Gardiner’s reliquaries will seal your trauma for art and meaning

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Christopher Campbell Gardiner: Riddance
Dunlop Gallery: Sherwood Branch
Until June 7

Usually when artists exhibit, they display a finished product. Christopher Campbell Gardiner’s show Riddance, though, is a work in progress. Not only is he busy in the gallery each day, he’s also inviting the public to contribute by submitting letters which he will insert in a container he’s making.

Gardiner intends to seal the container around May 20, and a reception is planned for June 3. To learn more, I visited him at the gallery.

You’ve worked with containers for some time. What was the origin of your process?

The first one was a painting I made for my grandfather in art school. Until then, I was just making art, experimenting and playing around with materials. But my grandfather passed away before he could see the painting. That caused me a great deal of anxiety, so I decided if he couldn’t see it I would cover it.

I’ve spent the 20 years since then covering everything else I’d made. I was 22 at the time, so didn’t have a massive body of work. But I didn’t just stop at art, I also included journals and sketchbooks — so anything I’d made or concentrated my efforts on. Then when I ran out of things of my own to conceal, I noticed that things from regular life were causing me anxiety — like grant rejections, financial problems, and just anxieties out in the world. So it turned into a general collection project.

Is it a cleanse, or catharsis for you?

It’s a meditation on an effort to find a golden lining where you take even the hardest news or hardship you receive and turn it into a treasure. It might seem unnecessary to some, but I’ve seen the benefits of saying, “What is the conflict? Why is there a conflict?” Then through that process I better understand the situation and myself.

I saw a lecture once by an artist named Tim Whiten who does things like cover human skulls in leather. He spoke about the idea of revealing by concealing. Do you see your work the same way?

I absolutely believe that by concealing something it creates a rich interior meaning. I have my own take on how this works, but I’ve also seen people observing my art, and in a perfect reading they’re not interested in what I’ve put in there, they’ve inserted something that represents their own sense of anxiety.

While you’re using the same process, Riddance does represent a departure for you?

This is one of the first projects where I’ve decided not to work with my own anxieties. I know Saskatchewan is a place of high anxiety now with government cutbacks and other things in the news. I was curious to see if the public would feel there were necessary rituals that would help us rid ourselves of stress.

So you’ve invited people to submit letters about anxieties they have?

I want them to be handwritten. It could be one sentence, it could be five pages, that they then seal in an envelope with their initials on it — so there’s anonymity to it when it’s in the box.

I don’t think I can cure their problems. In fact, it might do the opposite by opening a can of worms for things they weren’t ready to explore. But I’m hopeful there’s symbolic [value] in the opportunity to rid oneself of even the smallest of worries.

What thought process goes into the containers you build?

I don’t want the scale of the final product and the contents to speak to each other. In fact, I want the thing that’s inside to no longer be. Often, the materials have symbolic value. For a piece I made in 2000 for a friend who passed of cancer, I used wood from a BMX ramp we’d made together. Then I took a blanket and used it as fabric to wrap the box. I hand-stitch with thread, and finish the objects in paint. Although it’s a nice surprise if it has aesthetic value, my main reason is I want to seal the object inside so it’s air tight.

Our culture focuses a lot these days on surface appeal. Your objects have attractive surfaces, but it’s also the idea of going beneath the surface?

I love breaking the stereotype of what people see. When they walk in, they think it’s Minimalism. And it looks a lot like it, because it borrows from it. It needs that, I think, to be inside an art [framework]. But underneath the formal surface is a rich philosophical place. We read things so fast these days. These works, they ask that you read slow.

They also demand that you work slow?

After this one, I won’t be making any more. My end game is to finalize these in one final containment. It’s based on a Japanese tradition where people have such reverence for items in their home that they erect a treasure house where they keep them. Once a year they open the house and bring all the items out and invite everyone to a tea party. Then at the end of the day everything goes back in. I want to do the same thing, where I would have a 365-day exhibition cycle, with only one day where the pieces would be brought out for the public to look at. I’m self-aggrandizing, but that’s how I imagine it.

I also have a project planned where I’d travel with a documentary film crew, and maybe a lawyer, where I’d arrange an exhibition through the Canadian government, so that I’d gone through all the right channels to make it permissible, then try to transport these works across the border. There’s lead lining, so they can’t be x-rayed. And I don’t declare the contents, and I won’t. So I’d definitely have trouble. ❧