Ian Johnston: Transnational Absolute
At the Surrey Art Gallery until June 21
Let’s say you’re walking along the carpeted corridor towards the TechLab at the Surrey Art Gallery. And let’s say, too, that you suddenly hear chiming sounds reminiscent of Asian temple bells. Enter the TechLab, however, and the sounds stop as mysteriously as they began. You are now immersed in a kind of show room whose brightly lit white walls are mounted with tidy lines of white shelves, themselves surmounted by rows of identical, celadon-glazed porcelain bowls. All but five of the 50 bowls are accompanied by small electronic devices, and you reason that the devices are designed to tap the bowls, producing the reverberating notes. You suspect, too, that your movement triggered the initial sounds, but as you move around within the TechLab, you’re thwarted in your attempts to re-create them. There’s a tension-inducing disjunction here between cause and effect.
Machine for Singing is one of two impressive installations by Nelson artist Ian Johnston, on view at the SAG. Originally trained as an architect, Johnston has been working as a sculptor since the mid-1990s, with a focus on ceramics. His art reflects both his architectural background and the far-flung residencies he’s undertaken, in Europe and especially China.
Based on the shape and colour of porcelain bowls from the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279), Johnston’s multiple singing vessels call up a number of contemporary concerns. These include the vaunted ideal of “authenticity” that operates in both the art world and the world of high-end consumerism, and the corresponding production of antique and designer fakes, especially in Asia, where labour continues to be oppressively cheap. Peer into the bowls and you’ll notice that each is decorated with images of handmade brooms. These ubiquitous low-tech tools stand in stark contrast to China’s emergence as a leading industrial power and high-tech manufacturer.
The theme of mass production carries over into Swimming Upstream in the Comfort of: Homage to Yves Klein. Despite its awkward title and positioning (behind the exhibition of Robert Davidson prints on loan to the SAG from the Vancouver Art Gallery), this is a powerful installation. It consists of some 80 altered vinyl bumper covers, salvaged from auto junkyards and mounted in a series of lines or strata across a huge, high wall. Both the wall and the objects on it are painted an intense, matte blue, creating a deeply absorbing viewing experience.
Known as International Klein Blue (or IKB), the pigment was developed in the 1950s by French proto-conceptual artist Yves Klein. The colour is most often associated with Klein’s monochrome paintings and a famous performance in which he dragged naked, IKB—slathered women across a canvas-draped floor. Johnston’s reference, however, is to Klein’s 1960 performance photograph Leap Into the Void.
The “void” here is the deep, dark, vast ocean and the altered bumper forms are strongly suggestive of sea animals—of schools of fish or pods of whales or sea lions—swimming steadily past us. Here, Johnston relates mass production, overconsumption, and stupendous waste to the pollution of our precious oceans. The timing of this exhibition could not have been more poignant or more prescient. The BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico—all that murderous oil in the service of all our cars and trucks—reminds us that our oceans are not voids at all. They are finite and they are dying.