Raphaëlle de Groot

Raphaëlle de Groot
Art Gallery of Windsor
On view until January 17, 2016

The Summit Meetings marks the end of a long journey for Montreal artist Raphaëlle de Groot. Starting in Canada in 2009, and later expanding to an international scope, de Groot sought donations of personal belongings from strangers for her mixed media installation The Burden of Objects (2009-2014). She has taken on some 1,800 objects that were kept because of motivations like grief, guilt, nostalgia, superstition, or compulsion. In this final stage – a collaboration between the Art Gallery of Windsor, Southern Alberta Art Gallery and Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec that is curated by Ryan Doherty, Bernard Lamarche and Srimoyee Mitra – she also includes museum artifacts from the AGW and Windsor’s Community Museum, such as a crochet hook, a sign held by a protestor, and a shovel used by a prince to plant a tree. Among other forms of display, objects are strung up in a net, placed under vitrines, and strewn across the floor.

There was a time when an apparently random arrangement of disparate objects angered audiences (Tom Folland’s account of responses to Robert Rauschenberg’s decorative Combines, which he started making in the 1950s, comes to mind). In modern art, found objects gave rise to terms like “dematerialization” and “deskilling” while calling into question long-held traditions like the veneration of the singular art object and artistic genius. But now, as audiences flock to the nearby Heidelberg Project in Detroit, delighting in its kitsch, artists like de Groot and contemporaries Jared Madere and Alison Kobayashi use found objects to focus on issues beyond art-making.

De Groot’s articulation of her concept masks its emotional complexity. Although she describes eclectic items like an empty picture frame as “discarded,” they aren’t really discarded. Rather, they are conserved, exhibited, documented, and publicized. Thus, the donor hasn’t truly relinquished the object or denied its import. By gifting the object to the artist, the donor ensures its longevity. De Groot assumes the role of artist-curator in becoming the custodian of the objects (i.e., realizing the Latin root, ‘cura’). By interspersing the objects with museum artifacts, she elevates their status, validating the emotions of the original owner.

In this exploration of object attachment, the artist has identified herself as the recipient of emotional transference, but that burden doesn’t stop with her necessarily: the backstory of the personal attachment to the donated objects does not stay between donor and artist. Interestingly, de Groot has included a binder of contextualizing details about these contributions, like Jerome Kraus’ telephone. Kraus donated it because it was used to communicate the death of each of his parents, as well as his final living aunt and uncle. “I don’t want this phone anymore,” he writes. Consider that this example has been shared by the CBC, the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and by the artist herself in an interview with BLOUIN ARTINFO, as well as at a panel discussion at the AGW. In light of all the people who have been moved by this story – without even having to see the installation – it’s clear that the artist is a substantial conduit for emotion. But not always; the viewer could choose to not flip through the binder at all.

The version of the artist’s statement written in de Groot’s native French describes the works as “objets qui se voient relégués aux oubliettes et dont la valeur est mise en question.” It seems, however, that objects such as a candy bracelet from a former lover aren’t likely to have been forgotten (or they wouldn’t have been kept) and their value is certain (or they wouldn’t have been seen as burdens). And now, each object and its associated narrative will be remembered and valued. Emotional recovery is compromised by indulgence, making the exhibition a presumably accidental metaphor for the difficulty of unburdening oneself.

Cultural theorist Susan Willis argues that critical engagement, curiosity, and reflection on one’s own life occur more when an object is discovered accidentally and in situ, rather than put on display out of context. According to this logic, de Groot keeps the viewer at a safe distance, not prompting them to reflect on their own hang-ups. At the same time, curator Nora Sternfeld identifies the capacity for political change in a privileging of process over representation, and by creating spaces for encounters of an indeterminate nature, conditions which de Groot’s work fulfills. But buying into the political component of the show is challenging.

The artist’s stated goal is to present these objects “as if they were the protagonists of an important gathering of leaders” – i.e., to mimic a summit. She explains that the donated objects travel around the world with her, but this logic is weak since her wardrobe, toiletries and other items not considered art would also accompany her as she moves from place to place, plus the glob-trotting element isn’t apparent when taking in the show. As with her description of the emotional aspect of her concept, there is a questionable correspondence between the political concept and its realization. She is, however, successful in casting the objects as protagonists by animating them. For example, an electric typewriter on the floor under an orange reclining chair types every few seconds, as if by magic. Also, De Groot’s endearing stop motion films depict scenes like a wooden bead necklace wiggling in front of a static painting, and crated objects entering the bowels of the gallery shown from the point of view of mannequin legs. One film documents her collaborative performance on opening night in which circa-1970s orange curtains are trotted out with ceremonial flair as flags. The whimsy of her show (reinforced by overlapping space age-like film soundtracks made with the objects) seems at odds with the seriousness of politics, but I will concede that it’s conveniently fitting for the ‘sunny days’ of recent Canadian federal politics, evidenced by Members of Parliament and party leaders being invited to the World Climate Summit in Paris in 2015.

This quirky quality, this ability to create Heidelberg-like zaniness without having a conglomeration of objects feel like pastiche, is what caused me to stay so long that I was at risk of getting a parking ticket.