Samuel Roy-Bois and other MACelites: Trading spaces

Trading spaces

Ghetto: Home on the move
Photo: Samuel Roy-Bois

Samuel Roy-Bois makes home where the heart is, even if that's at the heart of a museum

The Musée d’art contemporain has struck a perfect balance for its summer programming. You’ve got half-native Vancouverite Brian Jungen in the big room, making fun and easily palatable political statements about ecology and cultural heritage with his striking, large-scale whale carcasses made of plastic lawn chairs, and spiritual masks made of Nike sneakers.

You’ve got iconic Montreal photographer Pascal Grandmaison in the medium-sized room, with a striking show of video installations and photos that actually, for the first time in the many times I’ve absorbed his work, reached me on quite a profound level. If you want to escape the frenzied futility of life for just a few moments, let Air wash over you, slowly. Let your mind go through its rotary of questioning, cynicism and doubt until it settles on the comfortable nothingness, and you might just come out the other side with a heaping portion of something. I did, anyway.

The star, though, in my humble opinion, is Samuel Roy-Bois’s occupancy of the small project room. His exhibition, his first in a museum, is titled Improbable and Ridiculous and presents three surprising and beguiling structures.

In the decade that he’s worked as a visual artist – he also does a fair amount of sound work – Roy-Bois has demonstrated an interest in deconstructing space. His concerns feel like they’re on a primarily human scale, because space is never abstracted beyond its relation to the human body – he rather plays with our preconceptions about where a body can fit, where it should fit and whether we should make it fit there at all to start with.

In this exhibition, he greets us with a work titled Satellites, which is two 10-foot-square rotating rooms made of untreated two-by-fours and plywood. The rooms have windows, which you can peer into if you turn at the same speed as the cubes, neon lighting and grubby office-type carpet on the floor. What the rooms don’t have are doors. You can look, and wonder, but you cannot enter.

As the Quebec City-born artist explains it from his studio in Brooklyn, he put a lot of work into this installation. "I used the same motor to make them rotate as is used in Vegas rotating ad panels. They’re very solid motors that are used to contending with gusts of wind and the like. I didn’t want any of the wiring to be visible on the floor, so it required quite a complex electrical system through the ceilings. I couldn’t test to see if it worked in my studio here because the structures are so big, so I was happy to see it all worked when I got to Montreal. It took five people two weeks to mount them, and I spent a whole lot of time in the exhibition room working on the synchronization."

Why, you might ask? It becomes clearer when considering the second work exhibited. Ghetto is also a box, built with the same materials, but this time you certainly can enter it. You’re supposed to, even. The construction acts as a nomadic bedroom, furnished with mattress, pillow, window and a door that locks from the inside. When I saw it, it was the press launch, and you know us self-conscious journalist types – no one dared enter it.

"At the vernissage there were five people in there at once," laughs Roy-Bois. "I thought that was just great. I was wondering how on earth they all fit."

"Breaking down barriers interests me very much," he continues. "The fact that people can enter the work, and even lock themselves into it. It actually worried [museum director] Mark Mayer, who was thinking, What if someone locks themselves in there and refuses to come out?"

Roy-Bois’s exercise asks of viewers that they consider themselves in relation to the objects he has created. The space he sculpts is as much the space outside of the structures as the space they enclose. In the case of Satellites, the viewer is not privy to that internal space, left only to stare at it as if an empty display case. In Ghetto, the viewer can enter it, breathe its air, infiltrate its preciousness and put oneself on display. If one so chooses.

Samuel Roy-Bois: Improbable and Ridiculous
At the MAC (185 Ste-Catherine W.), until Aug. 20