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Wednesday, October 23, 2012






Critique and images by Tony Martins



Can art be cute?


For most, within reason, the answer is yes. Heck, the contemporary art world could well do with regular injections of humour.


But what if a large, solo exhibition/installation with dozens of intricately assembled elements rests almost exclusively on what seems like little more than a cute concept?


Arguably that’s what viewers are offered in Michèle Provost’s Rebranding Bytown, the whimsical-yet-elaborate faux museum gift shop that opened Tuesday, October 23 in the Bytown Museum’s upstairs gallery space. The show was curated by the Museum's Judith Parker.


Packaged with suitably splashy and colourful graphic design, this site-specific, conceptual exhibition features dozens of mocked up, hand-made items that parody the wares typically seen in conventional gift shops: coffee mugs, t-shirts, action figures, iron-on decals, and on and on. The difference here is that the items draw inspiration from the Museum’s collection of real artifacts. Included are, for instance, action figures representing real-life figures from Bytown history. You get the idea.


In fact, you get the idea immediately—and that’s the limitation. After the concept hits home, there’s really nothing more to be seen other than dozens of additional executions of the concept. Sure, those executions are cute, clever, inventive, well thought out, but still ultimately repetitive and thus unsatisfying.


Rebranding Bytown is the Museum's second Artist-in-Residence exhibition and clearly a large amount of research and painstaking work has gone into the project. Yet with so much emphasis on the irony and the cuteness, the exhibition fails to make any kind of substantial statement. We do not learn anything new about the history of Bytown (Ottawa’s initial name) and we get only a cursory look at the Museum’s collection, some of which is rendered historically inaccurate for artistic purposes.


Promotional copy for the exhibition states that the faux merchandise attempts to “examine the role that marketing and commerce play in the operation of a local cultural institution.” The specifics of this examination, however, are unclear. Is Provost critiquing an over-reliance on gift shop revenue? Is she warning of the dangers of reducing history to a line of packaged products? Does she view sales of, say, coffee mugs featuring famous historical figures as problematic? If I had to guess (and unfortunately I do), I’d say that on the whole, with it’s lighthearted and fun treatment, the exhibition seems to endorse the idea of museum content as inexpensive retail commodity. I’m sure that visitors will inquire about purchasing some of the clever merchandise. After all, who doesn’t want to own an affordable piece of history, be it real or rebranded?


Provost is highly regarded for her contemporary blend of craft and social and/or cultural commentary. While her technique is again impressive here, if Provost is commenting on what museums (and/or historians) do commercially from within a museum’s walls, her take is too sugary sweet to offer much artistic impact.


What kind of opportunity has she missed? Consider Pierre Brault’s widely successful one-man play Blood on the Moon, wherein the playwright/performer offers alternatives to distorted local history ordained by prevailing authorities in the case of Patrick Whalen, the Irish immigrant accused of murdering Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a father of Canadian confederation. Whalen’s assumed guilt and unfair trial cast significant historical and moral doubt on his conviction and subsequent hanging—adding life-and-death drama and layers of mercurial truth to a key chapter in Bytown history.


Consider also some of the work included in “Decolonize Me,” a group exhibition of six contemporary Aboriginal artists exhibited at the Ottawa Art Gallery in the fall of 2011. A photo series called Artifacts of Authenticity by Vancouver-based Sonny Assu questioned the authenticity of Northwest Coast art when presented in “white” environments. The photos showed traditional Kwakwaka’wakw masks in a museum, a commercial art gallery, and a gift shop, stirring up tension surrounding how we package and sell “authentic” heritage and history.


Clearly Provost was not hoping to foster a similar tension. Of course not all art should be heavy-duty and cuteness can be refreshing, but in the end Rebranding Bytown offers more evidence of Ottawa’s longstanding fine arts brand: usually too nice, too pretty, too comfortable.


Curator Judith Parker will offer her views on the exhibition during a free talk and tour held at the Museum on Sunday, November 4 at 1 p.m. Provost delivers an artist talk on Saturday, November 24, 1 p.m. at the Museum.