Thursday, November 13, 2008

Return to the Spiritual: Tim Whiten at the new Art Gallery of Ontario

Back in the spring, I saw a show of Toronto artist Tim Whiten at Olga Korper Gallery. Much as I loved the ethereal quality of Whiten's work, I had concerns about whether its fragility would be treated with respect by collectors. It just has such a personally spiritual quality that is both impressive and at the same time highly dependent on a delicate web of associations within different pieces.

With that experience in mind, I approached the commission of Whiten's work for the newly renovated Art Gallery of Ontario with some trepidation. Would the gallery give Whiten the space and freedom he needs? For the final evaluation, I'll have to return to see the completed install; but for the time being I'm very glad they asked him to contribute his work Elysium, which I saw in a partial version last Friday.

Well before Damien Hirst began his skull-riffage, Whiten was working (back in the 80s) with actual skulls, adorning them with various treatments to striking effect. Here the skulls reappear with some long wooden staffs. My Q&A in today's National Post with Whiten offers his perspective on the deeper meaning of this work, as well as its connection to the new AGO in general. Click here to find page AL12 of the digital edition, or read on after the jump for the text.

Detail shot of Tim Whiten's Elysium courtesy of the artist; photo by Artin Aryai

National Post, Nov 13 2008 Page AL12

There are thousands of artworks to take in at the newly renovated AGO. But as a whole, what do they mean? Senior Toronto artist Tim Whiten, who installed a new work specifically for the relaunch, sees it as community — and by extension, perhaps, a kind of communion. Here, he tells Leah Sandals about the delicate art of spiritual reconstruction.

Q In your own words, how would you describe this art piece?

A This installation is called Elysium, and it’s a combination of elements that create a relationship of energies from past to present, from historic to modern understandings, from the mythic to contemporary notions of life.

Q You have a long tradition of addressing spirituality in your work, and that comes across strongly here. Why do you have this interest?

A Well, as a human race we’ve lost our contact with the spiritual concerns of life. The churches are less full than before. People aren’t committed to something that’s beyond themselves, and they’re treating each other horribly.

I think ultimately the nature of spirituality is to recognize the human community as one. And the reminder of that is part of what I’m dealing with — to say, “Hey, let’s not leave this behind; let’s get this together and keep this moving as a species.” I’m trying to give people that understanding in a way they can experience rather than as something theoretical.

Q How did you create what seem to be walking sticks?

A Those are staffs. There’s a grove of lilac bushes next to my studio that have been there for years. I’ve always had a connection to those lilacs; I like to see them flower in the spring. In many ways, they mark the seasons for me. So they seemed a good fit as a marker of moving through the cycle of life. And I used them here as that. They’re hand-whittled, very simply done.

Q And how did you create the skulls?

A Basically, we take a human skull and apply chewing gum, which is like a skin, as well as glass eyes. We proceed in layers of development mimicking the way the body is built up.

Q Are they real skulls?

A I never use plastic. I always use real materials; these were obtained in an honest way.

Q On a different note, you have, in the past, made glass versions of construction tools. Do you see everyday hardware, which has proliferated around the AGO of late, as spiritual, too?

A Tools are the way in which we can materialize things; they become the means by which we can take things from an idea into a physical reality. They’re almost a means of transcendence that way. The tools also come from a connection to my father, who was a carpenter.

Q So do you think there’s a spiritual aspect into the renovation of this building?

A Yes. One of the things that’s really important about the spiritual aspect of this building being renewed is it reconnects community. For the first time in the history of this area, the nature of this community is particularly related to the artist and the participation of art in the larger realm. That’s why I’m honoured to be a part of this; it’s a first for bringing the community together in this way.

Q Does that mean, by extension, that art galleries are like alternative churches?

A No. But galleries and museums have always been repositories for the history of culture. They bring together all the things that we are. I think there’s a real aspect of manifesting how a culture can talk to itself, relate to itself and see visions materialized. And I think that process is spiritual, even if it’s not religious per se.

Q What are you working on next?

A I’m just finishing a piece for the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, which consists of two prayer wheels done in glass with brass fittings. People can spin them, because the notion of the prayer wheel is that every time the wheel turns there’s a prayer that’s being said. It goes from a gesture of the body into mental and other levels.

Q Your work at the AGO will live alongside many other artworks. What heartens you most about seeing art today?

A The idea that it can relate directly to people’s lives, that it can really touch people. I think that’s what it’s all about. If you can’t transform someone’s life by touching them, why do it?

Tim Whiten’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario opens to the public tomorrow. Visit for details.

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