The thing about things: Inside 'Propped', an art show about the objects that shape us

Cake, video games, dogs: none of these things are quite like the other, but they're all part of this show exploring how simple objects can tell larger stories.

Cake, video games, dogs: none of these things are quite like the other, but they're all part of this show

Geoffrey Farmer's I'm Not Praying, I'm Just Stretching. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

In theatre, some props — like a dagger or a gun — suggest a predictable end, while others — say, a cake or a soapbox — are charged only with potential. Oakville Galleries' summer exhibition Propped considers the prop table, a site of unlimited possibility, exploring how the objects we make there also make us.

Propped curator Gabrielle Moser began with the Oxford definition: props are objects within the performance space that are not scenery or costume. They are items activated by the performers that somehow help to develop the plot. She became interested in the word's applications and etymological relations — to propose, to proposition, to prop up.

Featuring work by Bev Koski, Abbas Akhavan, Oliver Husain and Duane Linklater. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

The show surveys the various use of props in the works of an ensemble cast of 18 contemporary Canadian artists, investigating how objects are employed to construct, locate and signify our personal and collective notions of identity, subjectivity and history. Props, the exhibit suggests, have the power to embody much larger stories.

The term "prop" comes from the formal "theatrical property," as in, an asset of the theatre company or a belonging of the actor. It implies ownership. In the collaborative photographic series Toronto Purchase, Public Studio and Lili Huston-Herterich picture the goods — scissors, hats, rifles — that the British crown traded with the Mississaugas of New Credit for the "purchase" of Toronto in 1787. The materials exchanged appear paltry and arbitrary now, which seems to accent the swindle and its malice.

Maya Ben David's Insert Coin. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

Maya Ben David's Insert Coin is interested also in properties, though more landscapes than proprietorships. Her video work slowly savours the backgrounds of '90s 16-bit video games, made tranquil without any signage, personage or action. "I am asking viewers," she says, "to sit with the scenery that was used to manufacture atmosphere and let the anti-climatic moments wash over them as a meditation." For a generation or two, the game worlds sampled here are sacred and evocative spaces — likely more memorable than your fifth grade classroom.

In an artwork from the permanent collection of Oakville Galleries, performance artist Bridget Moser (Gabrielle's sister) hilariously attempts to navigate and square herself with the dizzying panoply of things through the video Asking for a friend. The artist squeezes her head in the seat of a folding chair, or balances on an overturned bench, whilst asking shaggy questions aloud about self-improvement. The contents of a gallery's storage room become the scenery, her tools, as well as her castmates. "All objects have unlimited opportunities for misuse," Bridget says. "And sometimes, in misusing them, you reveal new meaning." The character is simultaneously discovering new functions and applications — for both the objects she's exploring and for herself. It owes something, she says, to that marketer's pearl of wisdom: if you just have the right things, everything will be okay.

Bridget Moser's Asking for a friend. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

For his two contributions, Abbas Akhavan flips the paradigm, asking visitors to participate with — or as — the prop. In Stress Positions (the name is a euphemism for torture), Akhavan has arranged two stacked platforms against a gallery wall like a Speaker's Corner. The didactic panel, smaller than those elsewhere in the show, is placed on the wall behind, so viewers must climb the soapbox to read it. There, they'll find a message notifying them that each day, a caucasian male will come into the gallery, climb the platform and host a discussion on accountability and reconciliation. Of course, waiting around isn't fruitful. But if you're a white man yourself, reading those instructions, you'll feel a twinge: it's obliging you directly. You have become the prop. The work is at once about the absentee speaker and the sense of duty it may or may not compel in you. Akhavan refers to it as "a trap."

All objects have unlimited opportunities for misuse. And sometimes, in misusing them, you reveal new meaning.- Bridget Moser, performance artist

For a second and untitled work, Akhavan has arranged a one-hour visit each day at Gairloch Gardens from a St. John Ambulance therapy dog. One afternoon, a black-coated Hungarian Puli named McGinty McGoo sat tongue-out at the feet of his volunteer. In contrast to the cynicism of Stress Positions, this act invites an empathetic and positive experience with an animal trained especially to respond to emotions. Is McGinty the prop? Do we sometimes treat other living things — animals, people even — as props? The encounter urges us to think closer about those relationships.

Abbas Akhavan's untitled work. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

Across Oakville Galleries' two venues, the prop table is a rich miscellany collected from other productions and piled high. Does it tell a new story? "The sesquicentennial wasn't an explicit reference," Moser says, but she kept thinking: if you were to stage a play about the history of Canada, what props would you need? "If I were to try and tell that story, these are some of the ones I'd want. You can approach history differently by paying attention to the props around in these moments."

In one gallery at Gairloch Gardens, Winnipeg-based artist Divya Mehra has set a white-frosted sheet cake — the kind you might see rolled out at a retirement party — on an antique British Colonial parlour table. Piped on top of the cake is the word "KASHMIR" in quotes, as if a proposal or a proposition, surrounded by a map of the region's borders traced in gel icing. A nearby panel says no one will eat the cake; it will sit there and rot. Kashmir, the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent, has been a disputed territory since partition in 1947. It's currently administered by three different states: India, Pakistan and China. Following the British Raj, "how Kasmir ought to be carved up" is a contention now 70 years old.

Divya Mehra's There's just not enough to go around. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

Mehra, who has previously installed this work, says people ask, "Where are the knives? Where are the forks?" She says: "It's this amazing thing that we could all enjoy, but instead there's none for anybody and we're all just going to watch it decay over the course of the exhibition." The work, titled There's just not enough to go around, reminds Moser of Trump aide Sebastian Gorka's infamous three-state Libya proposal mocked up on a cocktail napkin. "The objects of these civil environments can become powerful weapons," she says. It's evidence of the perfunctory and facile ways statecraft is often conducted.

Meanwhile, the cake has begun to rot. It's eaten through the table's varnish, Mehra says. The whole gallery smells sickly sweet, like vanilla.

Propped. Oakville Galleries. To September 2.


Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton


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