Carmen Papalia with Heather Kai Smith at the Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff

By Maeve Hanna

Tall columns of mirror cascade into the gallery space, bridged by the filament of a red cord drawing the room together. Wandering the space, viewers are reflected perpetually with each turn and twist. The feeling of being within a maze, lost and tangled, is unmistakable. This is the crux of the exhibition: Guidelines offers an alternative argument to accessibility within the visual arts.

Carmen Papalia, Guidelines, 2019, installation

Artist Carmen Papalia has termed the phrase for how he works and what he needs within a visually artistic space as “open access.” This is based on what he experiences as a “non-visual learner” as opposed to the widely used expressions of being blind or visually impaired. Papalia encourages the audience to use the red cord as a wayfinding device through the installation of mirrored columns, bringing a tactile sense to the exhibition.

A series of hand drawings by Heather Kai Smith illustrate an alternate path for acknowledging Papalia’s notion of accessibility. Hands become the instrument of communication here over voice and sight. The drawings, in red, picture hands playing the popular string game Cat’s Cradle. Stilled in position between action and thought, these portraits cement a moment in time of playfulness and a political comment on how we interact in the world on a day to day basis. Emphasizing how we use these essential appendages highlights our dependence on certain senses and a need for open dialogue regarding those who are differently abled and how accessibility as necessity is linked to this overarching conversation.

Equally compelling is a series of videos by both artists titled Open Access: Claiming Visibility. This work is based on a performance in which a walk takes place in public space. However, the walk is unique as each participant closes their eyes and holds onto the person ahead of them, thus creating a wayfinding measure of their own through space. This politicized performance also offers an informed understanding of how to move through the world, while commenting on issues of accessibility in the social realm.

Carmen Papalia with Heather Kai Smith: Guidelines continues until August 25.
Walter Phillips Gallery: https://www.banffcentre.ca/walter-phillips-gallery
This gallery is accessible.

Maeve Hanna is a writer and curator who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours in Visual Art and Literature from York University and the University of Leeds and a Master of Arts in Art History and Icelandic Studies from Université du Québec à Montréal and the University of Manitoba on location in Iceland. She has previously written for Black Flash, C Magazine, Canadian Art, esse arts + opinions, Frieze, Sculpture Magazine and the Senses and Society. She is Akimblog’s Calgary correspondent and can be followed on Instagram @maeve_hanna.