In Search of Quiet Spaces: A Review of A Heap of Random Sweepings

A Heap of Random Sweepings is an exhibition at the Koffler Art Centre curated by Mona Filip and is presented as a monographic exhibition of Canadian artist of Pakistani and Ugandan Indian descent, Sameer Farooq’s work. It is the first exhibition the gallery is presenting after COVID-19 lockdowns and ran from September 25 to November 14 2021. The questions about the looted objects held in historical museums in the global north, and I would argue the curatorial premise, suggest an exploration of how art could fill the spaces currently taken up by stolen artifacts. Although a quick reading of promotional material for the exhibition creates a sense of the exhibition as a fairly traditional single-artist show, there are actually two collaborators who are key to construction of the exhibition. Specifically, the work of the two collaborators are key framing devices for how visitors to the gallery engage with Farooq’s work and move through the gallery space. As successful as these devices are should visitors choose to engage with them, I would suggest that the presentation of the exhibition as a monographic show makes it more difficult for visitors, especially those visiting casually, to engage with the curatorial premise of the show.

A Heap of Random Sweepings presents work by Sameer Farooq that was produced between 2019 and 2021 exploring the looted objects housed in history museums around the world. The exhibition includes a series of manipulated photos, plaster cast sculptures, and an installation work by Farooq, all of which suggest fragments of objects that one would expect to find in large universal museums like the ROM. However, all of the representations of historical artifacts have been distorted and disrupt the easy identification visitors expect from historical museums. In the photographs, the image has been edited to obscure the particulars of the artifacts so that they appear as dark holes in the image that stand out against a strongly coloured, and strangely lit, display case. Rather than having the images stand in for the presence of these objects in the gallery space, Farooq’s photographs suggest the absence of artifacts in empty display cases. The plaster cast sculptures focus on religious or devotional objects and have both positive and negative impressions of Hindu and Buddhist statues. The medium refers back to the process of collection and archeology used by European museum collectors, but as with the photographs, the distortions Farooq uses imply an absence rather than a presence of these objects. The single installation piece in the exhibition is the only one that replicates museum display structures directly and presents glassed round glaze on a tiered display stand along with a poem text. This installation piece feels like a kind of hinge point for the exhibition and is discussed in greater depth later when considering how the curatorial theme is communicated. None of the work hangs on the walls, which are painted black, and rather, are pushed into the centre of the gallery space on rolling plinths and glass easels.

Although the impression given by the title of the exhibition, and even the introductory wall panel, is that A Heap of Random Sweepings is a single artist show, there are actually two other collaborators whose work I feel are central to the functioning of the exhibition. Original compositions are included from Gabie Strong; these monotonous post-rock sounds create an immersive atmosphere in the gallery space which makes it feel distinctly liminal and separate from other spaces in the building. The soundtrack provides a way of tuning out interfering noise and helps to establish a meditative mood that the introductory wall text indicates is important to the vision of the exhibition. The other collaborator is poet Jared Stanley, whose short verses seem to replace interpretive texts inside the exhibition. Stanley’s poetry is presented as white text on a black background, but closer examination finds additional text embossed in the paper or annotated in barely visible pencil. These pieces are placed in the space in ways that put them clearly in conversation with Farooq’s work, and for viewers who are engaging in the timed meditative mode of the exhibition (discussed below), the poetry provides questions through which to focus the meditation on the art. There is no other interpretive text in the gallery space beyond the introductory wall text, which I think was a successful choice and enabled Stanley’s poetry to suggest potential interpretations of Farooq’s work without pointing to a particular viewpoint which I think would have been a risk if the curator had used traditional interpretive labels. 

The artist and curator hope that visitors will move through the space in a meditative way using the structure provided both by the benches in the space and the timing indicated by the soundscape. Each of the six benches in the exhibition provide a different vantage point from which to view the exhibition and bells ring at six-minute intervals to indicate that it is time to move to the next location. This was clearly and concisely explained in the introductory wall text and I chose to follow this suggested way of engaging with the exhibition. I found that with the exception of one bench (located on the far left of the gallery while standing at the entrance), the benches were well positioned to encourage looking at a few works together rather than as individual pieces which provided enough visual interest to make the six minutes feel comfortable and appropriate to consider the work. The bell sounds stand out quite a bit from the droning post-rock music composed for the exhibition, so even if visitors do not read the introductory wall panel or are choosing not to follow the suggested timing, I think it would be clear that the bells were occurring at set intervals and were likely communicating something about how to engage with the space. 

