Wylie: Are chairs just chairs if they’re in an art gallery?
When any children visiting the Kelowna Art Gallery this summer see the gigantic, colossal sculpture made from discarded chairs, surely they will all want to be artists when they grow up.
What’s not to like? The work is fun and amazing, and seems to defy gravity as the conglomerated mass of old chairs soars upward, some 20 feet in the air.
The artist is Chad Pratch, a recent graduate of the BFA program at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Pratch has been thinking about his Dysfunctional Chairs commission for over a year. His idea of rounding up a huge number of old chairs appealed to him on several levels. He is interested in the human tendency to categorize and label things (even each other). So if a chair is no longer deemed useful, and loses its function as a chair, does it become art when placed in a gallery context?
This stems from the question asked by artist Marcel Duchamp almost 100 years ago, when he invented his so-called Readymades, which marked a sea change in how people defined art.
The first Readymade was a store-bought urinal, created and exhibited in 1917. Can any random commercial object attain the status of a work of art simply by being placed in an art museum context? Duchamp claimed it could be so.
And thus the worn and discarded chairs that form the impressive vertical structure in the Rotary Courtyard of the Kelowna Art Gallery ascend to that status, with hefty precedent in their favour.
Pratch wanted to explore the social aspect of his project and conducted taped interviews with people who personally donated chairs to him. These conversations are all playing in a cacophony of speech coming from speakers tucked in behind the massed chairs. On either side of the spreading tower of chairs are bone yards of identical white stacking chairs, formed into organic masses that look like decomposed works of art by Canadian artist Brian Jungen. Taken together, the entire installation is a rich and multi-sensory art experience.
Pratch’s title for his show, Inanimate Phenotype, reinforces his musing over the problem of labeling and categorizing. “Phenotype” is the collective characteristics of an organism that allow us to recognize it and distinguish it from others. He adds “inanimate” as the chairs are not alive.
So, normally we would recognize a chair by its four legs and flat place to sit, no matter in which style or period that chair was made. However, these discarded chairs were deemed no longer functional by their owners (some of them are spectacularly worn out) and yet they persist in looking chair-like to us.
Ultimately, what is in a name?, as Shakespeare pondered as well, and so eloquently.
Despite its usefulness, any name also contains a danger—of mis-categorizing, prejudice and misunderstanding.
Liz Wylie is the curator at the Kelowna Art Gallery.