Andrew Reyes. All that is, 2004, The Balcony, Toronto
By Rosemary Heather
Art is the great provider of context, which is the primary feature of its contemporary practice. Anything can be art, provided certain conventions of its presentation are observed. This makes art practice like a sport in which participants test the limits of what its context can absorb. James Carl’s Balcony project in Toronto’s Kensington Market offers precisely this kind of opportunity for a gamesmanship of artistic ingenuity. An improvised billboard space, Carl shows work screenprinted on Coreplast, attached to the exterior of his second floor balcony, a site that overlooks a small park in the city’s downtown. Because it must adhere to no commercial imperative, the Balcony offers artists a relatively unfettered occasion for public address. Judging by past efforts, most artists chose to speak to their de facto audience in only the most oblique fashion, referencing instead trends in contemporary art in a way that resonates with the context and speaks to the interests of the informed art viewer.
By contrast, for his Balcony project Andrew Reyes devised a way to push further against the limits of the art context that at the same time quite possibly obliterates it. Silver letters on a chocolate brown background present a new-agey exhortation that begins with the sentence: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate/ our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…” According to Reyes, the quotation is commonly attributed to Nelson Mandela, but was in fact written by the Californian new age writer Marianne Williamson. A popular author of spiritual self-help books, Williamson has built a saleable life philosophy around the idea that happiness appears when we “let go of fear”. This Manichean idea – recognize that fear is in battle with love in your heart and you too can be a victor in life – seems a plausible, if somewhat general, analysis of what’s wrong with the world. Widely distributed on the net, the quote’s misattribution to Mandela speaks of a popular consensus about the import of the sentiment it expresses and the inspirational values the figure of Mandela represents – although it is doubtful that Mandela would speak about one’s duty to be “gorgeous, talented and fabulous”, as Williamson does.
The 16th Balcony project since its start in 2002, Reyes use of a quotation is, in the context of what Carl has previously shown, a novel strategy, prior projects that used text choosing to employ either slogans, like Ross Sinclair’s “I Love Real Life”, or in the case of the Icelandic artist Hlynur Hallsson, a single word: “Yes”. Reyes states that his intention was to present something “instantly recognizable and accessible”. A most common-sense use of the site, the text is also self-explanatory, dispensing handily with the need for the interpretive framework known as art. Preserving a smidgen of ambiguity that tethers the project back to its art provenance, the quote appears on the balcony without note of its authorship. Reyes does this presumably in reference to the history of its confused origin, but also because it doesn’t need it. The statement is sufficient in itself: What the world needs now is love. By using Williamson’s text, and quoting her in full, Reyes crosses over from the vagaries of art into the realm of readily intelligible meaning. In the process, he risks appearing sincere, not a known tendency in the artworld. But then maybe that is his point? When he says that he “liked the idea of bringing unusual content to an unsuspecting audience” you have to wonder who he thought would be unsuspecting? Surely not the guy Carl saw standing in the street last week, copying the text down into his notebook.
This text orginally published in Canadian Art, Summer 2005.