Sara Angelucci: Provenance Unknown
by Emelie Chhangur, Curator
Art Gallery of York University, Toronto, Ont., 2015
108 pp., illus., 42 col. Paper, $24.00
Reviewed by Ana Peraica, PhD
The catalogue of Sara Angelucci's exhibition, Provenance Unknown, set at Art Gallery of York University in 2013, is a booklet bringing up three longer essays (by Emelie Chhangur, who is also an editor, Claude Baillargeon and E.C. Woodley) and two sets of images, framing the context of the project. Visually it is divided in two parts; the first providing an insight into the exhibition settlement in York, while the second shows the original artwork.
Title of the exhibition and of the catalogue, Provenance Unknown, arrives from the archival studies. Angelucci's work is generally centred on the re-contextualisation of historic photographs she buys on eBay. Commonly XIX century photographs, as carte du visite and cabinet cards, are specific for having lost names of their original referents and commissioners. Although being stamped and signed at the back of the cardboard on which they are glued, names of persons represented still are unknown, as are names of the original commissioners as well as previous owners, passing artworks to present age. They speak little to provenance studies being concerned about the ownership of the artwork.
Angelucci's exhibition, according to catalogue, consisted of such artefacts, with lost provenance, intervened and reprinted enlarged, but also being animated in photographic video installation. Besides two-dimensional works, exhibition had site-specific installation in terms of the arrangement of furniture and objects. Objects were organised in a typical XIX middle-class environment with details such as coffee table covered with lace, decorated with leather family albums, presented as coffee table literature, but also with cabinet of wanders filled with stuffed birds, playing a significant point in the epoch. Victorian fascination with deathness, visible in photographic production, as well as in these bio-objects, were jointly provoking issues of biodiversity of species but also, especially in the title, specific Darwinist issue of the origin of species.
Aside the origin of photographs, present in the title of the show, Angelucci posed questions in the framework of the science of ornithology. Browsing birds species at Royal Ontario Museum, she has pointed at vanished species, showing them in installations and more precisely in photographic interventions in which she combined the archival method in arts, or the arts of collecting, with science, provoking ethical issues in ecology. From the other side, in decontextualized historical artefact of photography, the same work illustrates the approach of W.G.Sebald, often also referring to birds in his storytelling between history and fiction, but more importantly, speaking of the fiction of the document and providing an alternative storytelling via extrapolated piece of evidence, photography in new circumstances.
The show consisted of three sets, and the question of species' biodiversity was the most clearly posed up in the first part of the show, entitled "Unspoken Laments: The Venetian Forest." The next part, "Aviary," consisted of photographic portraits of unknown humans, whose images are covered by those of extinct bird species, as for example the barn owl, short-eared owl, passenger pigeon, spotted owl, western screech, read-headed woodpecker, winter bobolink, Eskimo curlew, heath hen, loggerhead shrike, sage thrasher, and Northern bobwhites. All the species are separately described in the catalogue. The last part represented in the catalogue, "The Anonymous Chorus," was a video projection, and it is quite impossible to reconstruct it via a catalogue, as well as sounds present at the show which are described in all three of essays.
The catalogue of the Angelucci's exhibition once again indicates a problem of documentation of media artworks, as well as art installations in space. While on one side it is important to document the exhibition, providing contextual background to its concept as well as technical details in cataloguing, printed matter appears limited in depicting and describing media arts, such as video or sound environments. Although presenting a visually appealing artwork and intriguing theme, the form of the documentation fails to broadcast the artwork, so for that reason, this book, unfortunately, can be recommended only to exhibition visitors and curators, rather than a wider public, although it speaks issues of relevance to whole humanity.