Discolosing Methods of Production: The Work of Adrienne Lai and Barrie Jones

by Dan Starling



The following essay was originally published in the catalog for the exhibition New Wok by Barrie Jones & All the Arms around You: Adrienne Lai, at the Helen Pitt Gallery.


Barrie Jones and Adrienne Lai question the boundaries between the categories of artist, artwork and viewer. Their practices seek an integration of these ideas in order to shift the traditional roles of responsibilities of these categories. With their work exhibited at the Helen Pitt Gallery ARC, Jones and Lai address the complicated desires of artistic liberty and responsibility; they deemphasize the finished product to highlight the negotiations inherent in the artistic process.

With the continued fragmentation of the viewing public into increasing niche markets, belief in institutions as legitimizing forces and the position of the viewer must once again be revised. In the early twentieth century, there was a movement in art away from the specific categories of painting and sculpture to a more general definition of artistic practice that was not medium specific. With the technological and political revolutions if the tune, the increasing role of the public in democratic movements led to a belief in its participation in a transformation of visual culture. As Thierry de Duve describes, these changes in art were a result of Duchamp’s urinal and were concluded by Joseph Beuy’s admonition that “everyone is an artist.”1 Artistic value could no longer be assessed by a group of critics, collectors or artists in a particular field, such as painting or sculpture, but only by the public at large. The institution emerged symbolically as the legitimizing power of the public.

The solidification of the institution’s central role in art is one of the principal legacies of conceptual art form the 1960s and 70s. It has been argued, that in purging technical skill form art, conceptual artists believed they were completing a process of enlightenment to liberate the world from privileged modes of production and aesthetic experience 2. Today, a majority of professionals operating within a contemporary art context have rejected the idea that the public might be able to participate in a forceful revision of visual presentation, or that they might actively become their own legitimizing force. The responsibility to judge a work of art was in the hands of the institution and not with the artist. Today, the viewer has emerged in the public’s place as instrumental in forming a radical critique of neutrality in representation. It has been suggested that artists responded by making visible the mechanisms through which the traditional transparency of visual images was achieved 3. These developments fuelled institutional critique and gave rise to the careers of artists who questioned the idea of an original work.

Lai’s project, All the Arms around You, recreated the process of institutional legitimization; it suggests an argument for the collaborative artistic processing which the institution plays only a part. To achieve this, Lai questions the emphasis that is placed on the solo gallery exhibition as one of the major driving forces behind the current structure of granting institutions of art in Canada. Also at stake is the status of the finished art object. Her work questions the finality of the finished art object and makes a claim for process over end product.

Within the public and commercial gallery systems, there is a firm desire to assign a proper name to artwork — a placement of ownership and accountability. The artist typically makes the work i the studio and passes it on to for viewers to act as judges of art objects. Lai’s strategy of manipulation and parody successfully questions the autonomy of the author and destabilizes the position of viewers and the gallery.

Instead of leaving the gallery open for visitors to contemplate Lai’s ideas in quiet solitue, the curator Jeremy Todd introduces a further complication: Lai’s work will be exhibited along with that of established Vancouver photographer Barrie Jones. Did the potential visual pleasure of Jones’ post-conceptual photographs force Lai’s dematerialized ideas into concrete form?

Before conceptual photography, the standard mode of depiction in the west was through the tableau. Conceptual photographers brought photography to the forefront of the avant-garde by systematically denying traditional definitions of composition and content.4 Their images were small, unskilfully composed and were primarily used as documentation. After conceptual art, the triumphal return of the image was often predicted.5 These types of images are characteristically large in scale and fully controlled and composed by the artist. As “bearers of intentionality” these images are part of a lineage that has turned “photographer” into “artist.” 6 Instead of fully embracing the seductive pictorialism that followed conceptual art, Jones’ images are a complicated mix of repetition and control. They represent a crossover of artistic practices born out of the artist/photographer debate.

These images are the result of Jones’ desire to photograph certain kinds of power relations. Jones created the situations by finding individuals who have this type of lifestyle to play “people like themselves.” 7 The lifestyle associated with getting a spa treatment of exercising with a personal trainer is becoming increasingly available to a significant section of the population in the west. The images are a kind of document of these classes of individuals — those who offer and those who seek particular services. While they provide information about these true portrait of what it is like to get a manicure or to have a personal trainer.

These elements speak about control and the inherent power relations in these forms of economic exchange. Daily exercise sessions or weekly spa treatments are repeatable contemporary routines that serve as regulatory mechanisms in our society. These subjects of repetition and control are reinforced literally by the act of photographing (repeatedly releasing the shutter, loading and reloading film). They are also read in the detail of the images: the man does the bench press for strength and not power, the woman wears tight fitting clothing that minimizes the restriction of movement, the business man keeps his cell phone at the ready in his opposite hand, the woman in the spa is literally confined by her mud treatment sack. In them, there is a temporary reversal of power from employer to employee. All of the clients are in vulnerable positions just as Jones’ images are at the mercy of the people he photographs.

The exchange between jones and his models can also be metaphorically applied to the way in which the photographs address the viewer. These images are not examples of the rigidly composed master image on which the viewer can ruminate. Nor are they true documents of an event. They lie somewhere in the middle, thus allowing the viewer to negotiate being swept up in an imagined narrative while testing their own economic position in relation to the participants. The artworks occupy a novel position in relation to other contemporary photographs, for they act to destabilize the aesthetic judgement of the viewer, remain very much a process as well as a product.

The works of both Barrie Jones and Adrienne Lai are emblematic of exchanges: between te artist/author, the artist/collaborator, the artwork and the viewer. These projects bring about the return of the author with renewed vigour after an apparent absence of the artist in the legitimization of art by institutions. Their works suggest a transfer of emphasis from viewers’s assessments of a finished object, to an impetus for the considerations of impossibility of the absolute autonomy of the artist. Lai and Jones simultaneously posit the artist as a central point of critical inquiry. Their works begin with the assumption that the utopian ideal of a public audience for art has changed. While the institution remains the collaborative father for artists, providing structure and funding it, it can no longer provide a catchall legitimization for the art object.

Dan Starling

1 De Duve, Thierry. Kant After Duchamp. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996. p. 287

2 Buchloh, Benjamin H.D. “From the Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique (Some aspects of Conceptual Art 1962-1969.” October: The Second Decade. Cambridge: MIT Press,

1997. p. 154

3 Owens, Craig. Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. Scott Bryson ed. Berkley: University of California Press, 1992. p. 111.

4 Wall, Jeff. “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art.” Reconsidering the Object of Art. Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorer eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995. p. 267.

5 Buchloh. Ibid. p. 155.

6 Fried, Michael. “Without a Trace.” Artforum, March 2005. p. 203.

7 Jones, Barrie. Personal Communication. May 8, 2005.