Helga Pakasaar, On the new Polygon Gallery, North Vancouver – Karen Henry

[Winter 2018]

Curator Helga Pakasaar contemplates changes in Vancouver institutions and art practices at a significant moment of change for Presentation House Gallery, where she has been curator since 2003, as it is transformed into the new Polygon Gallery. The Polygon is situated next to the Lonsdale Quay along North Vancouver’s waterfront, directly across the harbour from downtown Vancouver. The luminescent 25,000-square-foot building, designed by Patkau Architects, has a distinctive saw-tooth roof line and contains gallery and event spaces on the exhibitions floor, which is cantilevered over a bright, spacious lobby housing a gift shop and planned café. The ambitious first exhibition, N. Vancouver, curated by director Reid Shier, opens in November and includes commissioned and existing works by artists from the region. I asked Helga for her views on the situation and potential of the beautiful new space.

An interview by Karen Henry

KH: The Polygon Gallery is one of several new facilities either existing or planned in the next few years – the Audain Gallery in Whistler; the new Vancouver Art Gallery, which, we hope, will break ground next year; and there’s talk of a new Contemporary Art Gallery. How will The Polygon fit into this particular constellation?

HP: We’re out of the gate first and have set the bar for being able to achieve our goals and move forward into the next chapter of this institution’s life, which is long overdue. But in a more “cultural network” sense, we are now really positioned in relation to Vancouver, literally through this vista. Not that we weren’t before, but there was a slight disconnect, because of the low visibility of the old location. So now we will be able to attract audiences that may have lived very close to us before but never even knew that we were there. The new gallery is also a kind of declaration, culturally and politically; it’s a very important gesture that asserts that visual art galleries have a truly significant role in our social and cultural life. We’ve always considered ourselves an important part of the Lower Mainland visual arts sphere, but now it’s just more concrete, given this location and the scope of what we’re now able to generate in terms of exhibitions, education programs, and other kinds of activities that allow us to breathe and grow.

KH: It’s my understanding that you’re still maintaining a focus on photography and media. I was wondering how you think the architecture will determine the nature of the exhibitions you’re able to do, and especially in the context of how photography proliferates these days through such small apparatuses, like cell phones, and is disseminated through the internet.

HP: The Polygon Gallery is certainly a more professional operation that allows us to be more ambitious; I’m thinking about not just the better-equipped facility but also the increase in human and financial resources that allows us to work on projects that go beyond the architecture. And I think given our history with image culture – that’s a term I like – it makes sense for us to be able to have a digital presence in a more interactive way; for example, we’re working on some projects that will be part of our inaugural app.

In terms of how the architecture will define what we can exhibit, the main gallery space is not broken up with permanent walls because we plan to redesign spaces in response to different kinds of artworks, to be able to make spaces appropriate to the experience of intimate-scale historical photographs as well as large-scale media installations. A great deal of thought was put into making the exhibition space very flexible and adaptable. And also, I believe that the gallery will continue with the unique focus that we have not just because that’s our past identity, but because it’s also a real strength in what we’ve been able to accomplish. But, given the way photography has developed, going well beyond “wall art,” I think there are many different kinds of artworks that will find their way into this space that wouldn’t necessarily be defined as photography, or even “media.” I mean, those are very medium-specific terms that are hardly applicable to a lot of contemporary work. So I imagine that there will be a different kind of language around how we define what we do in relation to a broader mandate around interpreting image culture. Considering that one of our strengths has been the ability to bring to light unique photographic materials that otherwise would have disappeared, or that people have forgotten about, it’s likely that we will continue to be interested in interpreting the history of artworks that are derived from cameras.

KH: So there is an intention to maintain that medium-specific focus?

HP: There are contemporary artists working in so many different ways. The photographic is just one part of the work, or might not even be visible, so it’s a pretty open field. One aspect of what we’ve done very well since the beginning is publications, in various formats, from monographs to artist-driven publications that are works in their own right, so I see that focus being maintained. There’s an interesting return to the role of the book: it’s a key part of how a lot of contemporary photographers are thinking right now. So, I guess that’s the challenge: to interpret the camera’s impact through art in various formats from a wide perspective; to respond imaginatively to what happened in the past and what’s happening now; and to anticipate future directions. That’s an interesting challenge because so many of the recent discourses around photography have been about new modes in the digital world – an important phenomenon not only to respond to, but to explore and work with, and keep up with. So it’s all a work in progress and our future direction will also be in response to cultivating entirely new audiences.

KH: I was thinking about the exhibition that you did, c. 1983, which defined a particular moment in this area, when photography was starting to move off the wall and into different forms. Again – following on some of the changes that are happening in image culture – if you were to do a c. 2018 exhibition, what would that look like?

