If you're reading this, there's a good chance you've enjoyed a guided tour or two in your art museum-visiting career. Perhaps you have stood in front of Rembrandt's Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in awe, as a guide pointed out details you might have missed on your own; or maybe there was an extended stop in front of Gustave Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day at the Art Institute of Chicago to hear a docent wax on about its spatial order.
At the Vancouver Art Gallery this week as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, British performance artist Peter Reder is offering a guided tour of his own. But his Guided Tour is not about the art; it is the art: a tailored-for-Vancouver version of a site-specific work he has taken to institutions around the world.
In the VAG, Reder has a storied building to play with: Originally a turn-of-the-last-century provincial courthouse, it was retrofitted by Arthur Erickson Architects to house the art gallery, and opened as such in 1983. Beloved by the city, it's a building the current administration believes the collection has outgrown.
"I'll be pretending to know all about this building," Reder, in a dark suit, tells the crowd of about 35 as we begin the tour on Wednesday, opening night. "You'll be pretending to be interested."
The well-heeled attendees giggle at this parody of the guided-tour experience, but it does bring up the big and obvious question: Why rely on an outsider to take us inside a place in our own city?
From a practical point of view: access. Reder takes us through areas of the VAG most members of the public never get to see. But more interesting are the potential revelations that may accompany an outsider's take. What will his fresh eyes come up with in the couple of weeks or so he's had to study the place?
Not surprisingly, Reder, in his time cramming in Vancouver, has determined that the city has a real-estate obsession. This is disclosed early in the tour, as he stops in front of Ken Lum's Nancy Nishi, Joe Ping Chau, Real Estate, installed for the about-to-close (and excellent) exhibition Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art from the Audain Collection.
He has also figured out that Emily Carr is a big deal around here (there is a lame joke about the gallery having so many of her works that staff use them as tea trays), but he is unfamiliar with the Group of Seven. You can feel the cultured crowd deflate as he declares the three Canadian artistic exports Brits are most familiar with: Carr, Margaret Atwood and (it takes him a while to remember the third) Bryan Adams.
For about 80 minutes, Reder takes us through areas that are normally off-limits. It is a thrill, for sure, to be with the art after hours, the gallery lights dimmed; to walk through emergency-exit doors into darkened passageways; to take the freight elevator normally used for transporting large works of art; to pass by crated works by Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham.
In the library, with the lights turned off, the aroma of old books is overpowering (I have been in that room during the day and had not noticed it) and Reder quotes Proust on the power of our sense of smell and taste when it comes to memory.
He also takes us into a large room he says once operated as a courtroom, only to be corrected by one of the people on the tour, who happened to work in the building back when it was a courthouse. Our guide also gets the first name of the building's architect wrong – it's Francis Rattenbury – before launching into the fascinating and sordid details of Rattenbury's life.
Later there is a slide show of Reder family photos, and a shaky video of an older woman (his mother?) wearing angel wings, going about her day, a sort of guided tour of her suburban existence. This harks back to a discussion he has had with us earlier, in one of those darkened passages, about Walter Benjamin's writings on the "angel of history," relating to the Paul Klee drawing Angelus Novus. The video also speaks to the question of heritage, and how the old operates in the contemporary, another repeated theme in the tour.
Ultimately, though, it was the behind-the-scenes experience that really resonated. You can claw for the depth in Guided Tour, but the "something provocative" and "something magical" audience members had said at the beginning of the night they were hoping to hear simply did not materialize.
On our final all-access walk from the audio-visual department back out to the lobby, we passed by a sign for the Gallery Café, in storage, I take it, for the winter. "Licensed Fabulous Patio," the sign promised. "What more could you want?"
Quite a lot, actually. Quite a lot more.
Guided Tour continues at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Jan. 29 (sold out).
- Created and performed by Peter Reder
- Presented by PuSh, the Vancouver Art Gallery and Boca del Lupo
- At the Vancouver Art Gallery
- 2 stars