Through the Looking glass

20 October 2014

Christine Redfern
Canadian Art Magazine

I think it is good to be curious when you approach art, if you are not curious, why do you approach art? – BGL

Walking through the newly designed entrance of Optica’s gallery in Montreal last April, I encounter four large-scale laminated photographs under Plexiglas by the Quebec City trio BGL. The collective’s name is derived from the first letter of the last names of each collaborator: Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère and Nicolas Laverdière. In the first image, titled Good Night Darthy, I see a figure dressed in tights, frilly shirt and other finery worn by European noblemen during the eighteenth century. The figure looks down at where Darth Vader has melted onto the floor, leaving behind only a slick puddle and his famous mask. The scene is drenched in light, streaming in through neo-gothic windows. The artwork brings to mind a complex, reductionist aesthetic drawn from the pop culture paradigm of lost dreams, fallen heroes and the passage of time.


Photo : Isaac Applebaum

The almost religious light and dark contrasts of Good Night Darthy is revisited in the juxtaposition of the natural and man-made elements in the next photograph Domaine de l’angle (Domain of the Angle). I note the picture’s classic modernist angles with the inclusion of an eloquently positioned drop ceiling, placed outside with a forest of birch and maple trees growing through it. Suddenly, without warning, the unthinkable happens. The valuable work of art falls off the wall, crashing to the floor with a stomach-turning explosion. Someone screams. Everyone present is frozen in space, staring at the picture lying on the ground. Before action can be taken, the cords coming out of the wall and leading to the back of the picture start to slowly drag the picture back into position, ready to repeatthe process and fall again a few minutes later. Welcome to the world of BGL.

Don’t try to figure out what a ‘complex, reductionist aesthetic’ might be. The pictures and what they ‘mean’ are actually superfluous. I was just having some fun parodying dense art texts, just as BGL is having some fun mocking the hot-selling trend in contemporary art of big photos under Plexiglas. The pictures are there mainly as decoys, to hold the viewers attention, so they will be caught off-guard when the real artistic gesture happens. BGL explains, “We like to put the work of art somewhere else than where people expect it. If we think about the photographs, the viewer walks in and thinks, ‘Ah, what do we have here?’ But for us, the photos are not what is important, we don’t care. For us, the work of art is the piece falling.”

In their gallery and museum exhibitions, BGL does not come in and fill an existing space with an installation, they redesign it, perhaps by building a new wall, a drop ceiling, a hidden door, a new entrance. I have been reviewing the visual arts for years for the Montreal Mirror and no one ever stops me in my tracks the way BGL does. Step back to 2001 when their solo exhibition Sheltered from the Trees was at the Musée d’art contemporain. I arrive after the press conference is over and get permission to do a quick tour of the exhibit by myself. I run up the museum’s staircase to the second floor, turn the corner into the gallery space and in confusion, I turn around and walk back out. After glancing at the text on the wall to confirm that I am indeed in the right location, I go back into the sterile looking office that occupies the former gallery. There isn’t much to look at, so I go over and peek into a closet door that is ajar, there I find a hidden passageway made from stacks and stacks of discarded boxes. I feel as though I am leaving reality behind, like Alice in Wonderland, and entering another dimension.

Behind that bland office space, BGL created a subterranean passageway with a party atmosphere: boxes wrapped up as presents, remnants of burnt candles, balloons, party hats and plastic cups. The light filters down trough tree shaped holes cut out of the cardboard ceiling. Eventually there is a ladder that you can climb and rise above the cluttered space, where you look across a vast cardboard forest, stretching off into the distance as far as the eye can see. Beautiful at first, but then the whole illusion becomes bitter-sweet, as the realization sinks in that the entire installation is built from the recycled by-products of what was once living trees.

