The motion studies of early photographer Eadweard Muybridge walk the fine line between scientific documentation and artistic exploration—a line Vancouver-based artist Adad Hannah happily navigates in his series of photographs being exhibited as part of the 2016 Capture Photography Festival.
The festival, returning for its third year, will celebrate lens-based art throughout Vancouver during the month of April. In addition to hosting more than 50 gallery exhibitions as well as a series of themed panel discussions, Capture seeks to create a dialogue about the photographic medium by showcasing four major public-art installations. Following eye-opening discussions with the creative minds behind these works, the Straight takes a close look at each exhibit, including Hannah’s playfully artful study of polka dots.
Constructing photographic truths on the Canada Line
Installed at nine Canada Line stations in Vancouver and Richmond, the first is a series of works that speaks to the theme Lying Stills: Constructing Truth With Photography. (Stations along the line housed work in Capture’s 2015 festival as well.) The images are meant to prompt questions about narrative construction, photographic manipulation (both in camera and in postproduction), and the conscious stylistic choices that a photographer makes when creating a photograph.
Hannah’s piece, titled An Arrangement (Polka Dot Case Study) 1, 2, 5, is displayed on the exterior of the Vancouver City Centre Canada Line station at Granville and Georgia. Hurried passersby may not see past the turquoise ceramic bowls suspended among a busy pattern of polka dots, but a closer look will reveal that the ceramics—constructed by Hannah himself in the Egyptian-paste style—are being held up by a contortionist hidden within the monochromatic pattern.
“I wanted to play with the idea of truth, to create something that sort of floats in this strange space between real life and a representation of that life,” Hannah says in an interview with the Straight at a coffee shop across the street from his installation.
Hannah says his fascination with Muybridge—the subject of his Ph.D. thesis—stems from a curiosity about where the pioneering photographer’s greater interest lay: in science or in art.
Like Muybridge’s work, Hannah’s photographs focus on the raw elements contained within the frame of the image—nothing more, and nothing less. “These pictures, more than anything I’ve done, don’t have a narrative,” Hannah says. Unlike his past works—tableaux vivants that inspire a thousand story lines—Hannah says his new pieces are much more literal. “Humans have this narrative drive, which means that anything we see, we try and make sense of by creating a story around it.” With these images, Hannah says, creating a narrative is difficult.
“That’s what I like about it—it becomes more about the visual, which makes you think about the medium, and what makes a photograph.”
Modernism, photography, and the Dal Grauer Substation
Over on Burrard Street, the historic Dal Grauer Substation will once again be embellished with photographic art as part of Capture—this year by photographer Stephen Waddell. The landmark building, a 1954 collaboration between architect Ned Pratt and artist B.C. Binning, has long been considered a great early work of Vancouver’s modern movement.
In his diptych, which sees two vertical images displayed on either side of the front face of the building, Waddell raises questions about the very medium of art. In The Collector, viewers will observe a man with his back to the camera, toting a collection of sculptures through a public plaza. In Showroom, a life-size statue is turned to face the corner of a marble showroom.
“I see this as a conversation about both the transiting and display of artworks: who moves them, who looks at them, and how we look at them,” Waddell says at his East Van studio.
For Waddell, the plastering of his work onto the surface of this particular building stirs up questions of whether or not the philosophies of modernism would agree with photo-based public art at all.
“The architecture is contingent upon ideas dealing with modernism that circulated in the 1950s, and whether or not we see it as a success or failure, it’s a language that never invited photography,” Waddell says. “It invited flat colour, abstraction, ambiguity, but never photography in that neorealist way.” The challenge, Waddell says, was bringing the two ideas together.
“I thought, ‘How could it be awkwardized and made possible?’ I think that what I’ve done is a bit of an imposition.”
Lonsdale Quay’s Viewpoint container installation
Artists Erin Siddall and Sean Arden are excited to see their project Burrard Inlet Big Camera installed at the docks at Lonsdale Quay over two years after they were invited to participate in the collaborative work, which has come to be known as Viewpoint.
Curated by Cate Rimmer, the piece located at the North Vancouver port is constructed out of two shipping containers. Siddall and Arden’s work turns the top unit into a camera obscura—a device crucial to the early development of the camera—that will project a live view of Burrard Inlet onto an interior wall of the structure.
During a phone call, Arden, who has spent more than 12 years researching stereoscopic 3-D communication techniques and their applications in art, tells the Straight that the camera obscura will be constructed using a periscope to project light down from above the structure.
“Traditionally, in camera obscuras, you can change the view. This one is fixed, but it uses the same sort of idea,” Arden says. “It’s like a mirrored periscope.” The device will use a lens that Arden has electronically modified to mimic the tilting and shifting movements that a large-format camera makes.
Siddall says the work causes viewers to focus intently not on what they are seeing, but on how they are seeing it.
“When you’re giving yourself the time to adjust to an image and waiting for your eyes to change, you’re thinking about how your eyes are adjusting,” she says. “It’s not like a screen or a photograph that’s lit—it’s indiscernible at first and becomes more discernible.”
She describes the visual process as meditative and contemplative, and one that lends itself to thoughts of ongoing redevelopment, the gentrification of the waterfront, and the area’s constantly shifting industrial landscape.
The second half of Viewpoint, a film by Ryan McKenna, speaks precisely to that history. Beneath Arden and Siddall’s work, the second container will be turned into a viewing gallery for Vision in 1792, a film that takes a close look at what Burrard Inlet might have looked like at the time of George Vancouver’s arrival.
“I was looking at colonialism, but I wanted to look at it through a different lens,” says McKenna during a phone interview with the Straight.
He describes the film as his idea of what a Coast Salish shaman might have foreseen while watching Vancouver’s ships approach the Squamish Nation. Following the arrival of the newcomers, the shaman envisions longhouses being built, and sings a coming-into-the-house song.
McKenna says his Scottish and First Nation heritage means he “lives in both worlds”, teaching in the city and travelling home for hunting and cultural events with his family in Canoe Creek in the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, near Williams Lake.
“I’m doing my best to share the culture with people, and give them a chance to reflect on something without having a negative opinion attached to it,” says McKenna.
Photography, housing, and Hot Properties
For the fourth public installation, Jim Breukelman’s images of Vancouver’s pristinely kept ’30s- and ’40s-built homes will be displayed on 10 Pattison billboards throughout the city. Curator Meredith Preuss says the images, collectively titled Hot Properties, draw attention to the “parallel sociocultural moments” associated with the redevelopment of Vancouver after Expo 86 and what’s occurring in our current, post-Olympic climate.
“When he was taking these photographs after Expo, we were in a similar era where the pace of development really accelerated in an unprecedented way,” Preuss says in a telephone interview with the Straight.
The bungalows in Breukelman’s depictions are immaculately cared for, some with white picket fences and most with perfectly manicured lawns and gardens. When they’re compared to the shoebox-sized condos and cramped dwellings of today, it becomes clear that our definition of the word home has changed drastically. “There are cycles that exist within redevelopment, a sort of tradeoff,” says Preuss. “It forces people to think about homes in a way that is more fundamental than what the current conversation allows for.”
Curating an exhibit that reflects such a contentious issue in the city was no mistake—Preuss says that part of the reason she chose the work is that the subject is on viewers’ minds.
“We look for work that is critically engaged and is also accessible on a number of levels,” she explains. “Public artwork, as least as far as what Capture does, is about embracing the publicness of it, and what the audience might be thinking.”
The Capture Photography Festival launches on Friday (April 1) at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre. All works will be completed by Saturday (April 2), with the exception of the Canada Line installation at the Yaletown-Roundhouse station on April 15.