unless it is under scrutiny via security cameras, lights and tv’s. Otherwise, it sits quietly in its little alcove, in the dark, unvisited and unknown. It suggests all kinds of ideas about the secret lives of people living in the neat, conformity driven suburbs that our friends the developers are always building for us. Yes, everyone has a pink house and a lawn and a single flowering plum tree, but are we all the same inside? Can we, the people, be made as neat and tidy as a freshly seeded, freshly paved housing development?
And what is the role of tv? Tv for watching, and for watching the people. The dream of security is keeping everything neat and tidy just like a brand new subdivision where all the blackberries and the little stands of woods and the bushy ditches have been plowed away. If everyone is watched, if all the action is lighted up, if all the confusion is cleared away, then everyone will be accountable, everyone will think twice, everyone will behave. But not inside of the houses. Security hasn’t found its way in there yet. The secrets are still there, in there. Except that the tvs are in there too. The dual purpose of tv; to watch and to watch. But also to subdue and to control. People who are busy sitting and watching the glowing tv are neat and tidy, they are in one place. Subversions and diversions don’t come from them, they don’t create entertainment; they are entertained. They are disempowered and sitting in front of the tv, watching. As long as no one really cares what happens in the houses, the people don’t really need to be watched at all. They are under control.
It’s funny that I started off this post, thinking not so much about Sarah’s work, as about Sarah’s burgeoning success as a young artist. Many years ago, I read a book about women in arts, I think it was called Mistress, and I will never forget reading in that book a theory about the ways in which women are awarded success in the arts. The theory stated that women most adept at being easily guided, taught and controlled were most likely to be encouraged by teachers and other people in positions of authority. In other words, talent and brilliance and vision in women was not as important in the arts as a woman’s malleability. I have seen evidence of this in my own roamings, although I won’t, for the sake of tact, name any names, and so I must admit that I went to see this young woman’s work, this student’s work, with some suspicion, a feeling which deepened immeasurably when I saw that a small poster advertising her show featured, not an image of her art work, but a photograph of her pretty face.
After some consideration, however, I have come to the conclusion that the near thoughtless fawning of self-appointed authority over someone young and sweet-tempered should not be a hindrance to my enjoyment of the careful talent on display. Nor should it turn me away from encouraging another woman to stay an ambitious path. I think, though, that self -appointed authority will reward and encourage any moderately capable girl with talent and intelligence just as long as she smiles sweetly and keeps her mouth relatively silent. So my advice is: Be careful of the approval. I suspect it could become sticky like a trap. Women and art need freedom to thrive. So stay free.