HP: Although c. 1983 was about this particular context, it did reflect what was happening in other places, too, and how – in some ways – the medium was being blown out of the water. A current manifestation would have to embrace images that exist in an immaterial form as well as works that actually emphasize materiality – the materiality of making images being a really important aspect of photographic art today. And maybe also giving a sense of how the single, autonomous photograph is not really so meaningful at this moment, in terms of how we experience images and how artists are working with image proliferation in the digital realm. So relationships – relations between – seems like a significant point to be made. It’s not as though a single image can’t be amazingly evocative and powerful and intriguing, but it seems that many artists today are working with configurations of images. So, off the cuff, it would be fairly eclectic; include moving pictures, like c. 1983 did; cover a range of approaches, from the über-material to the immaterial; and reveal production methods, such as new technologies.

KH: Even getting back into older technology, like the Risograph.

HP: The analogue is certainly making a resurgence in a big way. Artists here – whether they come out of training as photographers or not – are very aware of what it means to take pictures with a camera apparatus because that’s been such an important part of our local history, and it is taught in schools, so there’s a kind of hyper-consciousness around why you choose to take one approach or another; to, say, go back to early printing techniques and anachronistic technology or to create latent images that never really appear is all quite strategic. I often hear artists talking about the legacy of Vancouver’s acclaimed photography “school,” and how they want to position themselves in relation to that, which often seems to mean countering how that narrative is understood.

KH: So can you speak about anything that you are working toward for the new space?

HP: Right now there are a lot of decisions being made. But I can say that I’m working toward a show that would feature so-called media art. And Reid is working with a contemporary artist whose photographic works are often in relation to his sculptures and in response to the particulars of a space. We are only beginning to spend time in the new space to get to know it a bit, and so we’re consciously thinking about it as a staging ground, as are the artists. While by no means a neutral space, it seems free of all the limitations of the three domestic-scale rooms of the old gallery and feels like a wide-open field that inspires ideas about how you can create a whole spectacle. Of course, we’re still interested in photographs on the wall, and not necessarily giant ones. One of the advantages of having this new facility is that we’re able to borrow shows from institutions that require climate control much more readily – so it opens up all kinds of possibilities for presenting exhibitions of both historical and contemporary work.

KH: It’s nice to know that you won’t be giving up some of the research into historical photographs, because you’ve done a number of shows that brought forward people who were kind of lost in time.

HP: I think that such projects would be framed very differently than how they were before. This idea of found and vernacular photographs – those are inadequate words, especially in relation to what is accessible on the internet. The gallery has always had an interest in looking beyond the conventional canon of photography. For instance, Miroslav Tichý and Claude Cahun were not part of the history-of-photography narrative until they were “discovered” not that long ago. So, I think that with more global kinds of information available, this whole idea of “the canon” has become, thankfully, quite messed up. We’ve always had an interest in images that have other purposes, or maybe were made for reasons other than art as such, and we’ve have continued to give such eclectic photographic material fresh interpretations, which, again, relates to how many contemporary artists are working with images. So, you know, it’s probably less idiosyncratic than it used to be to haul out Foncie [Foncie Pulice, 1940s street photographer in Vancouver].

KH: How many exhibitions will you have per year in the new facility?

HP: Maybe three to four. But again, there are options to have a smaller exhibition or different rhythms, or maybe some major installation on the entrance floor. The beauty of having this kind of space to work with is that you really can customize the experience for visitors, and give them different kinds of encounters with art at different times, without having to just follow a rigid format. So that’s a consideration as well: how that will all be choreographed.

A word I haven’t used is “multidisciplinary,” which is increasingly becoming an important aspect of contemporary art – for example, performance as an integral part of installation. I think in general, there’s this feeling here that we can imagine more possibilities for how to respond to contemporary art practices. And that includes having time-based activities or things that move around or that might not directly relate to photography at times. And, say, film as not being only in public programs, but actually a key component of an exhibition. And I think that it’s really important for galleries and museums to rethink the categories in which we define education and public art. Our new space and expanded programs present an opportunity to respond imaginatively to the questions that those categories raise. They also present ways to reinvigorate exhibition-making – they can switch out, you can move things around, they don’t have to be static.

I think that the exhibition modes that Presentation House Gallery embraced were experimental in certain ways. Sometimes you might not say that if you walked into a historical photography show, but even how we approached traditional material was very considered in terms of, “What are you setting up here for someone to encounter?” And that approach should blossom even more now. Often the cues come from the artists themselves, so who knows, in five years, what those challenges might be?

Karen Henry is a curator, writer, and editor who works for the Public Art Program in Vancouver.

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