This visitor-activated installation addresses our relationship to objects in a globalized age.

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Surrey Art Gallery - 13750 88 Ave

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In our environmentally-conscious age, how often do we stop and think about the afterlife of the objects that cannot be recycled or reused when we dispose of them? Questioning the nature of refuse, the scope of global consumption, and the limits of ceramic art, Ian Johnston’s artwork probes humanity’s complex relationship to the objects of modern convenience and the environment at large.

The interactive artwork Machine for Singing (2007-2009) surrounds the viewer with Song Dynasty ceramic bowls and curiously placed mechanical devices. Situated between two spaces, this work of installation art is visually disconnected but within hearing distance of each other.

Three sides of the main room are ringed with stark white shelves that support rows of traditional Chinese-style bowls. The features of the bowls suggest that they are the type produced in the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD). The bowls line a flood lit room much like gleaming products in a gift shop. Bowls from the Song Dynasty are highly prized collector's items and “knock-offs” are a big business around the world.

Nearly all of the ceramics are paired with an electronic device indicating that some action will take place; however the viewer's presence in the room seems to prevent this action from happening. As visitors are arriving and leaving the gallery they unknowingly activate the electrical devices through the simple of act of walking on the carpeted area in the gallery’s front entrance. The sounds recall the chiming of temple bells. The experience of disconnected sound and appearance of the artwork signals the expansive space that often exists between consumers and the makers of consumed objects.

Among other things, Machine for Singing raises questions about how we search for authenticity in contemporary life, and often produce a proliferation of copies in the process.

Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Transnational Absolute.

Read the exhibition brochure.

About the Artist

Ian Johnston is an architect turned sculptor based in Nelson, BC. He has exhibited his sculptural ceramic work internationally since the mid nineties. Johnston studied architecture at Algonquin College, and Carleton University in Ottawa and with the University of Toronto at Paris, France. Prior to opening his Nelson studio in 1996 he spent five years working at the Bauhaus Academy in post Berlin Wall East Germany. In 2009, Johnston received a North West Ceramic Foundation Award for Excellence and was nominated for a Winifred Shantz Award for Ceramics.

Image credit: Ian Johnston, Machine for Singing (2007-2009) (detail). Porcelain, wood, steel, carpet, electronic components, 127 cm x 23 cm x 7.6 cm and 63.5 cm x 76 cm x 0.6 cm.