More recently, BGL presented the solo exhibition Se la jouer commercial (To Play it (Up) Commercially) at Montreal’s Art Mûr gallery. Everyone entered through a turnstile just like in any number of retail establishments, except this time an impressive stuffed moose spun around instead of the traditional metal bar. BGL comments, “At Art Mûr with the turnstile, we wanted to make holes in the wall so people would see that the moose really turns. So I took the foot and forcibly pushed it against the drywall, and I asked, am I painting or sculpting? You may laugh, but at its core this action is the same as painting and sculpting; it’s a perfect example of our strange artistic language.”

Works by BGL are not just about creating an amusement park environment of surprise and laughter; there is always an ironic questioning of our social and economic values lurking below the surface. Their approach is not predictable and their use of materials is at times shocking for those who experience them. A local weekly, the Hour, received the following email in regards to a revue of Se Jouer by critic Isa Tousignant. Reader Maria Silva wrote, “Really this is art? Why a Moose and not a Cow or a Pig or a Human. You just hang them up and oops I have created art…. This is awful and insulting to expose this as art. Why not just put the hunter’s truck up there with the deer or moose stretched over the top of the hood. This exhibition really comes in bad taste.”

It is probably a good thing that Silva didn’t know that BGL had already, indeed, done just that. The Art Mûr exhibition included an ATV tipped on its side, shot full of arrows, with the previously mentioned slick (that was Darth Vader) spilled on the floor. But in 2005, as part of Manif d’art de Québec they tied the moose to the roof of an Audi and pulled the ‘mortally wounded’ ATV behind on a trailer. They called the intervention Montrer ses trophés (To Show One’s Trophies). “People looked at that – a moose on the roof on an expensive luxury car. And the moose didn’t look like it was just shot, because it was stuffed it didn’t have the look of a cadaver, it looked alive,” says BGL. “We want to make people spend a bit more time contemplating what they see, the experience they are having and slow down the process of viewing.”

Another provocative work at Art Mûr, presented in the gallery’s storefront window, was a high-end motorcycle with a front wheel resting on the base of a walker. Inside the gallery was a video, captured at the above-mentioned Manif d’art, of the retrofitted motorcycle being steered by Laverdière, while Bilodeau and Giguère on roller skates provided the manpower to make it go. Dressed in skin-tight outfits worn by many athletes (think bobsled team), the video shows them silently pushing the contraption around the streets of Quebec City. BGL remarks, “There was something beautiful about it (the motorcycle/walker), but it wasn’t alive. So we started to think about taking it down a hill, dressed up foolishly to make it plausible. So when it passes people think you are training for something, but when they really look they think, what? It was crazy going down the hills, you imagine? With the little wheels of the walker, brrrrrttt.”

At first glance, a BGL intervention seems credible as a real-life situation, but when we look closer, absurdity reigns supreme. In their 2005 exhibition Need to Believe at Toronto’s Mercer Union gallery, they pushed ludicrousness to the limit. The public, upon entering, found themselves inside an office space, instead of the regular gallery. The opening fell on a rainy night and water was dripping through the ceiling, had drowned a potted plant and was splashing on the floor. The space seemed to be undergoing renovations. By passing through a hidden doorway, the viewer came across a car smashed through the rear of the gallery. By standing on top of the car, they could peek above the false ceiling. At this point, the belief that the viewer is experiencing a real event can no longer be sustained. For there, standing up above the gallery ceiling, is a man with GOD written in studs on his leather jacket, taking a leak – the source of the original leaking water.

BGL observes, “The leaking water is similar to the Optica show, but in the opposite sense. You do not see it as a work of art. You walk by it and don’t pay it much attention, it is only later after exploring the exhibition that the viewer comes back and realizes, ‘Ah, that’s their intervention.’”

In our current fast pased era, where incresing the speed of travel, of communication, even of pleasure is a driving force behind our society, BGL’s work provides a brake on the proceedings. Who knows, do you think we can be slowed down enough to actually contemplate the consequences of our actions? Nah, but luckily we can enjoy the works of BGL for a pause in the madness.