Sarah Carr-Locke on Samuel Roy-Bois: Not a New World, Just an Old Trick

Sarah Carr-Locke | January 22, 2014

Sarah Carr-Locke, a PhD Candidate in archaeology at SFU and a one-time SFU Gallery weekend gallery sitter, produced this great text about Samuel Roy-Bois' Not a new world, just an old trick, which ran from September 14 - December 14, 2013. As Sarah explains here, the text is a reflection about a guided tour she lead of the exhibition. We're particularly interested in what she has to say about the curious social agency of objects. Thanks again, Sarah! Text begins below.

As the Saturday gallery attendant at SFU Gallery, I also happen to be a PhD Candidate in archaeology at SFU, specifically focused on museum anthropology. Last November, I had the opportunity to give a lunchtime talk and tour of Samuel Roy-Bois' Not a new world, just an old trick, installed at the SFU Gallery, September 14 - December 14, 2013. The exhibition was a sculptural construction surrounded by twenty-two ink and graphite drawings. Roy-Bois then chose forty-nine works from the SFU Art Collection to display within the construction, creating a gallery within a gallery (see Samuel Roy-Bois' Not a new world, just an old trick for images of the exhibition). My talk was an opportunity to connect some of what I have been learning for my degree and my experience as a gallery attendant; I found Roy-Bois' piece thought provoking as a commentary on museum and gallery conventions.

"Materiality" is a topic I have explored from an archaeological and anthropological point of view for my PhD research. This body of theory explores the nature and physical characteristics of objects/artifacts; it questions the boundaries between "objects" and "subjects," and asks us to think about objects as active social agents in themselves, rather than as the results of human action. In this way, "things" have social lives that may in turn affect human behavior. From a fine art perspective, it seems obvious that works of art have social power, but within anthropology, this way of thinking about "things" has not always been the norm. My reading of Roy-Bois' work was informed by anthropological, archaeological and museological concepts of materiality and object agency.

Upon entering the gallery, the visitors were confronted with Roy-Bois' sculptural construction. The construction created an atmosphere that was at once imposing and welcoming. How did the object/sculpture/construction demonstrate agency by stimulating and/or limiting human behaviour? Roy-Bois offered the audience an atypical interaction with art as they were allowed to touch, smell, walk and lie upon the construction. What is the social life of this object? As a small building, it is not what I would have typically imagined to be an "artwork." Roy-Bois' use of architectural sculpture caused me to reflect on my preconceived notions of what counts as an art object and to think about how this object manifested elements of material agency.

I am interested in how "things" change from being items used in the context of their culture of manufacture, to being "museum objects" used for research or displayed for public consumption behind glass. Roy-Bois' work explored this idea inside his construction, where he created a mini-gallery. There was a sense of both play and critical reflection on museum/gallery culture in his choice of pieces and the way he chose to display them. In contrast to the construction, the objects inside were to be viewed, not touched.

Visitors likely questioned how these diverse items and artworks came to be legitimized as valuable through their inclusion in the SFU collection. The average visitor is unlikely to have recognized many of the works or artists represented in the mini-gallery, and due to the lack of curatorial contextualizing, may be confused about their value, history or artistic worth. Recognizing some of the artworks, visitors might think that they "deserve" to be presented differently (for example, the Emily Carr work), and that some maybe should not have included in an art exhibition at all (a crystal ashtray? [1]). Thus, Roy-Bois showed us that context, display practices and knowledge about objects' history change our perception. Most of the objects were displayed unconventionally for an art gallery - hung somewhat roughly and not in straight lines or at typical sight lines.

As an anthropologist, I was curious to see how the visitors would react to the piece. The Saturday gallery visitors are by-and-large students who are up on campus on the weekend and happen to come across the gallery accidentally. Many of them are international students who live on campus - they are often visibly uncomfortable and unsure of how to read or interact with the artworks. These visitors seemed to find it easy to engage with Roy-Bois' installation and whether that was because the piece was dressed with pillows to encourage lounging, or because the piece gives the audience something to physically do by climbing inside to discover the SFU pieces. I believe that many of the visitors I hosted were not consciously aware of all of the artist's intended messages, but they enjoyed the show regardless. One of the strengths of this work was that it could be viewed and experienced in a variety of ways.

To my reading, Roy-Bois' Not a new world, just an old trick consciously played with the boundaries between audience and artwork, caused the visitors to reflect on the nature and value of "artworks"and mocked the culture of collection and display. Gallery visitors experienced the installation as an opportunity to explore, discover and physically engage with the work. The show broke down the boundaries between object and viewer, making gallery visitors an active part of the artwork and making for an opportunity to explore concepts of materiality.

[1] Many of the non-art objects (such as the crystal ashtray) in the show were donated by George and Ida Halpern. See Halpern family fonds for more information.