VSVSVS at Mercer Union: A White-Cube Compromise

The frisky Toronto collective VSVSVS – a collective of emerging artists, most of whom are connected to Guelph University, and many of whom share a massive hybrid studio/exhibition space deep in the buggy swamp of Toronto’s Docklands – have taken over the main space at venerable Mercer Union. In doing so, intentionally or perhaps accidently, they have raised, and not entirely-satisfactorily answered, a very important Big Art Question. Namely: can, or should, enterprises with a decidedly DIY practice, a tin-cans and found-objects forte, have anything to do with well-heeled institutions? And when they do, disregarding the “should” half of the question for a moment, what are the results?

A bit of background is necessary here. I have attended several VSVSVS events, from art shows constructed by them to interventions orchestrated by them to art shows sponsored by them, and each little party was a delight in small. Small budgets, small attendance, and nine times out of ten, featuring very small objects; objects made from humble materials, such as cheap plaster, base concrete, remaindered paint, and hardware store widgets. VSVSVS are liked because their work appears to be in opposition to grand gestures, to fat-headed conceits and bloated provocations. These are artists who make little replicas of household tools from plaster, or paint dish sponge-sized blobs of insulation foam hot pink and plunk the happy wobbles onto upturned plastic pipes. The fun of a VSVSVS show is equivalent to the fun of playing with a Lego set or a random pile of toys, of making new worlds from the overlooked and the everyday.

Now for the “should” part. Why, apart from, one imagines, that they were asked to, would such a devotedly under-core collective, a group of artists dedicated to the quiet but awkward gesture, want anything to do with a major institution? Institutions are by their nature brand-codifiers and stamp-of-approval daubers. This is not to knock Mercer Union – they do what they do, and they do it well, and what they do is make all kinds of work, from the disruptive to the clinical, acceptable for museums. Mercer Union is a finishing school. We need Mercer Union, if for nothing else than to feed the system. It’s like one of those ladders the department of fisheries makes for spawning salmon – you gotta get up the stream somehow.

But why would VSVSVS need this certification at this point in their shared career? Wouldn’t one want to remain an outsider while one was young, when it’s actually still a viable choice? I don’t know the answer, but part of me wandered around the show and felt a bit melancholy for the end of another youth. A projection, on my part.

As for the “can” part of the question, the answer is “sort of.” A marked sort of. In taking over Mercer’s tall white box, VSVSVS opted to replicate their own ramshackle studios, which resemble a rabbit warren made of two-by-fours and plywood. This is a fantastic gesture – it not only gives the viewer something to do (one must climb stairs and ladders and slink down narrow corridors to find hidden rooms), it brilliantly recreates the confined, indeed constricted, reality of contemporary art making in Toronto, where every inch of too-precious space serves a function, perhaps insufficiently. The days of large, open industrial work spaces for artists are long gone, except for a lucky (i.e. wealthy) few. Visitors to VSVSVS mini theme park will be treated to rough benches made of freshly-sawed discount wood, unvarnished, tricky stairs leading to not-to-code elevated platforms, and a coffee station perched just under the ceiling, accessible only by a shaky ladder. This is life as an artist in Toronto. Every overpaid arts bureaucrat in this town, and they number in the hundreds, ought to be frog-marched to this show and forced to live in its cubbyholes for 24 hours. Splinters are complementary.

Unfortunately, and this is where the whole grungy start-up vs. premiere-venue game plays out, VSVSVS don’t go far enough in their recreation. The installation is too clean, and far too carefully dotted with just the right amount of (read, few) objets to satisfy Mercer’s pristine and morbidly minimalist customer base. There are wonderful, wildly imaginative small works in every corner, but each is so perfectly placed in so perfect the spot, that one isn’t viewing an exciting new mixed-media piece so much as a high-priced pair of shoes in a Yorkville princess parlour. Similarly, a delightfully playful video and sound installation is displayed as if it’s a holy Richard Fung opus. The disconnect between the VSVSVS slapstick schmutz and Mercer Union’s quiet hum is too profound, and neither the intervention nor the venue says uncle long enough to let the other one win. The whole show feels like a compromise, and that’s perhaps predictable, but rather heartbreaking. I love VSVSVS, but this is a Mercer show through and through, right down to the well-vacuumed floors. A little sawdust would go a long way here.

Looking at this wrong place/wrong time exhibition, I was reminded of a now legendary event from the past: the time that the collective Instant Coffee, themselves, at least then, a ragtag bunch, was asked to do an installation at the AGO. The collective had an RV camper installed, one of those long trailer boxes that pop up to make a tent. The story goes, the thing was full of insects, and the AGO went mental trying to delouse it, so to speak. Even if the story is not true, (oh, but how I want it to be true!) it’s a great fable for what happens when the self-directed work with the over-determined, when art borne from little means and its necessary cleverness (and anxieties) pairs with decades of uncontested operating funding and its necessary cautiousness (and anxieties): nobody wins, but nobody has much to lose.

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