At Centre A until February 17
Germaine Koh knows how to nail the site —both gallery and neighbourhood—in which she places her art. As I was riding the Hastings Street bus the other day, a binner got onboard carrying two plastic garbage bags filled with bottles and cans. His face was creased, his hands were blackened, and his clothes were dirty and tattered. We disembarked at the same Downtown Eastside stop, I on my way to Centre A and he to the United We Can bottle depot up the street. The moment I stepped onto the sidewalk, an old woman scuttled up to me. “Spare some change, miss?”
Koh’s installation, Overflow, consists of thousands of glass bottles and jars standing in neighbourly groups across the wide concrete floor of the gallery. While many passersby stop and stare at the work through Centre A’s big windows, it is possible to walk into it, following subtle pathways through and around the crowds of green, brown, blue, frosted, and clear vessels. (Koh rearranges the bottles every few days.) Such a walk is both delightful and sobering.
As artisans have known for centuries, glass is an uncomplicatedly beautiful material, its relationship to sunlight a marvel. But the beer, wine, pop, and water bottles amassed here, some of them shapely and decorative, many of them humorously anthropomorphic, represent much more than a pleasing optical experience. They are a form of currency. They are also markers of the social, economic, and political conditions of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where Centre A is located. As Koh points out in her artist’s statement, the bottles signify, among other things, the street-level economy of binning and its relationship to poverty, homelessness, marginalization, alcoholism, and drug addiction, in contrast to property development, gentrification, and our city’s voracious real-estate market.
Given that the bottles used in this installation cannot actually be redeemed for a deposit (they’ve all been disqualified for one reason or another, including defects and foreign origin), they also suggest our society’s continuing pattern of overconsumption and waste, a pattern that any binner in any neighbourhood of Vancouver can attest to.
In gathering bottles for Overflow, Koh worked closely with people at United We Can, forging a close relationship with a significant presence in the community. She also cleaned and sorted the bottles and removed their labels, amplifying both the ordinariness of her materials and the labour-intensiveness of the initial part of her project. The second part—the installation to which we are witness—is as eloquent as any Koh has produced.