Absent Friends at Birch Contemporary

What does it mean to create a dining room in a gallery space? Furniture has its place in nearly every part of our lives, yet is overlooked in its role of manipulating the way we interact with space and with other people. When given more thought, the dinner table is a center of unity for individuals. The surface is a communal area and hovering over it is conversation, laughter, and debate. The dinner table is a peaceful place as when fighting starts seats are typically abandoned. The COVID-19 pandemic no longer allows for these interactions over tables due to social distancing. Instead, people eat alone at their desk, in their bed, or over the kitchen sink with crumbs falling into the basin.

Curated by Ross/Hafiz Lalani-Jennings Birch Contemporary has set up a functional dining room space in their gallery with a six-placement table positioned in the middle of the room. Amongst plates and utensils, the surface is filled with ceramics including vessels and candelabras, artificial plant vines, and a bronze mouse. Even though the artists could not be present in person at this dinner, their works stand in for them. According to the gallery’s website, it is an English tradition to acknowledge those who could not be present at events. Birch Contemporary explains that Absent Friends is “a toast to our resilience, our courage, our hope, and our support to one another during this most remarkable of years”. The preface continues saying that, “[This show] is a celebration of unity, bringing together a selection of artists whose work’s trace connections between their own personal histories and a larger, collective and shared, understanding of ourselves. Our uniqueness, our beliefs, our fears, and our imaginations”.

Installation view of Absent Friends

Not only are the invitees of this dinner party not present, but neither are the viewers of this installation, as this show is being delivered through photographs. I can only imagine that if I walked into the space, I would feel the urge to tip toe carefully through the area, sure not disrupt the room full of breakables. It is interesting to note that the side table has puzzle pieces thrown across the surface, seeming as if there were people occupying the space earlier, yet the candles in the candelabras on the main table are unlit. Did guests leave before dinner could be started? The work becomes a medial space that is waiting for action, similar to many aspects of life that have been put on pause until later notice.

Installation views with puzzle pieces & Noah J. Brown’s Porcelain Boy (left) and candelabra by Julie Moon (right)

In spite of the absence of people, the space is still vibrant, filled with exciting color and flowing, bulbous forms. In lieu of physical bodies, Noah J. Brown’s paintings of people embracing and touching hands adorn the walls.

Installation view with Noah J. Brown’s felt tapestries

Mitsuo Kimura’s many ceramics fill the main table, with organic creatures that are both monstrous and adorable, looking back at you with distraught expressions. Mitch Robertson’s Dying Mouse is the sole bronze piece on the table, standing out amongst the other artworks. The work has a somber title yet it is contradictory as it seems the mouse has been impaled by a suction cup arrow.

Mitsuo Kimura, Fairy Bubble Red, 2018-2019, ceramic and glaze, 4″ × 4″ × 4″ (left) and Mitch Robertson, Dying Mouse, bronze

Despite the broad range of the artworks, they are incorporated together into one show. For example, one of Ness Lee’s ceramic bowls, which depicts a nude woman whose legs are sculpted in a circular pattern that finishes the shape of the bowl, holds ceramic fruits with hollow facial features by
Mitsuo Kimura. Without this dinner party setup none of these works would have interacted with one another at all, let alone so intimately. Many of the artworks also feature faces, giving Absent Friends life despite being completely comprised of man-made and inanimate objects.

Ceramic bowl by Ness Lee with Mitsuo Kimura’s works

Absent Friends buzzes with activity that is emitted from this expansive collection of artworks. The artworks co-exist together, sharing space and mingling with each other, just as the artists would if this dinner party could have been in person.

Olivia Musselwhite

Images are courtesy of Birch Contemporary

*Exhibition information: Absent Friends / Catherine Heard, Micah Lexier, Julie Moon, Martin Pearce, Ed Pien, Mitch Robertson, November 26, 2020 – February 20, 2021, Birch Contemporary, 129 Tecumseth Street, Toronto. 

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