John Armstrong

Tom Bendtsen, Project Room
Ross Sinclair, Main Gallery
Mercer Union, Toronto

Two concurrent installations at Mercer Union this fall presented cobbled towers that mischievously entertain autobiography: Tom Bendtsen has built a tightly packed architecture of books, and Ross Sinclair, a tree fort of studs and chipboard.

One of my worst nightmares is books-by-the-pound at the Sally Ann: seas of faded spines, endless bad company for a book that I must have read, and cherished, or at least formed some temporary but meaningful bond with. Such unholy collections of books explain why it is that public and private libraries should be periodically culled. I don’t like sorting through old books owned by other people. Toronto’s Tom Bendtsen evidently does, and, to his credit, makes sense of the passage of print from current use to life in a musty cardboard box.

Argument #3 (1997), Bendtsen’s floor-to-ceiling column of stacked books, gracefully expands in the middle to suggest compression by the gallery’s ceiling. (Project rooms, the artist may be indicating, are a weighty matter.) The column begins with a base of obsolete legal reference books and various leather-bound compendia of data. Upon the dusty authority of these rusticated spines rests books that appear to have been taken off the shelf of a Canadian student (the artist?) who has kept his or her assigned texts from high school through to the completion of a liberal arts degree and beyond: there are 1960s New Canadian Library titles (Gabrielle Roy, Ernest Buckler), current literary novels (Carol Shields, Michael Ondaatje), and cultural studies readers (Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva). This stratum goes up to just above your head where lies the level of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, another set of rusticated (although less authoritative) spines. From the Reader’s Digest level to the ceiling are the bestsellers — James Clavell, Shirley MacLaine, Alex Hayley. Although the strata do overlap, playfully, the novels of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. are everywhere.

Like a grocery store marketing strategist, Bendtsen is keen on a certain product line (Karl Marx to Anne Michaels, we’ll call it) that is pointedly placed at eye level. This may be a bit redundant, as we the viewers find ourselves to be in a culturally informed gallery setting where we ritually circle about the column, identifying the books (at eye level) many of us already own or might feel most comfortable admitting we’d read. We may have the satisfaction of personally endorsing the canon that Bendtsen has laid out for us; we look into the middle, swollen section of the pillar of wise and foolish print, and some of us see our own reflection.

Unlike many installations of thrift shop detritus (this has now become a genre in its own right) that scoldingly illustrate excessive, decidedly unthrifty consumer society, Bendtsen more narrowly locates his account of cycles of acquisition and disposal in the liberal humanist discourse that supports many cultural institutions — even artist-run centres. The column, composed of unlikely combinations of literary and pop culture, is surprisingly specific: I imagine the books’ owner to be an English-speaking (with a smattering of French), straight, Euro-Canadian that attended a North American university in the early 1980s. Bendtsen has in fact borrowed these books from various institutional libraries (the books’ library registration codes have been removed): that I don’t see writers and critics representing ethnicities, sexual orientations or theoretical positions outside of a definable spectrum still suggests a particular — individual or collective — editorial force. If the column first appears to be a core sample of grimy landfill, on close inspection it may come to represent the gallery’s — or any cultural institution’s — own necessarily delimited and evolving armature.

None of this hedging about identity for Glasgow artist Ross Sinclair who (in a video clip included in his installation) sings technologically garbled Gaelic love ballads to the barren Scottish heath. This proprietorial, if solitary, gesture finds an equivalent in his annexation of the Main Gallery as an outpost of a perhaps-not-too-exclusively-Scottish “Boys’ Own” mindset. In The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds (1997), we have a clubhouse on stilts made of materials that you can almost imagine to have been scarfed from building sites. Sinclair, here on his first visit to Canada, has discovered the wondrousness of Home Depot, Canadian Tire and Radio Shack: in addition to two-by-fours, chipboard, and aging video monitors, he purchased wooden paddles, loudspeakers and electronic widgets — all patched together and painted dayglo red to create a fantasia on Do-It-Yourself culture.

Sinclair’s promotion of revitalized Scottish authenticity — in the video he wears a pair of tartan shorts and has the words REAL LIFE tattooed across his back — is, even by his own reckoning, imperiled. (The tower has undergone a bow-and-arrow attack.) During the exhibition opening he maintained his outsider status by sitting in his aerial fortress while accompanying himself on guitar. The inside of the tower and all of the gallery’s considerable window space is covered with slogan-adorned T-shirts, a number proudly displaying price tags from Tati, France’s rock-bottom-cheapest department store. The slogans, brusquely painted with out-of-the-tube acrylic colour, maintain a Tati-vision of world culture commemorating songwriters as diverse as Glen Campbell and Curt Cobain, quoting snippets of lyrical pap (“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”), and offering a generally grim view of economic prosperity (“Up Shit Creek,” “Born to Lose,” “Fuck Yer Job”).

The one-man-Scot-against-the-world had a bit of a holiday during an evening at Toronto’s Club Shanghai where he sang both an a cappella traditional ballad and straight-ahead pop songs. Sinclair’s genius is to not try to construct a rootsy union between Scottish tradition and the commodified might of either pop music or a big box retailer’s check-out counter — despite all odds, you can’t keep the Highlander away.

Here we have two models of the artist: one, endlessly encumbered by books and the chameleon canons of mass cultural and academic life, and the other, a frayed troubadour shopper, guitar and battery-pack Makita at the ready. And there is the host institution: Bendtsen fastidiously hypothesizes the gallery’s cultural ballast; whereas, for Sinclair the gallery blithely becomes roadhouse.

“Tom Bendtsen, Ross Sinclair.” Parachute 90, April 1998 - June 1998