VANCOUVER — A mass-produced, boxlike house seems like a curious namesake for a museum triennial. But given that it’s the reference behind Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures, the title for a survey of 40 local artists that the Vancouver Art Gallery launched this year, I felt compelled to investigate further. Visiting the exhibition from across the border, I was unfamiliar with the term, which describes a style of two-level, single-family residences topped with a low-lying roof and banded by a balcony that stretches straight across the façade like braces — a structure that seemed at first to be too simple to afford a framework for taking the pulse of a city. Vancouver’s history of art-making spans the traditions of First Nations peoples who began there thousands of years ago to the photo-conceptualism, defined by artists like Jeff Wall, Ken Lum, and Rodney Graham, that has garnered the art world’s attention in more recent years. What could an average-seeming architectural style reveal about contemporary art in Vancouver now?
It turns out the Vancouver Special has its own complicated history, as I learned from a project by Ken Lum concurrently on view through artist-run space 221A. Lum’s 1/3-scale recreation of a house sits in a quiet alley in Vancouver’s Chinatown, dwarfed by brick commercial buildings on either side. The dollhouse-sized residence is overly picturesque. The smile of its balcony mirrors the friendly white fence that surrounds the Astroturf at its base. A side window reveals a bedroom lit by the warm glow of a miniature lamp with a landscape painting on the wall. Meanwhile, Lum’s loaded title introduces the darker reality that lives within this simple façade: “Vancouver Especially (A Vancouver Special scaled to its property value in 1973, then increased by 8 fold)” (2015).
In the 1960s through the ’80s, an estimated 10,000 Vancouver Specials were built across the city as affordable, customizable residences, thriving until restrictions aimed at densification impeded their construction. In the years of tower-style residences that followed, Vancouver became one of the most expensive places in North America to purchase a home. Lum’s project highlights this reality through the unlivable scale the Vancouver Special would have to be built to today, were its original budget approximated. So the Vancouver Special straddles the utopian ideal of creating an accessible city and the dystopian ways this ideal is often manifested — a theme with deep local roots that was apparent throughout the triennial.
Tamara Henderson’s sculpture “The Scarecrow’s Holiday” (2015) confronted me with a sense of dystopia the moment I entered Vancouver Special. The towering figure of wood, metallic half-moons, textured fabrics, dried palm leaves, and rope appeared like a faceless robot made from scavenged materials. Behind it, a curtain of fabric pieces sewn together into tower-like forms evoked a ravaged skyline. Titled “Dreamstep, Drownedstep, Droughtstep, Fogstep” (2016) and set to an accompanying soundtrack of ominous steps and sounds composed by artist Dan Riley, it felt as if Henderson had set a physical stage for a pending apocalypse — a bold curatorial choice to frame the exhibition that occupies a full floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Beginning in such a dark place primed me to find similar themes among the works that followed.
In a show dominated by textiles, paintings, installations, and sculpture, tangibility felt especially urgent, signaling a moment when physical evidence — of objects in the flesh, of promises made good, of ideas turned into actions — is necessary. Maya Beaudry’s bulbous blanket sculptures made of bright fabrics and pillow stuffing balloon out from the walls and corners of one gallery, reaching into our physical and emotional space. “Soft Place in a Soft Room (A Couch Is Like a Friend)” (2016) was warm enough to feel inviting yet disheveled in such a way that it appeared left behind. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to curl up inside its blankets or leave them alone in hopes that their owners would be back to claim them someday. Matt Browning’s wall-mounted grid sculptures made of dowels the artist whittled from single pieces of wood to create interlocking grid structures adhered to a minimalist aesthetic, but the artist’s labor-intensive process is subtly indicated by the dowels’ lightly rigid textures: hard evidence of an ideal that resides behind the creation process and takes precedence over producing a flawless result.
Although several works of photography and video appear in Vancouver Special, most included installation elements that extended into the third dimension. Ron Tran photographed himself dressed in clothing from friends’ closets and assembled the images in a slideshow, recalling Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Tran’s photos play on a screen propped against a security fence as viewers watch from a bus stop bench, and the bench displays mock tourist advertisements that the artist created for a project in Bolzano, Italy, in response to the racism and homophobia he experienced there. By showing photographs that question the closeted experience along the side of a fence, Tran’s installation amplifies the sense of outsiderness his story conveys.
Meanwhile, Jeneen Frei Njooti actively rejects photography in her performance-based practice, in order to construct what she describes as the “sovereignty” of her image as a young Indigenous woman. This past December, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation artist performed “Through the Body. Where is the work? g’ashondai’kwa (I don’t know)” in the gallery using an amplified caribou antler and a metal grinder, wearing a black summer parka that captured the dust the grinder sent into the air. In order to leave a physical record of the piece, Njooti placed photo-receptive paper on the floor as she performed, capturing her movements in forms obscured by the darkness of overexposure. For the duration of the exhibition, an audio track from the original performance plays several times throughout the day, among the photo paper, antler, and parka, transforming the gallery through haunting sounds that are at once animalistic and otherworldly. The human behind all is it conspicuously absent except for threads of dust left clinging to her parka, quietly testifying on behalf of the events that took place.
In the text for his Vancouver Especially installation, Lum discusses the striking disparity between Vancouver’s development industry’s aim of creating a “livable city” and the tangible outcome of those policies on the people who must try to live there. The curators of Vancouver Special note in the exhibition’s catalog that the Vancouver residents who have been displaced by this disparity include the local artist community, which they witnessed firsthand during studio visits done in preparation for the triennial — a reality that is ingrained in the darker side of the show. While this problem has been discussed many times, in the context of many different cities, not all have a museum supportive enough of its artists to put the issue on display. The ability of the Vancouver Art Gallery to maintain its commitment to its local artists in the future will be the true test of the triennial’s success, but building it upon an earnest representation of the realities of the present moment seems like the right way to start.
Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures continues at the Vancouver Art Gallery (750 Hornby Street, Vancouver, British Columbia) through April 17.