“First We Take the Museum”

Long-time design collaborators Rodney LaTourelle and Louise Witthöft have made a practice of working with colour and light. From the colour strategy they employed for the interior corridors at PlugIn ICA in Winnipeg, to the interactive art installation at the Halifax Central Library, the team uses colour to provoke new forms of interaction within public space.

Colour is a sensory perception, and as such, its effects are symbolic, associative, synesthetic and often emotional. Perceptually, each of us as animals registers a unique range of colour—and just as we do not register the same range as, say, an insect, language can also have a variously received impact upon our perception. The British statesman who served four terms as prime minister of Great Britain, William Gladstone, hypothesized that the ancient Greeks were incapable of seeing the colour “blue” since the world for them was registered by a series of contrasts—lights, darks and reds—hence Homer’s “wine-dark sea.” Gladstone, as David Scott Kastan suggests in On Color (Yale University Press, 2018), was not correct in his assertions, but his observations were interesting to consider. “It wasn’t the Greeks’ physiologically undeveloped color vision that explained what Gladstone found in his reading of Homer but a culture that had little use for abstract color words— particularly for ‘blue.’” Here, they would opt to describe luminosity rather than hue. Additionally, Kastan points out, the Hungarian language has two words for red— piros and vörös. Vörös is thought to be “darker” than piros. Kastan suggests that “the words mark not a difference of color itself but rather [registers] a difference in the feeling the color provokes.” In this way, “[vörös] darkness is as much conceptual as it is chromatic.” This variability suggests that perceptual experience of colour is as much determined by our own minds as it is by the things in view. It points to a sort of “in-betweenness,” animating a bridge between our inner minds and the external world. Colour, in its elusivity, registers a relational fluidity, which runs as a subcurrent through all of LaTourelle and Witthöft’s work.

Installation view, “First We Take the Museum,” 2019, The Rooms, St. John’s, NL.

“First We Take the Museum” is the first of a series of LaTourelle and Witthöft’s travelling exhibitions that examine the interstices between art and architecture, using common architectural typologies, colour and experience to probe the nature of public and institutional space. The constructed environment—which the artists erected in the middle of the gallery setting—shifts focus from the works as art objects to the sensory experience of the work itself. By framing the “collective” rather than the “collection,” large institutionalized spaces are reimagined and reinterpreted.

Built initially for The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the installation will adapt and change with each ensuing iteration. Arriving on the streets of St. John’s, I had the pervasive impression of a city steeped in history. Two hundred and fifty years older than Halifax, St. John’s was a seaport when New York was little more than a swamp. A “room,” in fact, is a common vernacular term in Newfoundland for the wooden sheds fishermen use for storing their gear. These fishing “stages,” as they are known, still perch on the cliff overhanging St. John’s harbour. Their scale, in relation to many of the contemporary buildings that have been built around them, is modest.

LaTourelle and Witthöft mimic the scale of these fishing stages for their wall and screen constructions. The artists used a standard construction element, a 2 x 6, to erect two exposed stud walls painted in bright blue and pink. A reflective material along the stud’s edges catches and reflects colour, light and glimpses of the participant’s own image into the surrounding space. The walls reference the temporary display walls often erected for an exhibition. One of the stud walls extends to the gallery’s own structural beam, thereby inserting itself seamlessly into the architecture of the space. The third construction, more a screen than a wall, uses the same regular construction element, a 2 x 6 in painted aluminium and Plexiglas, which the artists arranged, slightly askew, in a regular repeating pattern. Here, the colours are vibrant and varied like an abstract painting being pulled apart and made concrete.

LaTourelle and Witthöft’s constructions deconstruct the very nature of art as object. The installation is inviting; we embrace a sense of playfulness, like a child first encountering one of the well designed toys of architects Charles and Ray Eames, in an absorbed and unselfconscious manner. The colour combinations create spatial configurations that animate the space and elucidate the imagination. Is this pink wall higher than the blue? Are the boards closer than they appear? Play is active—it elicits spontaneity and discourages a formalist art-going experience for a more flowing and idiosyncratic engagement with the space. We hover between the glossy stripes painted across the gallery wall and the constructed colour screen, weighing its dimensionality in our mind’s eye. We become more conscious of our position in space, the source of the light, the speed of our gait.

The screens provide new thresholds with which to encounter other gallery-goers. It creates a heightened environment that provokes new forms of public interaction. Playfulness becomes the antidote to the contemporary notion of “play,” which pertains more particularly to passive consumption or overstimulation and apathy. Here, it provides the mechanism with which to newly occupy an institutional space.

The sculptural works of the exhibit are accompanied by a film entitled Who’s afraid of a Two by Six? (a blunt description of scale and agency that returns the artist to fourteen months old). Here, LaTourelle dresses as a hammer—as he was dressed by his parents for Halloween when he was 14 months old. He visits a fishing stage, “the room,” before making the long journey back to the site of the installation at “The Rooms.” The film is humorous, the artist playfully inserting himself and his own history back into the gallery setting. It represents, as LaTourelle says, “a gauge between the everyday and the institutional.” Who’s afraid … not only gives scale to the fishing stages—the inspiration behind the museum’s design conception— but makes visible the discrepancy between the historical reference and the grand institutional space. The film also draws attention to the artist’s own agency—an expression of individual power. It elicits a dialogue between himself and us and is an invitation to author our own activations within a depersonalized gallery setting.

“Culture is good at pointing to things and calling their name but not so good at describing the relationships between things or the repertoires they enact,” writes American architect, urbanist and writer Keller Easterling in her book Medium Design. In this same way large institutions present the story of a collective, but perhaps the stories of individuals would better illustrate the nature of experience and the depths of our humanity.

“First We Take the Museum” addresses the latent potential of materiality. Colour, scale, light, dimensionality become the tools with which we reclaim “public” space. Art here is not a commodity but a mechanism with which to tease out a collection of everyday experiences. To feel a bodily connection to scale is to feel implicated in a space; what we feel is an inherent set of consequences. Experience ultimately is about feeling engaged in the larger world and it fosters a sense of community. “First We Take the Museum” takes inspiration from and is a nod to the famous Leonard Cohen song “First We Take Manhattan.” Like the song, the exhibition is essentially an inducement to change the world through art—a testament to the power of art’s immediacy. ❚

“First We Take the Museum” was exhibited at The Rooms, St. John’s, NL, from May 18 to September 22, 2019.

Elyssa Stelman lives and works in Winnipeg.

Volume 39, Number 1

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #153, published March 2020.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.