Culture  A contemporary cure

Ariella Starkman clears her head at Montreal’s Contemporary Art Museum

My hangover and I set off for the Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal on a brilliantly sunny and harsh winter morning. The attraction was an exhibit featuring three internationally recognized and remarkable artists: Wangechi Mutu, Ghana Amer, and Valérie Blass. These women all utilize different mediums to create vibrant and dynamic works of art. Vibrancy, energy,  and movement. Adjectives substantially far from how I was feeling that morning. Exactly what I needed.

To explain, I have had strong reservations and extreme hesitations with regards to the contemporary art genre. My appreciation for more antiquated art came from family vacations spent loitering in various museums across Europe. The summers would pass and, as my sister and I learned to order cheap beer in various languages, I mastered my ability to observe, gawk, and reflect on renowned works of art whilst being hungover. With contemporary art, however, I had never achieved the same familiarity.

Reservations and hesitations aside, I was at a crucial moment. I reached for the door to the museum while willing myself to hold down my greasy Place Milton breakfast. It was in this moment I resolved to engage my observational skill. Regardless of a dismal emotional state or initial repudiation of the style, art in any medium is an expression of emotion, opinion, and revealing sensibility. I repeated this in my head a few times before entering the open and airy space.

That morning’s emotionally fragile state allowed me to be particularly captivated when the exhibit guide explained that Mutu, Amer, and Blass have created an impressive and forceful collection that highlights their approach to female struggle and feminist consciousness. Immediately intrigued, I began to absorb all of the fascinating and unique materials employed by each artist. With my stomach refusing to even think about food, the exhibit was shaping up to be a feast for the eyes.

Wangechi Mutu is renowned for her collages, which, as it happens, are pretty extraordinary.  One particular diptych, entitled People in Glass Towers Should Not Imagine Us, uses mixed-media images from women’s fashion magazines and splatters of paint to incite reflection on the representation of women. Many of her works show a vision of African women, one that projects strong, powerful, and animated females. I was floored. (Let me preface by stating that this was a special blend of hangover where each image I saw incited a particularly overwhelming reaction.) Mutu’s work made me reflect on and ponder the media representation of women in different nations. Before I reached the second artist of the exhibit, I was engaged in an internal dialogue that was the opposite of exhausting – a shocking feat given my mental state.

Slowly but surely I was entering a clearer, less alcohol infused headspace. My theory of engaging with art in an attempt to evade hangover hell was reinforced upon venturing into Egyptian artist Ghada Amer’s collection. The artist’s large canvases feature women engaging in sex with other women and pleasuring themselves. I realized that Amer is engaging in a conversation about the female body and our society’s tendency to present women in a way that, according to the museum’s website, “satisfies a voyeuristic gaze.”

I ventured to the exhibit featuring the work of Valérie Blass, a self-proclaimed “macho” sculptor – a designation alluding to her hands on approach – who wills the viewer to get lost in the assembly and material of her work. She uses everyday consumer objects to create sculptures that situate her in the discourse of feminist consciousness. For example, a narrow wooden sculpture with “jeggings” superimposed on posts attempts to lend itself to a discussion of female anorexia.  While I know this sculpture was intended to incite reflection, it went over my head. Blass uses various materials usually synonymous with packaging or imperative in games of beer pong to create pieces designed to look exactly like stone, iron, marble, and plaster. Impressed? I was. Moved? I was not.

And so, waves of nausea at bay, I realized this may be the trick to contemporary art. There isn’t always one obvious narrative, and it is often a little erratic and unpredictable. However, if you allow yourself to genuinely appreciate the skill and creativity that goes into the work while utilizing your imagination to derive meaning and feeling from whatever is in front of you, then you’re probably doing it right. Hangover optional.