The Guilty Pleasures Column

“11 Stories on Distanced Relationships: Contemporary Art from Japan”

Online Exhibition – Japan Foundation

by Margaryta Golovchenko | May 28, 2021

True to its title, absence is at the heart of the online exhibition “11 Stories on Distanced Relationships: Contemporary Art from Japan” (Japan Foundation, March 30 – May 5, 2021) where it is explored in a variety of forms. Past meets present, human and animal circle around each other in order to negotiate the boundary of definition, the poetics of the personal and the scientific collide. The videos heighten the fact that the one-year “anniversary” of the lockdown has come and gone, the clock ticking away into a second year. Yu Araki and Noguchi Rika’s video works both involved the ocean, a place that, living in Toronto, cannot be experienced without a plane ride. The sights and sounds of sand and waves feel eerie, no less so than hearing astronomer Robert Law describe his work as he goes about his daily tasks in the video by Sawa Hiraki. It feels strange to witness life moving at a pace that once felt “normal.”

Watching the videos on the carefully curated website, I became starkly aware of another form of distance: between myself and the space of the gallery, where I would have otherwise encountered these works. In that sense, the textured beige background of the webpage satisfied a kind of internal desire to never be too disconnected from the art world. The urge to always compile lists and be in-the-know about exhibitions opening and closing, artists talks and launches, is satisfied as soon as I am met with the exhibition title and curatorial statements describing the artworks. “11 Stories on Distanced Relationships” satisfied my craving to once again be within the safe and familiar confines of white gallery walls, to feel like I am in control of my viewing experience — how much time I spend with each piece, what order I want to move with, my ability to read about the work and the artist if the former caught my attention.

Nothing can satisfy the spectrum of affects that arise when inside of a gallery. Kenya Hara’s work on the colour white and Gaston Bachelar’s The Poetics of Space often come to mind when I try to pinpoint what, exactly, it is about being inside of a “designated art space” that makes it feel so much like home, to the point where a sense of deep, internal satisfaction seems to creep up my spine before flooding back into my chest. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that I cannot seem to attend an exhibition without grabbing some sort of publication, be it pamphlet or mini exhibition catalogue, as a kind of commemorative token, placing it into a specially designated box that says: This is where I have been — here is the proof. Yet there is something more, something unspoken yet deeply personal, that carefully curated online exhibitions like “11 Stories on Distanced Relationships” suggest makes the gallery an emotionally charged space that can never be entirely replicated online. I long for the time when I get to return and recharge.

About the Guilty Pleasures Column

Isolation and distance have been recurring themes since the start of the pandemic. Previously, moments of stillness and rest away from one’s work life were passed by engaging in activities that felt like indulgences, ways of pampering and restarting one’s senses. Oftentimes, these activities might feel like a guilty pleasure, intimate in a way that makes it embarrassing to share with someone else because of how unique it is to the self. Arguably above all else, a guilty pleasure is a way of reconnecting with the self, of becoming attuned with the internal language of thoughts and emotions or other non-verbal ways of locating oneself in the world.

Drawing on this interest in the self, the Guilty Pleasures column of Sensorium’s newsletter will be a case study exploration of how we continue to seek out art and the networks of communication that art participates in. Are digital exhibitions re-creations or adaptations? What does it mean to “appreciate” a digital exhibition and how might it compare to seeing it in person? How is our sense of self and our presence in relation to the artwork and the institution that houses it different in a digital format? How do we talk about a digital exhibition critically? Does the terminology change? These are some of the questions that this column concerns itself with asking but hesitates to answer definitively, not because there are no answers, but because it is the multiplicity of options that the column seeks to address and put forth.