After spending time in the exhibition, I had a brief conversation with the gallery attendant who is also one of the education coordinators for the Koffler Gallery. I was very curious about whether visitors actually follow the suggested model of viewing the exhibition using the benches and timing to create a meditative space. The gallery is a relatively small space and to complete the full viewing in the meditative mode would take at minimum 36 minutes. I’m not confident that I would have stuck with this model of viewing the exhibition if I hadn’t been entering the space with the intention of writing this review. The staff member indicated that the level of engagement with the suggested viewing model varies widely. Many visitors have not planned to spend so much time and they have had some people view the art in a more traditional way on their first visit and then return to engage in the meditation on a separate visit. My impression from the conversation was that it is difficult for viewers who were not aware of the structure of the show before their visit to shift towards the different way of looking that is suggested for the exhibition. 

I left my visit with an extremely positive view of the exhibition, but not the experience I was expecting when planning my visit.  The curatorial presence in the space was very quiet and instead of being guided by the curatorial vision, I felt like my experience was being shaped primarily by Sameer Farooq’s two collaborators as they enabled entrance into the work and the creation of an immersive contemplative space. I think this model was extremely successful in thinking through the connection between the display of historical artifacts in museums and the ways that we engage with art. It was upon returning home and sitting down to read the short catalogue that I felt the curatorial strong premise was drawn together with very understated curatorial presence in the gallery itself. In the exhibition essay, Mona Filips discusses Dan Hick’s ideas about the museum as a space for ordering and fixing the colonial world in the past and the Heraclitus quote that the title of the exhibition is drawn from “The fairest order in the world is just a heap of random sweepings”. The Heraclitus quote gestures towards the same ideas that are inherent in Hick’s academic work and is pointed to in Farooq’s art – the idea that the order of any collection of objects is artificial and imposed by an outside viewer who chooses to ignore points of difference. 

Filip moves through a discussion of some of the works in the exhibition and builds her essay towards the discussion of the single installation piece in the exhibition titled, “if it were possible to collect all the navels of the world on the steps to ASCENSION”. In the gallery space, this work feels different from the pieces that surround it: it is the only work that you are encouraged through the positioning of the benches to view straight on with no other works in view. And rather than having text by Stanley loosely associated with it through proximity, the words ‘for adepts’ is printed on the floor and there is a poem on the display plinth itself. Reading Filip’s essay encourages a further reflection on the distinct qualities of this piece as a kind of focal point of the exhibition. She explains the background of the clay objects as a type of mystical focus stone that was common in temples throughout the near and far east, which were considered unique to each temple they resided in. Even with the poetry text that was on the installation in the space which I engaged with during the work’s meditative period, this background was not clear and it was Filip’s analysis of the piece that drew the show together through the catalogue text. She writes, “With the disappointment of revealed ubiquity comes a different kind of epiphany: the world has no centre. Because the centre is a multitude and omnipresent, there is no hierarchy. There is instead a sense of commonality – an acknowledgement of kinship. And the museums might as well collect a heap of random sweepings”. For me this pointed towards the presence/absence dichotomy that came through so clearly in Farooq’s art as an exploration of how the display of artifacts in museums removes the sense of uniqueness and reverence from traditional objects. In suggesting that the museum could just as well have collected that heap of random sweepings, Mona Filips draws together her lack of presence in the gallery. Instead, the exhibition presents the work of artists filling spaces when the imposed order of the museum is let go, a model which discourages set explanations by curators and instead invites deep contemplation from visitors.

This review was originally written as part of an assignment in one of my graduate classes. If you enjoyed this post, you might also find my review of the exhibition Marvelous Monsters interesting, that post can be viewed HERE. And if you really enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my writing by buying me a coffee HERE.

Documentation of this exhibition can be found on the Koffler website: https://kofflerarts.org/Exhibitions/Gallery/Gallery-Exhibitions/Sameer-Farooq

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