The Depressing Power of Art in Raphaëlle de Groot’s “Summit Meetings”

Between 2009 and 2012, Raphaëlle de Groot invited people to give her objects that they no longer wanted but couldn’t get rid of. As the collection grew, she immersed herself in the stories that accompanied these forsaken items, and slowly formulated a new narrative whose purpose was to assimilate them into the care of an art institution. The Summit Meetings, presented at the Art Gallery of Windsor (October 3, 2015 – January 17, 2016) and then at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (February 4 – April 17), was the concluding chapter in that seven-year process. Momus editor Sky Goodden saw the show in Windsor, and Mark Mann, a freelance critic based in Montreal and Toronto, experienced a slightly different iteration of the touring exhibition in Québec City. Here is their joint review, a conversation comprised of shared and animated parts.

Mark Mann: When I went to see De Groot’s Summit Meetings in Quebec, I rented a car in Montreal and drove through the rain on a Friday evening to get there. My girlfriend and I stayed at an AirBnB and walked around the Old City on Saturday, which, as a friend observed via text, is “so old.” Then, on Sunday morning, we made our way on foot across the Plains of Abraham – our steps crunching through the frozen top-layer of snow – to the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, where de Groot was in the process of setting up the exhibition.

The Plains of Abraham are about as famous as Canadian tourist destinations get, but as we tramped across them, I realized that I had only a vague notion of why they’re a big deal. The story I conjure from my elementary school days has an army of Americans crawling up a cliff-face in the dark and stabbing the British in their sleep. As it turns out, it was the British who climbed the cliff, and it was the French who were defeated “in a single deadly volley of musket fire” on September 13, 1759. Ostensibly, that sneaky victory is the reason that Canada became a British colony. Two-and-a-half centuries later, the Plains look like a golf course without any holes, but with a mid-size art museum protruding forlornly from the mowed grass.

I find it hard to know what to care about in the world, but I know this: I don’t care about the Plains of Abraham. And I don’t think that anybody else does either, even if four million people visit the old battleground every year, as though impelled by some silent decree to make boring historical pilgrimages.

In Summit Meetings, De Groot harnesses that same mysterious power, which drives people to come and look and try to care, even if they don’t. Ostensibly, she employs bricolage to tell a story about people’s trash, but her real medium is dull institutional authority. An authority that – by the weird trick of being an artist – she can bend to her will. In other words, they gave her the keys to the museum, and she filled it with garbage.

Sky Goodden: I arrived at De Groot’s exhibition in Windsor in a similarly affecting way, though not through a plain, but an elevator at the foot of a narrow, makeshift hallway (as the Art Gallery of Windsor figures out its new position within a previously-publicized partnership with the city library – now, it’s not so clear – that renders its building an ever-flexing construction site). After a confused, claustrophobic ride I felt no relief in arriving at De Groot’s exhibition, though it’s work that invites crowding, a chaotic crash of referent points between collective history, intimate confessionals, and the general cacophony of objects when they’re made to share the same close air. I felt both enervated and dangerous. But over its shoulder, another exhibition, 7: PNIAI, was visible and in its concourse expelled a totally different, yet equally loud narrative. I had trouble focusing. De Groot may have been content with this, but I keened for higher ground.

Mann: I found De Groot alone, standing on a stepladder and arranging objects on a series of tall vitrines. Some of these items she’d acquired from strangers over the last several years while working in small communities, and others she’d borrowed from museums across Canada. It was impossible to tell which was which. Whatever the provenance, everything looked like it was more accustomed to the darkness of a cardboard box than the even white light of a gallery: sentimental tchotchkes from failed relationships, a retired relative’s unwanted corporate swag, plastic baubles purchased with unfamiliar currency in cheap-flight resort towns, over-priced miscellany from roadside antique stores, and so on. Imagine a poorly curated but impressionistically displayed garage sale where nothing is actually for sale, and you will understand the feeling of weary uncertainty that the show engendered in me.

Though the stuff itself was all quite charmless, De Groot projected a lot of animation onto it. We talked for about forty-five minutes, and she explained that she created the work in order to offer people the chance to liberate themselves from things they’d rather not keep but couldn’t throw away. She advertised her service in the places she visited: to transmogrify people’s most poignant junk into art, and thereby to preserve it forever in the halls – or, at least, the storage rooms – of culture. She was giving eternal life to things that were one death-in-the-family away from a landfill; she was the catcher in the rye for knickknacks.

In the course of collecting these objects, De Groot also collected their backstories, and she knew them all by heart. She’d been romancing this stuff for years, carrying items around with her all the time and even taking things on trips to other countries. For example, she took several of the most morbid objects – so-and-so gave me this before they died, etc. – on a special journey to Mexico to participate in the Day of the Dead. Like the show, her process struck me as both elaborate and haphazard. With each little undesirable trinket she’d been given, she performed a long, meandering artistic incantation to bring it to life. Art, in this utilitarian sense, was whatever De Groot felt like doing with other people’s stuff.

