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Wylie: Astman takes a dance with Che

Barbara Astman, Dancing with Che: Enter Through the Gift Shop, 2011, selected works-in-progress. - Jenn Sciarrino/contributor
Barbara Astman, Dancing with Che: Enter Through the Gift Shop, 2011, selected works-in-progress.
— image credit: Jenn Sciarrino/contributor

What becomes a legend most? How does it happen that one human face can sometimes sum up the ethos and zeitgeist of an era and place?

These are the sorts of questions that might beset the mind of gallery visitors who come to see the new exhibition full of images of the 20th century South American revolutionary Che Guevara at the Kelowna Art Gallery, opening next weekend.

Right now many among us readily recognize Che’s face, but for how many years will that remain true? A colleague of mine recently showed an image of Elvis Presley to her art history class and only about half of the group knew who he was.

So even if someone does achieve widespread fame, what are the factors that feed into that fame’s staying power?

Perhaps the most telling and prophetic words of the20th century were spoken by Andy Warhol, when he said that there would be no more famous artists in the future, but that instead everyone would be famous, but only for 15 minutes.

The notion of a half-life seems apt, where rather than the diminishing radio-activity of a substance, it is one’s recognition power that vanishes at a set rate over a given period of time, according to some arcane equation.

Toronto-based artist Barbara Astman became interested in the phenomenon of “Che chic” when on a visit to Cuba several years ago. She bought a T-shirt with his face on it to bring home, and wearing it while dancing, created her Dancing with Che series of photographs in 2003.

But evidently, Che Guevara was not finished with Barbara Astman. The Che gift shop idea gradually formed in her mind, and the Kelowna Art Gallery will be the first place to show this new piece.

To create her installation, she used 31 different Dancing with Che images, and ordered runs of various souvenir items from suppliers who custom made keychains, playing cards, coasters, mugs, T-shirts, etc. These will all be in display in a faux gift shop setting in our Reynolds Gallery space, where nothing will actually be for sale.

This aspect of the scenario will also prod visitors to consider their own inner urges: Consumerism, desire, the pleasure of collecting. People might even ponder the notion of souvenirs—why do we want to bring home items that are printed with an image of what we have seen and where we have been: Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, a Mountie on a horse? There must be something primal in this that could be traced back for millennia.

Tourists who have visited the Parthenon in Athens early in the morning have witnessed a staff member carrying a bucket and scattering chips of marble around the site, as every day hundreds of tourists scoop up a bit or two into their pockets to take home. Without replenishing the supply each the day the site would be bare in no time.

Another issue, of course, is that of these objects being placed in an art gallery. Marcel Duchamp was the ground-breaking conceptual artist of the last century who introduced the idea that art was all a question of context. Put anything in a museum or gallery and call it art and voila: it is art.

We now accept this notion, however grudgingly. But these commercially produced souvenir products may still not seem very much like art to some viewers. The concept of originality dies hard, and these mass-produced items (although for this purpose the print run was very small) could be seen as questioning our cultural value of an original work, made by hand and with artistic skill.

Basically then, this exhibition is a conceptual art piece, that is, a work that is based upon an idea, and need not actually have been created in order for us to think about experiencing it. Unlike a work in either traditional or new media, which is the product of a process of making, conceptual work can be communicated in a description or instructions.

Often, conceptual art nudges us to challenge our existing ideas, and not only just about art.

Viewers can decide for themselves when they come to see this exhibition whether the work is successful or not based on their own thought processes, as they examine all the shiny new merchandise, which they are not able to buy.

Barbara Astman: Dancing with Che: Enter through the Gift Shop opens to the public on Saturday, May 7 and runs until July 31.

Liz Wylie is the curator at the Kelowna Art Gallery.

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