Wenbo Wang, 4th-year art history and philosophy student, social media assistant for the Department of Art History.
Take your time, fill the space — Gallery Arcturus
Each piece of art is unique, depicting a particular quality, gesture, colour palette, theme of inquiry or object of attention. The placement of an art work within a space determines how the viewer will approach it, coming upon it from a distance or happening on it up close. The space surrounding may echo something expressed in the art, it may amplify a sense of depth and perspective. A painting may require the protection of a corner, or an expanse of emptiness. It may want the companionship of like-minded others, different artists who have touched upon a similar expression or view. What is the relationship between the objects and/or other art pieces that occupy the space? Their relationship will determine how they are seen. The space gives breath and movement to those relationships.”
—A brochure provided by Gallery Arcturus
We are used to galleries that display their artwork in a rigid format: against a simple background with decent lighting, and all paintings are perfectly aligned and placed at eye level. It is taken for granted that a gallery is just a container for its artworks. But can the space within a gallery itself be an artwork? Gallery Arcturus explores this question by performing an experiment regarding art, space and their relation with the viewers.
I discovered this gallery by stumbling upon its website. The homepage immediately intrigued me as it resembles a collage, so I decided to have a visit. It took me some time to find the gallery. It is located in between shops and restaurants, if you are passing by it, you might probably mistake it for a private house. The architecture has more than 50 years of history and was designed as an office building at first, so it looks just like any other vintage building in downtown Toronto. Standing in front of the entrance, I noticed that it does not have a glass facade like in many other galleries. “What does it have?” I wondered. It had already created some ambiguity even before the visit.
I rang the bell and was let in. The gallery space confused me as soon as I stepped in. The paintings were not the first thing I noticed, that they were shown in a way as if they were not the purpose of the gallery. My attention was instead drawn to everywhere—the staircase on my right, the ceiling, the chairs. After chatting with the gallery director Ed Drass for a bit, the display started to make sense to me. He told me that the space there was meant to be complex to the point where people can easily get lost in it, and the tour of viewing art was also an exploration of the space. The artworks displayed were not autonomous: hanging new pieces also required the rearranging of everything within the space, and such change invited new ways of seeing.
The lobby is divided into several segments by screens. Within each segment, a couch or a chair is placed in front of or beside the paintings, and some books are within reach. There are also some ornaments such as plants and figurines, echoing the paintings. The space is fully occupied. I sat down and took some time to look at the paintings and their surroundings. A few minutes later I started to feel a sense of being “within” this space, as the outside world seemed to be more and more distant.
Walking down a narrow corridor (which is filled with paintings, ornaments and sculptures) I arrived at the Ascending Gallery. By ‘ascending’ it means a spiral staircase. The first things I noticed were some origami birds and feathers hanging from above, my eyes were drawn by their lead all the way towards the ceiling where I saw the sky through a skylight window. Luckily it was a sunny afternoon, so the scene of paper birds against a perfectly blue sky was just not unlike nature photography.>While I was lowering my head back down, a painting of a bird caught my eye, which was brought to life by the gentle swaying of the paper birds in front of it. From where I stood, I could get a glimpse of the paintings on the wall, but the staircase blocked my view, so I started to walk up the stairs. As I was ascending, the paintings beside me changed from those of the primitive—wolves, birds, beasts in bright colours and bold brushstrokes—to those of the humanistic. From there we might want to depart from our engagement with nature and start to come back to ourselves, to our emotions and meditations.
The second floor offers more uncertainty and diversity. At one moment I found myself in a meditation room, the next I stumbled into an artist’s studio. There was a room which didn’t seem to immediately reveal itself—the Dark Room. Contrasting with the spaces outside, it is relatively empty, only with two paintings on the walls and a couch in the corner. I closed the door and the darkness instantly took over the place, the painting under the light started to seem especially striking. I could feel that my heart was racing, but I was not sure if it was because of the darkness or the anxiety induced by the painting. Those twisted, disturbingly bizarre figures, which reminded me of those in Picasso’s paintings, present themselves to me in an aggressive manner as if they were penetrating through the darkness and silence: they were screaming. I didn’t stay in the Dark Room for too long, since the space there was upsetting me.
While writing this review, I was aware that my words were not able to accurately represent my experience, for the sensation of engaging the space is almost indescribable. Perhaps we can think of the sensations we feel when we go back to the place we grew up in: no matter how things change, the space itself seems to carry some specific messages; it is influencing us as if it is alive. The spatial arrangements in Gallery Arcturus bring together artworks, viewers and space. During my visit, I was conscious of the fact that the space around me had shaped how I viewed the artworks, and for the first time I became actually aware that artworks are never isolated from their space. Such awareness also reminded me that maybe the element of space in gallery setting has been overlooked for too long.
Inside Gallery Arcturus the space is not a vacuum, but rather a medium through which artworks and viewers can communicate. Or perhaps I should say that the space itself is speaking to its visitors: each section has its own mood, waiting to express itself such that the theme of the collection displayed within it can be grasped immediately upon entering. It is active, in a way of echoing something expressed in art, and our internal response to art. To me this gallery is not for simply viewing the artworks, but rather it is a place for meditation, or a temporary escape from our current surroundings. The director told me that many people find it hard to return, and it got me thinking for some time, trying to think of the reasons—maybe it’s because it is too far away from our reality, or maybe it’s because we are not used to the overwhelming presence of space, the element that is often neglected. But I will make a return trip to spend a whole day being within its enchanting space.
80 Gerrard St E, Toronto, ON