Written for Fresh Magazine for the 2017 Art! Vancouver show in British Columbia.
Art shows are disarming from a distance. They’re pretty and sparkly. Maybe that’s how they get us to come in? There’s a flavor of alluring sensuality about art, and artists, even simply in passing conversation. When people say “art” watch them make round, sensual articulations with their hands. We love the idea of art. We love the way the word tastes.
Things we’re attracted to can also be intimidating. Pretty colors can cause us discomfort, so can statues whose bodies you can almost see the sculpting hands on, or faces in portraits of astonishing sensitivity and private, personal experience.
I spent most of the 2016 Art! Vancouver show watching from the doorway, greeting visitors and guiding them in, and from there I saw how often each new person’s arrival would illicit a small behavioral pattern in their feet. The first step into an art show is something like a momentary, nearly imperceptible, arrest of the body. Not out of fear, something much better – I think the body likes to recalibrate itself for new experiences, steeling oneself for the potential of revelation. We do it when we’re five years old setting foot into Disneyland for the first time, awestruck. We do the same thing when we’re fifty and standing on the doorstep of an art show, hearing a whisper as a kind of breeze that comes in with you. I think we all know what that voice sounds like. A private, softly spoken encouragement to join in; an inner child’s voice that says play. For a few of us, that invitation is all we need, for a few others, a child whispering things is every horror movie we’ve ever seen. The beauty of the majority of those threshold moments is that most of us don’t know what to do with such a quiet request, and so we freeze for half a heartbeat in the doorway, thinking we should be careful not to intrude.
In my experience, not knowing what to do is often the point of going anywhere. It’s the best way to participate, and just as profound as knowing exactly how to apply yourself. Not knowing how you feel is the first step to learning something new. And telling someone something new is just as valuable to the wise tellers as it is to us asking our questions. It takes an international city to get this kind of dynamic conversation flowing. It takes a large palette to color a successful art show.
Volunteering my time for Art! Vancouver last year was the first thing I did after moving here from New York. The show was, for me, an opportunity to sense the heartbeat of a new city. I saw more than I expected; a sanguine thrum converging from all over the world. I wandered the aisles tracing pathways like an arterial map of cultural and historical confluence. I found evidence of the inclusive spirit of a country that I had suspected was only a rumor. It was bloody wonderful, but there was another, almost uncomfortable thing about it that I liked just as much. In the same way that being caught in a blizzard or a rainstorm gives you a sudden acuity, artistry jostles and provokes often unused parts of our awareness, memory, empathy, and asks us to pay attention, just as how we pay attention when snow turns threatening. You become suddenly alert to subtle change because honestly, art has the ability to change you. That’s the scary bit I mentioned. But the scary bits can be good, if you’ve ever dared trying new foods from distant lands, you’ll know that scary bits can be better than you think.
There are ancient rumors about how flavors, when encountered for the first time, make your life grow longer, and that whenever you may have the great good fortune of such a new experience, your lifespan itself swells. Finding these gifts of extra time isn’t always effortless, they’re not looking for you. Sometimes it takes a brave step – one that makes us excited without knowing why. Like that very first amusement park, or like when we cross the invisible distinction between Normal Life and The Art Show.
It’s 2017 now, and from May 25th-28th Art! Vancouver will have artists returning to show their work alongside new ones. Talk to them, and listen, and be brave at your convenience, and shy to your liking. Find your aesthetic, look for your challenges, seek out the things that make no sense to you – look at them upside down if you like – enjoy new flavors of old colors, and may your life grow longer.
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