A Balanced Diet: Considering Contemporary Art in Kingston

“A steady diet of masterpieces makes you fat and gives you gout,” art critic Peter Schjeldahl once said. Anyone seriously interested in art, Schjeldhal argues, must enjoy a healthy balance of both masterpieces and that much larger “quantity of barely passable art.”

I can’t lie: too often the barely passable stuff feels like a steady diet of bland, enervating broth.

Taking a cue from Schjeldahl, however, I recently set out optimistically to balance my artistic diet during Kingston’s annual artignite festival. I specifically wanted to see Chantal Rousseau’s “Animated Gifs” – part of festival’s “curated centerpiece” Allumage.  I like the premise behind Rousseau’s work: painstakingly rendered sketches of internet ephemera animated into “gifs.” Gifs (as the 2012 presidential election proved) are timely, part of contemporary popular culture and maybe even part of the collective unconscious. I was curious to see what an artist would do with images meant for “quick consumption, easy sharing and simple messages.” And I was hopeful: gifs– like good art – often question or parody the very circumstances they represent.

Artignite - Rousseau

Their public context also intrigued me: Rousseau’s gifs appear in various downtown locations – on tablets and screens in store-front windows. Done right, art in public places is contemporary art’s greatest triumph – it surprises, confronts and hopefully even delights its viewers (remember X-Curated’s work in Kingston in 2012?) Done poorly, however, art in public spaces simply goes unnoticed.

Artignite - Rousseau2

What we learn from bad art, Schjeldahl argues, is where it breaks. And Rousseau’s presentation has some serious cracks. At Novel Idea – which displays three of Rousseau’s gifs on retro TV screens — one of the screens quite embarrassingly (and not, I’m guessing again, intentionally) displayed nothing. The tablets outside of Modern Fuel were indistinguishable, and even the clerk at the Screening Room couldn’t help me find its gif.

Artignite 2

Is it petty to bemoan these (technical? curatorial?) failures? I don’t think so.

Contemporary art like Rousseau’s exists to communicate an idea. As artignite’s website suggests, it’s about building an audience in public spaces:

Using light as a theme, Allumage introduces Kingston-based artists to a broader public, encouraging community through shared participation in a celebration of contemporary art in non-traditional spaces […]

Each artist and group contributing work to the Allumage project use their art as a critical fulcrum point to open a space that illuminates new perspectives and approaches to everyday life. Many of them use light as a medium that literally enacts this illumination.

Rousseau’s audience isn’t likely to participate in (or even notice) her work if its medium fails. It’s ironic, and frustrating, then, that her images are – mostly – dark.

Artignite- Rousseau2

While on my artignite pilgrimage, I stopped at Modern Fuel Artist Run Centre to see TH&B’s “Resurrection” – and discovered the antithesis of “Animated Gifs.” In the showpiece for the exhibition, we see a powerline, folded and bent like a supplicant, reminiscent of power lines sagging under the weight of ice during the so-called Great Ice Storm of 1998.

TH&B - Resurrection

Perhaps even more than gifs, power lines belong to our collective consciousness. They are, as Alain de Botton writes, “as commonplace and forgettable as a pebble or a cloud,” and recall the “mysteries typical of landscapes mottled with mute industrial objects.” The power line is a puzzling, powerful (pun intended) reminder of commonplace networks that connect communities and make contemporary living possible.

TH&B - 2

Where Rousseau’s gifs fail, TH&B’s piece succeeds, reflecting the aesthetic side of commonplace technologies. Their powerline pylon is sculptural, foreboding, and exciting. Stepping inside it feels both transgressive and intimate. Across the room a film projects a film of TH&B assembling a paper pylon in an open field, alluding to nature’s sublimity, and industry’s fragility. In other words, “Resurrection” is a strong conduit (pun, again, intended) for the artist’s ideas, and make participation in that idea possible.


Work like “Resurrection” buoys my optimism about the state of contemporary art in Kingston. I know that not all work can be–neither should it be– masterpieces, but there is still a great deal of very good work happening here. To have a robust contemporary arts scene means, as Schjeldhal suggested, putting up with the barely passable stuff so that the very good stuff can surprise and delight you. I’m hopeful for more of the latter.

Visit Chantal Rousseau’s website to see her gifs. “Resurrection” runs until February 23rd at Modern Fuel in Kingston, Ontario.


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