Members of the Sensorium community will be invited to answer a call in each newsletter. Rather than answering a prompt or providing a formal opinion, the call will be left open-ended and centered around examining the affects invoked by each entry in the column. Reponses can take the form of emojis or soundscapes, free-verse poems or lists, whichever form feels most appropriate for expressing the feeling (or lack) of pleasure invoked by each entry in the series.

by Margaryta Golovchenko

The Guilty Pleasures series is inspired by Singaporean artist Song-Ming Ang’s similarly titled listening party where participants talk about a song they consider a guilty pleasure, before playing it for everyone. Ang’s works can be viewed here

March 2021

Marguerite Humeau, “Weeds”

by Margaryta Golovchenko | March 17, 2021

It was by pure chance that I learned about contemporary French artist Marguerite Humeau’s talk at the Daniels Faculty back in January of 2020, just a few days in advance to pencil it into my schedule. I was surprised to find that Humeau is one of the artists who does not have an official artist website, instead choosing to use social media—in this case, Instagram—as a kind of journal of their thoughts and findings and images from current exhibitions. Foregoing the chronological and orderly approach to thinking about art as a growing body, the periodic appearance of Humeau’s posts on my timeline has reiterated the fact that the process of artmaking is an ebb and flow, no different from the sinusoidal diagrams she often uses to think through a piece-in-progress.

Chance similarly played a role in introducing me to Humeau’s latest work, the sound piece Weeds (2021). A post from January 20 invites the viewer to join Humeau in contemplating the relationship between the extinction of weeds and the disappearance of the voices of female healers over the course of history, a relationship that recalled the 2020 poetry collection Rue by Kathryn Nuernberger. In later posts, Humeau invited her followers to click the now-defunct link on her Instagram page to hear the piece. With a close-up photograph of a flame as the background, Weeds did not begin playing until the images was clicked on, at which point the screen went dark and a female voice—Humeau’s?—begins to read names and dates, locations and plant names. With no marked beginning or end, the only way of measuring the passage of time was seeing my phone screen turn dark after the default number of inactive minutes. After a few more minutes—ten? fifteen?— the audio, too, would turn off, leading me to reach for my phone and fidget with the webpage until it resumed playing from the same spot.

I’m not sure if I was able to listen to the entirety of Weeds, although that would not have mattered much anyway; I struggled to take in the full weight of the words from the extract that I did end up listening to. The primary reason for this was the listening experience itself — putting in headphones meant that the female voice was closer, the warm whisper finally making the fire background make sense. In fact, the set-up and sound quality brought me back to the early days of ASMR, around 2011, when what is now a bustling community was still only focused on whispering and the soothing experience of story time. Unlike sound pieces in art galleries, where the sound level is raised so that it can be heard, where the physicality of the space dictates whether voices or sounds might come off as too loud or even jumpy, there was an intimacy to listening to Humeau’s sound piece through my headphones while swaddled in a blanket on the couch. I had control—of my time, of my senses, of my comfort level.

The newfound “handheld” nature also resulted in a separation between text and meaning, leading to the struggle with taking in the full significance of Humeau’s piece. I didn’t merely focus on the soothingness of the voice; it was also the only thing I was able to focus on. Humeau’s commentary on the transformation and loss of knowledge through the distances of space and time was expanded with the added distance because of the ongoing pandemic. Having to remain indoors with the fluctuating state of lockdown not only put a physical distance that dictates how we can engage with art and when, but also the depth with which we might engage with art. The idea that not practicing a skill leads one to become rusty and potentially forget how to do the task has been increasingly troubling me. What if I have forgotten, or have yet to forget, how to engage with art? What if I lose the vocabulary or the attentiveness necessary for the kind of deeper reading and appreciation that art deserves?

I sometimes like to imagine what it might be like to step into a gallery again, mentally delineating the boundaries of the space that I will cut through as I bounce from artwork to artwork, or perhaps stand in front of a single piece that captivated me. I would like to hope that I can still remember how to “think with” the art.

This month, Sensorium members are invited to consider and respond to the following questions:

  • How has your perception of or relationship to sound changed over the last year, whether through recorded sounds or the sounds of everyday life?
  • What sounds in your current lifestyle do you find most comforting?