It wasn’t until about halfway through our conversation that I began to grasp the extent to which De Groot had anthropomorphized everything in the room. (Actually, it was probably the stop-motion film she created that really clued me in.) The story she told is that the unwanted objects that she collected were getting together with the unwanted objects that the different museums had collected, and holding a conference to discuss their fate. The Summit Meetings wasn’t so much an exhibition as a still-life of political puppet theater.

Goodden: While De Groot isn’t doing anything particularly new or subversive, or even poetically exceptional, with this body of work (for which she won the Sobey Art Award in 2012, and to which she seems admirably committed), it’s not the sentimental stuff that bothers me. I think of this objects series as a less charged and un-dangerous iteration of what Sophie Calle has been doing for so many years, taking the incidental material or left-behind detritus of a stranger’s life and imparting meaning, inventing narratives, becoming ludic and unspooled about them. Like Chris Kraus with her phantom Dick. Somehow I don’t mind seeing more of this, even if I can recognize that it’s less sophisticated than its cohort, because too little contemporary art goes in for aura, narrative, sentiment.

What concerns me more was that this exhibition didn’t go all in with this series, didn’t give it the singular focus it could have deserved. Instead De Groot crowded political videos and abstract shadow play into the exhibition, like a graduation show where we saw the full scale of her prodigiousness in recent years. It felt littered and careless and a bit confusedly boastful of quantity over communication. There were activists banging pots on hand-held camera footage, a distracting reference to a public event in Montreal on May 1st, 2015, the day for the international celebration of workers; these sat within or adjacent to the inherited object series. Pressed to a nearby wall was another body of work, soot drawings on paper featuring abstract forms. They are intended to be “minutes” from the meetings (“The objects are searching for a way to leave a trace. A manifesto,” De Groot explains.). But they read like a tangent.

I recognize that De Groot intends for a site-specificity regarding each city in this tour, with Windsor being invoked for its summit in 2000 (the Organization of American States Summit). For instance, the installation includes two protest signs that were seized by the police during that city’s civic swell of unrest. But the very real link between these objects and their provenance ultimately jars with the projected and emotive content of De Groot’s objéts refuses. There is a disconnect, or at least an anarchic logic to this. I mean, if she was drawing a link between the political apostasy of the Dadaists and their tendency toward random or found-object configuration as a kind of protest to order, we might be onto something. But I don’t think she is. The work doesn’t reach for history in the way I wish it would – and think it ought to.

Mann: I read the exhibition as a prank on the bureaucratization of art. The appropriated political elements, such as the protest videos and the placards, are set pieces for the fantasy De Groot has created to justify conveying other people’s emotional baggage to the care of the institution. Setting aside the details of the drama described in The Summit Meetings, in which unwanted objects convene a conference to discuss their fate, De Groot’s maneuver strikes me as both cunning and funny. She made the museum itself her medium: not the physical space, but the administration of artworks, in all its officiousness and industry.

In order to make the trick work, however, she had to go all the way and make a real work of art. She pursued her artistic process since 2009, and over those years slowly constructed an elaborate narrative that included every single object destined for eternal life in a museum. But by the time The Summit Meetings was staged at MBAQ, the story had confusingly and clumsily overtaken the show – there were illegible “minutes” posted on the wall, video of activists ostensibly protesting outside, a mock press room, and so on. Most of the storytelling felt winsome at best, and at worst distracting to the core function of the show, which was to turn crap into art that could never, ever be thrown out.

So what does art look like when its purpose is to be art? Well, it looks familiar. Galleries love to be invaded by a fine-spun chaos that belies their white walls. The most direct comparison to The Summit Meetings is found in the work of Sarah Sze. However Sze wants to disrupt the orderliness of the art compartment, and De Groot seems to know that she can exploit the museum’s eagerness to look disrupted.

The Heidelberg Project in Detroit also provides a useful analogy. Spanning two blocks and nearly three decades, Tyree Guyton’s bombastic installation similarly charters the power of art to repurpose trash. In that work, art also functions as a social service to preserve and protect against oblivion, although for most of its history, Guyton didn’t enjoy the blessing of any powerful art institution, the way De Groot does. There, the threat of destruction has been more insistent; twice in the nineties, large sections of the Heidelberg Project were demolished. Today, the work is a heritage site, but it survived long enough to achieve that status by force of animation and liveliness.

The Summit Meetings is animated too, but maybe because it doesn’t sing for its supper, it doesn’t really sing at all. Then again, De Groot may have anthropomorphized her stuff, but she never thought she’d be inspiriting anything. Quite the opposite, The Summit Meetings illustrates that preservation is murder. “A hat that’s part of a museum, you can’t put it on your head,” she told me. “Its life is dead, but at the same time, it’ll live forever in state collections.” As it turns out, that’s a pretty small reward.

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