Exhibition challenges the conventional ideas of the tent
By Darren Lum
Published July 13, 2017
Artist John Notten invites the public to see the tent in an entirely new way when they come to see his show, The Tent Project.
It’s the latest exhibition hosted by the Agnes Jamieson Gallery in Minden and will be on until Aug. 26.
His paintings, sketches, interactive art installation pieces, sculptures made from repurposed tent materials and small-scale tent models take visitors on a challenging journey to explore the complicated relationship between humanity and the tent.
The first thing to greet visitors as they pass through the doors of the gallery is the Tent Wheel. Comprised of several small tents, which were originally used as tent samples, the wheel of nylon, wood and plastic hangs on the wall, rotating. Within seven holes of the wheel, are keywords: retreat, resilience, resistance, react, revelation, recreation and refuge.
Notten wants the public to think of these themes related to the tent as they go through the show. Explore what the tent means. The contrast between tent city and a camping ground. The perspective of a homeless person versus a person of wealth.
Notten, a full-time Catholic high school art teacher, is very familiar with the wilds of the Highlands, sleeping in a tent. He spent 15 years leading scouts with the Haliburton Scout Reserve on camping trips in the woods and canoeing the lakes of the county. Included in the exhibition is a collection of his sketches in pen and ink and colouring pencils from his journaling, framed behind glass hung on the wall just before the entrance.
A canvas tent entrance is the last image of familiar themes for most Canadians. It stretches from floor to ceiling and has a musky smell. It is used as a portal to a new way of thinking he wants visitors to adopt when they come.
“I want the show to be a very immersive experience. I want it to be one that the viewer is engaged with not just intellectually or emotionally, but can actually physically engage in the work. They can push a button. They can crank a wheel,” he said.
“When they leave behind the cozy memories of the romance of camping they enter into a world which challenges them on more serious issues about the tent so that’s why there is a threshold sort of before and after.”
Notten acknowledges the exhibition includes a great variety of pieces, representing different media. So many that he wouldn’t be surprised if people think there is more than one artist who was responsible for creating everything.
The Toronto-based artist was invited to exhibit his work by the Agnes Jamieson Gallery curator Laurie Carmount more than a year ago. She was fascinated by his work, seeing him exhibit for years in Nuit Blanche Toronto. Notten spent more than a year creating and assembling all of the pieces for this exhibition.
In the week leading up to his opening on Saturday, July 8, he slept in a tent at the back of the gallery on the Minden Hills Cultural Centre property. He invited the public to join him Saturday night to have their own “immersive camping experience” to create a tent city.
Notten said he has a heightened understanding of the privilege he has as a middle-class, white, married hetero- sexual to sleep in a tent.
One his pieces, a sculpture called Tether depicts his camping experience, specifically how he loves to escape the chaos of the world by going to Nellie Lake in Killarney Provincial Park.
The sculpture is made using a typical classroom globe, which has a collection of metal rods with red and yellow lights on the tips, extending at different lengths and angles. Off to the left and above, connected by a twisted, sheathed cable, is a blue triangle-like structure on a platform, representing his tent. It grabs viewers for its aesthetic rawness and how the rate of light is responsive to sounds spoken, shouted or yelled.
The tent is a symbol. What it represents all depends on the context, he said.
It is as important as the individual. This could be a girl from a refugee camp who lived in a tent to the same girl being taken to a provincial park for a vacation.
“Choice is a huge thing. Not everybody has the choice,” he said.
One aspect of the show is based on a longtime contemplation of faith. Part of the interest rests with his work environment and his upbringing as a Catholic.
“I’m raised a Catholic. I teach in a Catholic high school. I’m very much immersed in that world of Catholicity so I’m always contemplating and thinking about it,” he said.
There is a hallowed feeling with a room at the gallery dedicated to pieces related to the church. From the lighting to the works such as the Vault, an art installation made from rods, wires and miniature tents with the architectural design cues of the vaulted ceiling of a church.
The room also includes the oil and acrylic painting, Trinity. Instead of the God, the Father, and the Holy Spirit, he depicts a camping spoon, knife and fork in their stead, evenly spaced out, all with designs that bear the Gothic adornment associated to Catholic churches, leaving it beautiful, but without function, as there are holes in the spoon and the blade of the knife.
There is an undeniable relationship he appreciates about the tent and the church.
“When I started to see the relationship between tent and church that made me think how is church like a tent and how is church not like a tent. Churches are immovable and inflexible and tents are mobile, on the move and portable,” he said. Although architecturally they seem very similar and other aspects they couldn’t be more different. I love that dichotomy.”
He considers the Highlands a “gateway to the recreational north of Ontario where there is camping.”
Notten said he imagines many recreation users wouldn’t have considered the serious concepts related to tents. This significance wasn’t lost on him in this endeavour.
“I love the idea of it being here and it can challenge their notions of what tents and camping can be and they leave thinking that I never considered that about a tent before,” he said.