Memory, mounted at Kingston’s Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre in May and June, was the first Canadian exhibition for artist Martina Muck, who lives and works in Munster, Germany.

Muck had asked the community of artists and gallery-goers in the Kingston area – the process began even before she arrived in Canada – to donate to her developing exhibition, objects that had describable meaning for the donors. The exhibition was thus to be, in a sense, participatory – or at least it was to require the initial participation of would-be volunteers.

Modern Fuel’s initial online Call to Participate stated: “Please join us in welcoming visiting artist Martina Muck (Germany) to Kingston…The artist is seeking vessels of varying types (and learning about the stories that accompany them) to use as part of the evocative exhibition, where each will be displayed under different forms of illumination.”

The vessels soon began arriving at the gallery – along with notes outlining the special meanings they bore for each contributor. By the time the exhibition opened on May 3, there were about twenty-five wildly varying kinds of vessels on hand, which Muck had deftly arranged on the gallery floor, each one now illuminated by small but powerful mini-floodlights (I didn’t notice any “different forms of illumination”) suspended directly over them, hovering close to them, flooding them with a personal radiation strong enough almost to dematerialize each one.

The vessels, which ranged from a ladle to a vase to a bird’s nest to an open, scarlet-lined guitar case, were now bound into relation, not only by their having become part of an aggregation of objects gathered into one exhibition space, but because their all being similarly illuminated had optically valourized each one – regardless of how banal, inelegant, kitschy or generally unappetizing each one actually was. One touch of floodlight apparently serves to make the whole world kin.

As far as I could tell, individual differences in the vessels – except perhaps for the morphological power of the furnace-red guitar case and the fragile, relic-like vulnerability of the little bird’s nest – were softened, melted, into a new role whereby each object gave up much of its specificity to became talismanic. The equalizing light lent every object continuity with every other object, each one of them now sharing the theatrical status of the others. If these vessels were, in fact, to be the bearers of the personal memories of their donors, then these memories were now in distinct danger of being lost in the continuum of the vessel-adjacent-to-vessel-adjacent-to-vessel arrangement.

Muck’s borrowed vessels were now like actors (under stage lighting), delivering lines about the “memories” they were expected to embody – but at one remove from those memories themselves.

I would suggest, therefore, that the “memories” summarized by the title of Martina Muck’s exhibition, Memory, are, in fact, only displaced and deferred memories, frayed, strained and altered. They are memories that may have been vivid while they lived in and tinctured the various objects making up the exhibition, but, in the end, were now utterly transformed into the idea of memories.

This serves nicely, of course, to deliver Muck’s installation from the sentimentality that would assuredly have befallen it if each of her gathered vessels were still being used as the loci of memory, as (to borrow and distort Andre Breton’s phrase), “Communicating Vessels.” As it is, all the vessels really communicate is their own floodlit morphology – their formal qualities, heightened and enhanced by the falling of light upon them.

On one wall of the gallery – at a substantial remove from the floor-installation itself – there were affixed a number of white cards on which were printed, in black type, the vessel-donor’s remarks about his/her contribution to the installation. The notices varied enormously – not surprisingly – in the degree to which they were affecting, informative, amusing or even off-putting.

Some were touching: “This is a chest that my Omi brought from Germany. I like it because it looks like a treasure box that has been all over the world.” Some were charming but inexplicable: “This gorgeous little plate serves well, its value keeps growing” [what is meant by “serves well”? That the plate is useful to serve things on, or that it serves its purpose well as a plate – a broader, more general meaning?]. Some were irritatingly clever to the point of being gnomic: “On Kidd Road we reap what we sow.” Some were disturbing: “This bowl represents 38 years in a painful marriage” [38 years of a painful marriage, surely?].

And a couple sidled up to real poetry: “I discovered this nest on the ground, during a walk in the forest. A bird’s nest is both fragile and strong. I go into the forest often feeling fragile but come out strong.”

The wall of messages and annotations was, then, aquiver with emotion – with tenderness, nostalgia, resentment, anger, a sense of fulfilment, a sense of loss.

But all of these feelings – preserved on these cards with varying degrees of fidelity to the emotions that originally engendered them – were now profoundly separated from the vessels to which they had formerly been attached.

For me, Martina Muck’s handsome, affecting installation was not, therefore, about memory at all but rather about separation – even exclusion. All these vessels, bathed in falls of light, had, as it were, forgotten themselves. They were no longer Communicating Vessels, but rather Amnesiac Vessels. The distant clamour of the white cards on the adjoining wall were no more now than a babble of voices, growing thinner and more distant all the time. 

Modern Fuel, Kingston
May 3—June 14, 2014