In our exhibition Elevated, Janic Kerbel’s poster work Is Iggy Fatuse, The Human Firefly is impossible to miss: its large scale and bold typography draw visitors and, we’ve noticed, it makes frequent appearances in visitor photos (and the odd #museumselfie).
What visitors may not realize is that they’re standing in front of the work of an artist in the running for one of the world’s most prestigious art prizes: Kerbel is a nominee for the 2015 Turner Prize for her work DOUG (2014), an operatic performance commissioned by The Common Guild at Mitchell Library, Glasgow. We asked Kitty Scott, our curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, to comment on her relationship with Kerbel and her work.
I have been privileged to work with Janice Kerbel in numerous ways over the last decade. In 2006 I acquired several significant works for the National Gallery of Canada, including Victorian Terrace: Seasonal-tiered Garden (2005), which already announced her intense, research-based approach and her interest in fictional scenarios that have the aura of reality and plausibility.
Two years later I invited her to run a great residency at the Banff Centre on Cosmic Ray Research, a program that took its inspiration from the defunct Sulfur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station built by the University of Calgary in the mid 1950s. Inspired by the idea of the consequences of something that remains unseen, Janice and the program’s participating artists considered what undetectable effects, like those of cosmic rays, might influence how we look and what we see. In our call to artists we emphasized extending an inquiry from things experienced physically such as time, scale and sound; to things experienced abstractly such as anticipation, causality, wonder and doubt.
In 2011 I exhibited Kill the Workers (2011), play for stage lights. In it, a lighting rig system is used to tell the story of a lone protagonist spotlight amongst a set of worker lights, as it attempts to achieve a state of “open white.” The dramaturgy and narrative progression are portrayed through changes in beam intensity, colour, pattern and direction. Through these cues, the lights become both the characters and the mechanics of the composition, switching between the roles of staging and performing.
We currently have one of Kerbel’s posters on display as part of Elevated, our exhibition of the AGO’s collection of contemporary art. It is Iggy Fatuse, The Human Firefly, from her series Remarkable (2007). Using 19th-century, carnival-style fonts, Kerbel imagines magical and impossible figures. In this case she brings to life with words – poetry really – a sideshow attraction, “the human firefly.” We’ve covered an entire wall with them, so that they resemble a hoarding you might see on the street. Her text opens with the word “WELCOME” – so it serves as a great introduction to the fifth-floor galleries and opens up potential around notions of spectacle in the museum world today.
Janice is an artist who moves from strength to strength, opening up new avenues of inquiry and modes of working. She is a great figure both in the context of contemporary art in Canada and internationally. I have been supporting her work for a long time. What can I say? I hope she wins.
Elevated is an ongoing exhibition on Level 5 of our Contemporary Tower (the Vivian & David Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art), featuring pieces from our collection, as well as loans. Over time, works enter and leave the space. We invite visitors to challenge their ideas about art and discover the reward of the unfamiliar.