Scott Massey at the CAG

I certainly am glad I took the time to write about the Contemporary Art Gallery’s presentation of Guo Fengyi 2 weeks ago. The experience has not only connected me with some new acquaintances online who were interested in the artist, but it also challenged me to spend a bit of time with my thoughts about the work. I’ve had some great conversations while volunteering since then and am proud to have something thoughtful to talk about when people come in.

Thus inspired, I now endeavour to tell you about the Scott Massey windows & off-site exhibit currently being shown at the CAG and at the Yaletown Skytrain station (Canada Line). Hopefully, it will encourage you to visit both the gallery and to take a twilight walk through the city in search of stars.

Over the past few years, as I beef up my local knowledge of the art scene in Vancouver and learn more about the art world in general, I’ve surmised that it’s an uphill battle to be a photographer in Vancouver. The considerable historical politics aside, I can imagine that with every year and with every new camera (or device containing a camera) entering the market, someone unknown, inexperienced or untrained enters the scene claiming they have something relevant to say in an already bloated and competitive industry.

The “legitimate” photographer.

I am torn between two thoughts when considering the world of professional photography:

It is said that an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually bang out Hamlet, but I think one must look at the quantity and quality of those drafts to fully understand the value of the final work. Process *is* important. Therefore, I understand when photographers tell me that they are frustrated with the person who takes thousands of digital shots of the same thing without knowing for what they are looking & then picks the best of the bunch as their intended oeuvre. I can understand how this process (or lack thereof) would be frustrating to someone who has trained their eye.

However, I have seen work produced by artists wishing to explore automatism, question chance or examine the use of trance to reach within themselves to pull out something that is more thoughtful and complex than some pieces that have been mindfully planned. The lack of preparation and the may-the-strokes/lens-land-where-they-may (or where-they-are-destined-to-fall as the artist may believe) can be very freeing. It can also allow the artist to let their instincts take over which can sometimes be shackled by over-thinking.

I think there is room for both chance and meticulous meaning in the world of art. However, while “happy accidents” (a term that seems to either make people cheer or barf) do occur I have learned that they are easier to discover, produce, and manage the more training, practice, and work you do.

InstaHAMming it up.

There have always been those who call themselves amateur photographers, but in pre-digital times, those who had any claim to the title combined composition, concept, technique & style. I’ve always admitted that I am a crap photographer or, to be more accurate, that I am awful at taking photographs and do not consider myself a “photographer” at all. It’s only been through my recent use of instagram that I can even stand to look at my own snapshots, but I’m painfully aware that a filter does not a photographer make. The photos themselves are simply a way to archive a moment in time rather than to say anything meaningful (or to produce anything worth keeping around). Before digital, I refrained from using film because while I appreciated the value of “snapshots”, rarely did I take any photos worth keeping (damn my thumb on the lens). My photos are disposable in the simplest sense, and because of that, I embrace my digital camera as a neat tool for everyday life.

Scott Massey & his gift of the night sky.

I read a wonderful article written by Vancouver Is Awesome interviewing Scott Massey. In this article, he was asked about the difference between a documentary photograph and an artistic photograph, and I encourage you to read his response. I liked his position and it encouraged me to continue archiving my life by camera. That there can be a blend between art and archive. It was this article that made me want to read more about Scott Massey. I’m not saying that I now feel like my photographs have any more artistic merit, but he gave me a more inclusive and simultaneous broad way of looking at photography that I hadn’t considered.

Which is another reason to look into Scott Massey. Scott’s work often examines the natural and makes us consider it by accentuating it in artificial ways. He wants us to consider what’s around us, how we behave, what we see and so he slightly alters the familiar to make the change obvious but still recognizable. The more I look into Scott’s work, the more I like him. His work is like a gentle pull in a thematic direction vs a sharp smack to the face. This subtlety is appealing in a world where it sometimes feels like the message is used to beat us in the head, or vigorously shake us awake. Rather than the message being a tool or a weapon, I feel like his work is a gift. “Here.” says Scott, “I give you the gift of stars”.

Federico Herrero windows at the CAG
Scott Massey's Aurorae during the day.

If you’re coming by the gallery (and I hope you are), I encourage you to come by around dusk. Keep in mind that the gallery is only open until 6PM, but if you pop by around 5, once you’ve taken in Frances Stark & Guo Fengyi‘s exhibits indoors, you’ll be in time to see the outside windows by the low light of the setting sun. The window displays have been painted in a, at first glance, nondescript blue. During the day, the windows are rather plain, and passers-by don’t give them a second glance. It’s quite a change after 4+ months of Federico Herrero’s colourful displays. However, if you’re willing to make an appointment to visit the gallery at dusk or during the evening, you’ll be awarded with various auroras dancing along and inside of the alcoves of the CAG. The piece is called Aurorae and is achieved through the use of fluorescent and phosporescent paint. The paint memorizes the light it captures during the day and then produces an animated chemical light show in the style of the Northern Lights.

If you’re too early for the light show, you can walk a few blocks to Mainland & Davie street to the Yaletown skytrain station. In a combined effort between Translink and the Contemporary Art Gallery, Scott’s Via Lactea (above Glacier Lake) is displayed on the east facing wall of the Yaletown skytrain station (above ground). On opening night, Scott talked to the gallery employees and volunteers about his work. His original intention was to photograph the Milky Way (no small endeavour) and his process was this: He hiked out about a half hour, and set up his camera and his workspace for the night. He then hiked back to eat and prepare for his night shoot before heading back just as the light was leaving the sky. He needed to hike out to this remote location because he had found that even in the quietest town, light still polluted the horizon of his photographs. Once at his remote location, he then started to photograph the night sky on the same strip of film moving his camera inch by inch over the span of the night to capture as much of the sky as he could before dawn crept back into the world. I am pretty unfamiliar with the process used to print photographs, but as I understand it, when he took his work to be processed, he asked that they simply lift the negative and print the results. By happy accident (ugh), the digital print out produced this beautiful blue that resembles the sky during the day. And so, Scott gives us the night sky visible not only in the day, but also at night in the city where stars are not usually discernible to the naked eye.

Yaletown-Roundhouse Station.

Scott told us about this story he had read about Los Angeles from a few years back. It seems they had a black out that affected much of the city. Within hours, the electric companies’ switchboards were swamped with scared calls. Many of the panicked calls were not from citizens needing their power back, but rather those concerned with what had happened to the sky. All of a sudden, the hazy brown, grey and black sky to which they were so accustomed had become freckled with white dots and they were worried at what this pin pricked sky foretold. The fact was that there are generations of people living in landlocked megacities who have never had a clear look at a night sky free from light pollution. With this in mind, I am reminded that I am so fortunate to live in this tiny, beautiful city and still see the winter sky featuring Orion or Cassiopia right above me when I leave my front door. But walk 15 minutes into the downtown centre and they disappear, so I can imagine that even some Vancouver city lifers haven’t been treated to a regular star show. Whether Scott’s gift of stars gives locals a daily glimpse at the heavens or reminds them to step 15 minutes away from their tangle of concrete obstacles, I’m glad that the CAG is featuring his work. If what you see delights you, they have a copy of the Via Lactea print available for sale for $150. You can keep the BC night sky close at hand, no matter where your travels take you.

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