Responses can come in any form – written-out response, a set of emojis that capture the affects invoked by questions, a list or word map, sound clip or any other approach in between.

Email responses to by April 8, 2021

January 2021

Onyeka Igwe “A So-Called Archive”

by Margaryta Golovchenko | January 15, 2020

I remembered about my intention to watch Onyeka Igwe’s video piece, “A So-Called Archive” (2020, co-commission by KW. Institute of Contemporary Art, Berlin’ Plug-In ICA, Winnipeg; and Mercer Union, Toronto), on December 30, the last day of the “online exhibitions.” A couple of weeks later, I will have similarly forgotten to take part in a Zoom artist talk after going out to the groceries and taking longer than intended, the usual disappointment of missing an event replaced by a sad shrug.

One of the most significant impacts of the pandemic has been its negative effect on my incentive, on my ability (desire?) to seek out and then digitally commit to engaging with art online. As much as I liked to be a periodic grouch about my commute time, particularly for events scheduled in the evening, there was a sense of gathering myself together, of accumulating and crystalizing a ball of energy at my core each time I made a resolute plan to go see a specific exhibition, building an entire day’s schedule around that. There was something of a ritual to it, a kind of self-sustained excitement that trailed behind me from lecture to lecture, exhibition to exhibition.

It seems like an odd problem to have, especially now that a lot of work has become more accessible through digitalization. Galleries must document their shows not only for posterity but also as a precautious measure in case if they are closed and the exhibition schedule is disrupted once more. Those artist talks, lectures, and conferences that have not yet been cancelled or rescheduled are largely being held online, making them much more affordable than hopping on an airplane for a quick trip to elsewhere just to hear someone talk about a topic you think is neat or pressing; a bonus if the recording is then posted to YouTube and made available for asynchronous viewing. Digital works like Igwe’s are being put online in a similar attempt to show the work as widely as possible, a thought that strikes me as contradictory. Aren’t digital works inherently accessible due to their medium? It is relatively easy to distribute a video and embedding it into the art gallery’s website to avoid creating the sensation that one is merely watching a “regular” video, thereby creating a separation between video-as-artwork and video-as-entertainment.

The one thing that has (for better or for worse) not been affected by the pandemic is my tendency to don my critical observation hat and scribble notes when looking at art that moves me. While watching “A So-Called Archive,” I note how Igwe rethinks the idea of haunting and explores the theme of encroachment, of the past and of empire on the present. I am taken with the juxtaposition of the cheerful female museum guide’s voice with the shots of decrepit and abandoned spaces, with the way the camera hovers over and pauses on objects like a mountain of old film reels the way one might stand next to and examine a canonical Western painting in a museum. Yet I still feel distant from the work, by virtue of not sitting in a “designated room” in an art gallery and viewing it there. My ruffled state as I watch Igwe’s piece on my laptop prevented me from feeling like I’m looking at “art” the way that I did when I watched the Bambitchell video piece “Bugs and Beasts Before the Law” at Mercer Union in the Fall of 2019. I cannot shake the feeling that I am sitting indoors, on a cold December day in my comfy “at home” clothes, watching a work that I might have otherwise experienced by standing in front of a small monitor or sitting in a darkened room with a few strangers for company. Maybe this distance is a positive, as it allows me to give Igwe’s work the same level of attention and dedication that I would a feature-length film, which is its own victory.

– – –

For this month’s column entry, Sensorium members are invited to consider and respond to the following questions:

  • How has the pandemic changed your understanding of distance? Has it made you feel removed from the works of art that you have encountered?
  • Do you feel like you are still “seeing” art? Does it differ? What role does the idea of “incentive” play in this?
  • Has the idea of taking a break and physically going to see art (“guilty pleasure”) been replaced by a struggle to stay engaged and motivated to see art (the “guilt” of missing out)?

The response can come in any form, whether it is a written-out response, a set of emojis that capture the affects invoked by the above questions, a list or word map, or any other approach in between.