Contemplating 'Marine Venus'

- June 6, 2008

Marine Venus. (Avard Woolaver photo, used from Flickr via Creative Commons)
Marine Venus. (Avard Woolaver photo, used from Flickr via Creative Commons)

It’s the elephant in the corner of the room, only the room is the boulevard in front of the Dalhousie Arts Centre, and the elephant is a white marble sculpture shaped like something else entirely. What, no one is quite sure—just something else entirely.

Don’t make the mistake of asking the students what it’s supposed to represent. They’ll dissolve into helpless giggles. In fact, until I descended into the hallowed halls of the Dalhousie Art Gallery, no one even tried to answer my question—“What is that thing?”

The sculpture, it turns out, is called Marine Venus. It’s by Robert Hedrick and was installed at Dalhousie in 1969, the Summer of Love. According to the Dalhousie Art Gallery’s director/curator Peter Dykhuis, Marine Venus is only the tip of Dal’s artistic iceberg. Dalhousie hosts two separate collections of art – the “University Collection,” and the art gallery’s own permanent pieces, including Marine Venus.

Marine Venus is one of the pieces from the collection installed in a public space, says registrar/preparator Michele Gallant. The gallery’s pieces often end up in protective storage; the gallery, which showcases temporary exhibitions, has no dedicated space for display of its permanent collection.


Summer at the gallery

There are two photo-based exhibitions now on display: Ghosts in the Landscape: Vietnam Revisited by Craig J. Barber; and Zhari-Panjwai: Dispatches from Afghanistan by Louie Palu. (Above: The ANA praying before battle in Howz-E-Madad, Zhari District, Afghanistan, 2007
by Louie Palu.) The exhibitions will be at the gallery until the end of June.

The gallery's Thursday afternoon film series wraps Thursday, June 5 with episode four, "Consumption," of the PBS series, Art: 21—Art in the Twenty-First Century. Featured artists include William Wegman, Bruce Nauman, Kerry James Marshall, Maya Lin and Louise Bourgeois. Showtime is 12:30 p.m.

“Our holdings are incredible, we have impeccable historical works… (but our) vaults are full right now,” explains Ms. Gallant. When NSCAD students visit for a class on printmaking, the gallery has to showcase its prints collection—which includes two Goyas—on folding tables.  She would like to see accessible storage, providing full access to the art Dalhousie already possesses. It’s called “open storage”, and there are precedents – it’s already been installed at UBC. “We have a mandate not only to collect and preserve, but also to exhibit,” Ms. Gallant says. “It’s the double-edged sword.”

“It (the gallery) is off the beaten path,” she adds. “It’s so important in looking at the big picture in an education… (but) students graduate and may not know we exist.” 

And make no mistake – art, and the art gallery, is vital to Dalhousie’s culture. “We’re not just part of the decorating department,” Peter Dykhuis points out dryly. “Visual literacy informs so much about our world.” So what would improve the situation? “Street level gallery! Street level gallery! Street level gallery!” Mr. Dykhuis exclaims – a separate, more accessible space to showcase the permanent collection. “The motto of this whole enterprise is ‘Keeping art present’!”

Even with its constraints, the gallery has placed art wherever it can on campus – the McCain Building, for example, hosts Mitchell Wiebe’s “Digital Dragon Meets Analog Unicorn” above the elevators and Donna Hiebert’s “Containment” in the courtyard.

For years, the gallery has had virtually no money for new art. New acquisitions are thanks to donations. “We don’t accept everything, though… it’s a matter of quality, not quantity,” Mr. Dykhuis interjects. As for the art the gallery does showcase, “It’s not just flights of fancy out of my curatorial head. It has relevancy… visual art often addresses philosophical issues but through visual means… A gallery is like a blank book. What are you going to write in it?”

And Marine Venus? He grins infectiously. “I realize it draws a certain attention… It’s a period piece.” Anyway, he points out, you can’t judge a sculpture that is still technically incomplete. Marine Venus was meant to be mounted in a reflecting pool, but due to cost and upkeep concerns, that never occurred.

“The whole aspect of the marine nature of it isn’t there.” Yes, it looks like certain unmentionables, “but it also looks like a big barnacle!” Mr. Dykhuis says Marine Venus also serves a utilitarian function. “During frosh week sometimes students are given a scavenger hunt and one of their things is that sculpture.” Trying to find the name of the work and artist “Gets them down into the art gallery, so they’d know we exist.”

Who knows? Maybe there’s a generous benefactor out there, just waiting to provide Marine Venus with her long-lost watery home. If not, at least a few more people will be aware of the gallery’s existence. “The university has a great resource within its community,” enthuses Mr. Dykhuis.

Admission is free, movie nights are frequent, and Mr. Dykhuis and Ms. Gallant are patiently awaiting the public.

LINK: Dalhousie Art Gallery


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