Last weekend I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery for the first time. I went because time was running out on the Art Spiegelman exhibit. Little did I know that last Friday would be one of my best days in Vancouver.
I was interested in seeing the Spiegelman exhibit, not only because he is the creator of the Pullitzer Price winning comic Maus, but the exhibit showcases the evolution of his work. Two years ago I was lucky to hear him speak at the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Writers Program. It was a presentation, titled, “What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?” where he explores the evolution of comics in relation to his own life and the effects of the times on his work. By doing so he expresses why comics as a medium have value and why they refuse to be ignored. I should’ve taken notes because I remember very little from his lecture. One of the main reasons for this is while I related and looked up to the mainstream heroes (Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man) growing up, Spiegelman related and focused on the underground. I am mainstream. He is punk. However, this made the lecture more valuable to me. I didn’t need someone to express their love of the Big Two (Marvel and DC) and how important those characters are, or how they taught them how to be a better person. Instead, I was given a new perspective on comics. Not only in different types of genres and ways of storytelling, but what comics could accomplish as a medium. Since Spiegelman is punk, he did things mainstream comics at the time and even today couldn’t do. His stories and drawings weren’t constrained by a company or rules. His pieces and stories were expressions of him and him alone. It was his voice.
When I saw ads for his exhibit I made a mental note of going. I had never been inside the Vancouver Art Gallery before and soon as I opened it’s door and stepped in, it felt as if I was on a different plane. It felt as if I had to hold my breath and never exhale. The atmosphere felt heavier, the building and design was exquisite. I was an invader of a hollowed ground, someone who didn’t appreciate art but needed to check out an exhibit to write in for his blog. How dare I try and steal something which felt so pure.
After I bought my ticket and stepped into the exhibit hall, time slowed down. Everything was serene and calm. There was a shift internally, as if my body was telling me, “Time doesn’t matter in here. Take your time and take it all in. Enjoy the moment.” When I left my apartment earlier that day I assumed I would be in the gallery for an hour or so. After walking in I knew I underestimated my time; for all I knew, I’d spend my entire day here. I ended up wandering the gallery for three hours.
The person at the kiosk recommended that I start at the top floor of the gallery and work my way down to make the most of my time. This was fine by me because the Spiegelman exhibit was on the top floor. Perhaps I might ignore the rest of the gallery. The Spiegelman floor was meticulous in it’s layout and design. Books, pages – his entire history split. I knew as soon as I made a lap of the top floor why time felt slower. I was in a time capsule. A time capsule of Spiegelman’s work. His voice. Maybe that’s why the gallery was so quiet: people listen to the pieces speak.
The biggest room was dedicated to Maus. There were unfinished pages, rough drafts, juxtaposed with the complete works. There was his notes and commentary and quotes from his parents. At the end of the room there was a couch and a table with copies of Maus spread out across for people to read. Even if I have yet to read it, I did not want to indulge there. For all I knew if I began I would stay there until I was kicked out. Each room focused on a different time or work of Spiegelman’s, each with a stylized poster board giving a quick summary of the work. For the Maus portion, the stylized poster board was beside a blown up cover of Maus which took up the quarter of a wall. A glowing quote by Umberto Eco at the end of the summary summed up why Maus is a classic: “Maus is a book that cannot be put down, truly, even to sleep.”
As mystifying the Maus area was, I found myself drawn to his work for The New Yorker. Here was Spiegelman’s work. While Maus brought you in the middle of the horrors of the Holocaust, his work for The New Yorker moved the subjects back and he widened the scope. If Maus was art told from the street, the covers of The New Yorker boomed from rooftops and skylines. Three pieces stood out to me: “Abstract Thought is a Warm Puppy” (Feb. 14/2000), the “Ground Zero” cover (Sept. 24/2001), and “Guns of September” cover (Sept. 13/1993). Ground Zero and Guns of September are both striking and haunting images. It takes our fears and brings them front and center. Much like Maus they cannot be put down, not even to sleep.
With “Abstract Thought is a Warm Puppy”, I saw Spiegelman’s voice run through. Except this voice isn’t to make a statement or point something out. Instead it is Spiegelman saying goodbye to a friend. At the core, that’s what this exhibit is about, Spiegelman’s relationship with comics. Like a friend, they inspire, push, and lift him. They also mock, tease, and break his heart. However, no matter what happens, they’ll always be there for him as a reminder of the best which is inside him. The last portion of the Spiegelman floor highlights the importance of “Kids Comics.” Yes, even the punk and radical Artist admits, “That comics are not just for grown ups anymore.” They can be thought provoking, offensive, and even works of art, but never forget they are meant to be fun as well.
After spending an hour on the top floor, I felt drained but at the same time was curious to see what else the gallery had to offer. What I discovered below did not disappoint and it can be argued, surpassed the floor I had just spent an hour absorbing.
“A hotel is a plot – a cybernetic universe with it’s own laws generating random but fortuitous collisions between human beings who would never have met elsewhere.”
The quote above was made by Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. The quote was placed beside a giant photo of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. The second floor exhibit showcased The Grand Hotel. The exhibit dissects the idea of a hotel; how did it come to be, what is it now, where is it going, and why are they important? They do this by breaking the idea of the hotel into eight sections: travel, the politics of travel, the psychology of travel, design, hotel typologies, powers of ten, social and cultural aspects. Walking through the Spiegelman exhibit, I took everything in – I felt calm and attentive. With the Grand Hotel, my senses were overwhelmed. I was caught up in a rush – the exhibit gave me the sensation of travel. While Spiegelman’s exhibit made me want to curl up in bed with Maus and absorb everything, the Grand Hotel made me want to globe trot. My favourite part of the exhibit was the displays of hotel typologies. They had numerous analytical models made from all over the world. Six struck my curiousity the deepest: Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Waldorf Astoria in New York City, Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles, Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, and Dolder Grand in Zurich. After spending an hour on this floor I felt in limbo. I was tired but there was still more I wanted to look at and learn.
I made my way back to the ground floor to take in the last part of the Grand Hotel, which was the culture area. In my opinion, they saved the best for last. The exhibit so far was about hotels as an idea and how that idea has evolved over the years. While every hotel does have it’s own personality, the exhibit had not yet touched on the human element – what do we do in hotels. From Vienna, to Paris, New York, and Los Angeles the exhibit gives hotels their most important element, the human one.
I texted Nicole after five minutes of wandering around the Grand Hotel. I told her that she’d love this exhibit and that we should come in the fall. I don’t have much time left in Vancouver before I’m going back to Calgary for the rest of summer and have made a conscious effort to maximize my time. A day spent listening to unheard art speak was great. I wish I could take the feeling with me as I left, guess I’ll have to tune into the unheard art around me in daily life.
It’s Like I Have ESPN or Something – Nicole
Hotels are so totally my thing. Comics, not so much.
But I like that comics and hotels are buddying up and sharing hallowed presentation space in Vancouver’s Art Gallery. It’s kind of like kalamata olives and pineapple. Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un. Teen girls and vampires. Chocolate and cheese. Tom Cruise and couches. Laundry and wine. Lance Armstrong and Ashley Olsen (horrifying. Ick.) Like how Irving and I are friends?
Maybe it’s the whole opposites attract thing – texture, personality, north pole, south pole? Maybe it’s brave experimenting: smush different stuff together, eventually new BFF combos emerge. I mean, it’s science (side note: strawberries and balsamic vinegar. Now. No regrets), right? This whole new-things-becoming-amigos business is major.
Good work, hotels and comics.