Melissa Bennett is the Curator of Contemporary Art here at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Among her many duties, Melissa is responsible for curating some of this past decade’s most-memorable AGH exhibitions, such as are you experienced?, Graeme Patterson: Secret Citadel, and the recent Hamilton Now: Subject and Object, which featured eighteen local artists exploring their identity and surroundings.
Reflecting on her work with artists local and beyond, Melissa and I sat down for an interview to discuss our latest artist-in-residence, Sylvia Nickerson.
Connor: To start off, let’s talk a little about your path to the AGH – what you have found important in your work so far, and what do you consider central to your work now?
Melissa: I’ve been in my role as Curator of Contemporary Art for about 10 years now, but I first came here having worked at a few different types of galleries. My experience came out of artist-run centres, commercial galleries, and an internship at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, and having that breadth of experience helped in coming to a public gallery.
My favourite part of all that past experience was working with living artists, so I came into my role here with that passion first and foremost. It’s important to advocate for artists and make space for their vision within the public realm and interpret that vision for the public. I always try to remain open to how we view and receive information, and always try to learn new ways of supporting artists and getting their vision across.
Of course, a main purpose of my role is to help educate the public and transmit the different ideas of artists – whether it’s an aesthetic exploration, a politically-motivated artwork, experimentation with different media, or the noticeable increase in artists working with social justice issues. One of the most important recent developments has been all the attention on equity – not just studying how to be aware of voices, but making sure you’re actually making space for them, and that’s reflected in a growing investment within our mandate as a Gallery.
Connor: How do you view projects such as the artist residencies in this relationship between the Gallery and our communities?
Melissa: Well, the idea behind a residency is to create a space and platform for an artist to lead the creation of their own works, as well as community dialogue. It provides the public with an opportunity to converse directly with an artist and see how they make their work, helping to make our space come alive with it. This is of course a different challenge this year with COVID-19 restrictions, but we have shifted to accommodate that.
We invited Sylvia to be our artist-in-residence because of her past community work and her reflective approach to living in the city – looking at her comic illustrations, we saw so many possibilities within her work with how she interprets urban experience and how different that experience can be for different populations in a really personal way. She has also done outreach with different communities to incorporate others’ experiences into her work through a reciprocal process, and we were curious how that could develop within the Gallery space. Sylvia is so full of ideas and will use her residency in part to work with people to generate a new book exploring the type of content she’s an expert on now – thinking about how people are situated within the city based on their identity and what they’re experiencing.
Connor: Beyond the development of her new book, what else will Sylvia use her residency to explore?
Sylvia was very motivated to fill the exhibition space to start off her residency and offer visual engagement while she delves into the book project. Large papier-mâché figures make up one of the main pieces of the exhibition in a work called Dark Mirrors. She decided to make her comic figures into 3D amorphous creatures for the first time ever by using everyday materials like shredded paper – an important factor as she explores everyday experiences. The work asks viewers to reflect on their experiences in a highly-digitized world and how we reflect ourselves within that space.
Creation was her biggest book to date – released last year – and is a largely autobiographical experience about a person navigating adulthood in Hamilton. She’s recording the lived experiences of being an artist in a changing city, talking about poverty, gentrification, crime, and human rights. It contrasts Dark Mirrors heavily, as the sculptures refer to how people exist online, and how people build their character through identifying with different brands, objects, images, and styles. Sylvia is asking people to be aware of surveillance capitalism, a main interest for her art practice, thinking about how we used to search Google, versus Google now searching us. Her art considers the way we create an identity for ourselves that corporations draw on in order to create a capitalist gain and help narrow the filter bubble of our experiences, often with the sad results of further isolating people and the creation of social harm.
Connor: Will there be opportunities for visitor interaction with Sylvia and her work?
Melissa: We had discussions about designing group activities around these sculptures as these character-less characters that viewers would be able to identify with. Our idea was for a group to enter the space, Sylvia could talk to them about surveillance capitalism and what kind of things we can do to churn up that system, and each person could respond to the work in front of them. Viewers could create a small diorama using collage and sculpture, coming up with ideas about who the large papier-mâché people are – come up with their name, personality, where they shop, the last thing they liked on Instagram, anything really! She had a long list of factors that could identify that person. We have had to adjust this plan, but we still have interactive exhibition elements planned for responding to Sylvia’s work.
Connor: Visitor participation was also a major part of REITZENSTEIN’s artist residency this past year – could you talk a little about his exhibition now that it has concluded?
Melissa: REITZENSTEIN was our inaugural artist-in-residence and he made a really important contribution, developing a lot of new work within the Gallery. His work has been in our collection for decades, and one of the most exciting pieces he made during his residency was this large drawing on the wall interpreting the word for maple tree into many different languages. He invited visitors to write it in their own way, and through that process he was able to incite dialogue around environmental issues and the cultural interpretations of trees in the environment, which are all important to his work.
Connor: To finish off, though we’re still in the early days of Sylvia’s residency, what are your hopes for it over the next year? What can visitors expect as the exhibition grows?
Melissa: I’m kind of repeating myself, but we want to invest in an opportunity for an artist to really spend time developing an idea, and my hope is that she feels satisfied with that – that she will have been successful. We’re not super concerned with artists’ deliverables, as it’s quite open as to what they want to do – they set the goals, and we spend our time reaching out to different populations to interact with those ideas. It’s all about exposure of her work and also public outreach and education around her subject matter.
Artist in Residence Program presented by: