Participation Tension

LaTourelle’s installation is less inviting in an art gallery

ART by Gregory Beatty

photo by Darrol Hofmeister

Rodney LaTourelle: The Stepped Form
Mackenzie Gallery
Until April 24

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a popular saying. Since an art review typically runs between 800 and 1000 words, that puts a pretty strict limit on how much descriptive detail I can include. Still, I always like to provide readers with at least a vague mental picture of the art on display.

With Rodney LaTourelle’s installation, however, my challenge as a critic is even greater. Oh, I can describe its components well enough — but not the exact form. That’s because, as the exhibition progresses, gallery staff are supposed to periodically rearrange the different parts to create a new installation.

I’m not sure whether they do it according to directions set down by LaTourelle, or whether they create their own configurations in relation to the room where it’s located. But during the seven month duration of the exhibition the installation will likely change shape several times.

I saw The Stepped Form in mid-October. Then, the “steps” were stacked in an L pyramid-shape with three brightly-coloured handrails (pink, red and green) at the top.

Currently practicing in Berlin, LaTourelle is a Winnipeg-based artist and architect. He created The Stepped Form during a 2014 residency at the Alberta College of Art & Design’s Illingworth Kerr Gallery in Calgary. Designed in collaboration with ACAD students, it was installed in a 1970s-era “Main Mall” on campus.

Do a Google image search for “The Stepped Form” and you’ll see how it looked in Calgary. Situated in a “white cube-style” gallery staffed by security guards at the MacKenzie, LaTourelle’s installation doesn’t have the same visceral impact.

At ACAD, students can be seen sitting and socializing — and even drinking beer during the opening — on the art work’s tiered steps. When I approached The Stepped Form, conversely, I treated it strictly as an art work. Sure, I leaned in close in spots to study detail, but I scrupulously observed the cardinal commandment of gallery-going — DON’T TOUCH THE ART!

While I was doing so I noticed tiny wooden slivers and other debris on some of the steps. That caught me by surprise. But I chalked it up to the work having been recently rearranged, which had possibly jarred loose some gunk.

When I was examining the installation from a distance a few minutes later, a young girl came prancing into the room with her mom and joyfully climbed the steps to the top.

I didn’t automatically assume she’d violated the above-noted commandment. Certainly, there were no signs indicating you were permitted to touch the installation. But there were none expressly prohibiting it either as you sometimes see in a gallery.

A few minutes later, a couple came along with a young boy. Like the girl, he made a beeline for the installation, but his mother promptly reeled him in and told him he wasn’t to touch it.

I volunteered that I’d just seen a girl climb on it, but that I wasn’t sure it was allowed. A security guard happened by just then, so I asked him what the policy was. He said patrons were permitted to interact with the work, but that they weren’t actively promoting it to limit the toll exacted by people walking all over it in street shoes.

That’s fair enough, because The Stepped Form is first and foremost an art work. Formally, it recalls 1960s era Minimalism with an emphasis on geometric shapes, smooth surfaces and monochromatic palettes that celebrated formal elements such as size, shape, colour, texture and mass.

One of LaTourelle’s steps, for instance, has a wood grain finish, while others have acrylic surfaces — some with sparkly flecks embedded that distort light. The steps also vary in height and width, which expands the range of forms that can be created.

Compared to the ACAD exhibition, though, the work’s architectural character isn’t nearly as dynamic.

Nirvana for The Stepped Form in Regina would be the University of Regina’s Ad-Hum Building. Designed by Holliday-Scott and Paine, the award-winning modernist building opened in 1973, and features a central gathering place called “the pit” that employs a “stepped form” design.

Consistent with the prevailing counterculture ethos of the time, the form was intended to promote freedom of movement and flexibility for people (primarily young and reasonably vigorous university students) in how they interacted with each other and the space.

LaTourelle’s piece embodies that spirit in spades. I mean, just think of how many different installations you could create with the various pieces — each opening up new possibilities for us to engage with it.

These days, of course, the “prevailing” ethos isn’t quite so progressive. Now, the powers-that-be are much keener on social control and privileging private “property” over public space.

Consider The Stepped Form a throwback to a more idealistic time if you want — albeit one characterized by monumental architectural statements that too often pushed form at the expense of function. But I think the installation is more cutting edge than that.

Do a Google image search for “library/university/gallery” and “design” and you’ll see all sorts of innovative ways that contemporary architects are animating public spaces. So maybe there’s hope for us after all?

2016-02-18