Maggy Hamel-Metsos at Parc Offsite, Montreal
By Sarah Nesbitt
In Caretakers at Parc Offsite, Maggy Hamel-Metsos’ interpretation of the caryatid is highly relatable to my current life role as first-time mother. Unlike the historical referent, where the pillar and decorative elements are composed of the same material, in Caretakers, the stand-in for the femme figure holding it all down (or up) is the common household vase, perfectly placed between the ceiling and its metal support. The illusion is that these delicate structures are playing a supportive role, and yet we know this is impossible. Their forms simply could not manage. These mythical caretakers are entirely reliant on the conditions that placed them there: the desires of their creator, a willing audience, and the engineering of their supports. In contrast to what I commonly (mistakenly) know about architecture as something permanent, stable, and powerful, it is the precarity of these forms I relate to the most—the sensation of trying desperately to hold it all together, while appearing totally (or at least sufficiently) in control.
Due to decay and age, most existing caryatids, like the vases in Caretakers, are devoid of any truly physical supportive role, but nonetheless continue to inform current world-views through energetic and symbolic reverberations. In 2014 when I began my Master’s degree in Art History, I was occupied with the role of architecture in upholding the logics of settler colonialism in urban spaces like Tio’tia:ke/Montreal. Having access to spatial theory, I knew intellectually that space was social and changeable, but architecture and its corollaries, monuments often embedded directly into architecture, felt so insurmountable, so permanent. Now in 2021 their impermanence is being made tangible and immediate, as monuments are toppled with greater and greater frequency.
The experience of the exhibition IRL was, for me, resonant with visiting historic sites where precise photography and provocative texts often sit in cumbersome discordance with reality. As much as I related to Hamel-Metsos’s forms URL, the context of the gallery and contemporary art felt even more jarring than usual. The works are not easily visible from the outside in the daylight—a perspective that would allow the sculptures to be read in their entirety—and once inside I was confronted with the awkward size of the space. Where do I go? How can I be with the works here? Where this scale could be a proposal for intimacy, without regular access to the site, I found it hard to get comfortable in the ways intimacy requires. The intense verticality of the assemblages in such a tiny space makes for an awkward first encounter. In documentation, you can take them in collectively. In person, you are left to scan them in the subsections your eyes can manage. They feel more indomitable and inaccessible, less precarious. I felt a little (a lot?) betrayed, but I stayed with it, hoping they might reveal something closer to what I wanted from them.
While sitting there on the stairs leading up to the main exhibition, I noticed the holes for screws in the metal supports that were not in use. The extra layer of impermanence this detail requires registers the works firmly in their symbolic realm, as art, rather than architecture. They are there, not as stand-ins for the real, but to show us something about the real we don’t take time to notice, or can’t see. The precarity I so related to in my reading of the work at a distance spoke to the positioning of caretakers of children in hetero-patriarchial configurations. Now, being with the works in-situ, I see this referent to precarity being productively extended to the physical realm, as a humble reminder that white supremacy and all its presumed stable and shifting forms are much more fallible than they appear.
Sarah Nesbitt is an independent writer and curator based in Tio’tia:ke (Montréal).