Raphaëlle de Groot Wins the Sobey Art Award 2012
Raphaëlle de Groot, Collections (fragment) , digital print. Object representing "home" made through an indigenous ritual — and lost during de Groot's performance piece in Mexico.
When Raphaëlle de Groot sets up what I’ll call an “object-collection station” in a small community, a town bisected by the border between Quebec and Vermont, she doesn’t know who will appear before her, with what half-forgotten belonging. Nor does she know what the history of that object will be—or even if anyone will show up.
De Groot is a Montreal artist, who recently won the 10th annual $50,000 Sobey Art Award for Canadians under 40. The jury for the Award—which is organized annually by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and considers bodies of work by artists representing each region of the country—lauded de Groot for situating her practice beyond the conventional art world and for “reinforc[ing] common values and shared human experiences.”
De Groot, who thinks of creating an installation as “pressing pause” during a project, has a Master's in Visual and Media Arts from the Université du Québec à Montréal, and has been showing her work in Canada and Europe for 15 years—showing, and doing, to be accurate. De Groot’s art, for which she has embedded herself within environments such as a community of nuns, an Italian textile factory, and among the blind—and for which she has even counted specks of dust—falls into a growing practice known as Relational Aesthetics. In de Groot’s case, this becomes a form of anthropology: she never knows how people will respond to her invitations that they participate in her projects, nor what will result. “My first subject is the human being,” says de Groot. “But it’s through art, or through what art can allow, that I’m looking.”
Through December 2012, work by de Groot will be displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) in Toronto, along with the work of fellow artists shortlisted for the Sobey: Gareth Moore, Jason de Haan, Derek Sullivan and Eleanor King. De Groot’s work in the exhibition is from a project titled “The Burden of Objects”—a project that is not actually finished. Nor is it the kind of art that is necessarily meant to appear in a gallery at all. “She is going into people’s homes and work environments, and working with them to draw attention to aspects of our existence,” says David Liss, Artistic Director and Curator at MOCCA. In this way, he says, her work challenges traditional “systems of artistic delivery”: “The art takes place live, in places where people live.”
Since 2009, de Groot has amassed 1,780 no-longer-wanted belongings for “The Burden of Objects”: trophies and teddy bears, cutlery, thermometers, dolls, a briefcase—even a tray of eye shadow, and a sock. Her MOCCA installation included thumbnail portraits of part of her “collection”; a video of de Groot awkwardly carting the objects through remote locales; and an old coat, stuffed with objects, lying on the floor. From a display case filled with questionnaires, visitors will also learn that one participant handed over the telephone on which he’d learned of his mother’s impending death. Another offered the plastic bowl in which he microwaved instant noodles: his only food when he first moved to Canada. “The stories that take shape around a few seeds can be immense,” writes Louise Déry, director of Galerie de l’UQAM, in the exhibition catalogue. “By inviting people in the places she visits to jettison personal items that are useless, cumbersome or awkward, the artist takes responsibility for these vestiges of a life and attempts to reinstate their potential for meaning. These ‘narratives of others’ form the core of the artist’s practice.”
What you don’t know from the MOCCA exhibit—more a set of clues than the whole story—is that de Groot has promised to keep the objects in perpetuity, and to grant them another chance “to live adventures, to have friends.” Lately, she has been bringing objects from her collection to visit “relatives” in “real” museums. She’s taken a portrait of a military boot that was given to her, for example, alongside Napoleon’s boot at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “My work is asking the question of how things live and die through our capacity to look at them, question them, keep them in motion,” she says.
De Groot is not alone in working largely outside the gallery space, nor in dealing with what Liss calls “existing material.” But her intense, personal involvement sets her work apart. “There’s a deep, authentic engagement and commitment,” says Liss. “Her body, her self, is very central to these experiences.”
De Groot is so involved that she can sometimes become overwhelmed. During a recent performance in Guadalajara, Mexico, for which de Groot wove through the audience handing out objects (they were attached by a thread to her head), two items—a silver spoon and a homemade indigenous object representing “home”—went missing. “These two objects were deep and touching things,” she says. “It took me three weeks to overcome the fact that I didn’t have them anymore. I feel guilty that I didn’t protect them.”
But such unexpected complications are exactly what she’s after. “I profoundly believe that art is one of the only spaces left in which you can experience the discomfort and disorientation related to facing the unknown. That’s what creation is about.”