Undeliverable & What it is to Care by Sam MacPhee-Pitcher

Vanessa Dion Fletcher, Relative Gradient, porcupine quills, natural dye, thread, paper, 2020. (courtesy of the artist)
Image description: A large, thin circle is made of porcupine quills folded back and forth in a zigzag pattern. The colours of the quill embroidery form a gradient of warm reds, pinks, yellows, browns and whites.

Care comes in many forms, from the familial passing of traditions to the self-care of self-advocacy. For people with disabilities, as well as those who are BIPOC, care is a political act as it defies the de-valuing of society. To care is to insist on one’s personhood, value, and the value of one’s experiences. Undeliverable, a group exhibition curated by artist and disability activist Carmen Papalia, is an exploration of various forms of care, both communal and individual. Occupying the spaces of Oshawa’s Robert McLaughlin Gallery and Toronto’s Tangled Art + Disability Gallery, the exhibition shares works, adapting each for their inhabited venue. RMG is a space in which everything feels that it is climbing up, only to be grounded and separated by Papalia’s Stonehenge of mirrors that rests at the centre, creating a place that invites us to share and explore nonvisual learning. Tangled’s space is alternatively open; instead of tall mirrors, it is only separated by a floating wall which houses pieces on either side of it. In both locations, one moves in a circular fashion around Papalia’s central shared space, free to visit it and rest, learn, or share with another, at any time.

Chandra Melting Tallow, Blood Count (courtesy of the artist)
Image description: Four dresses suspended from the ceiling in a diamond shape. Each one is a different colour: black, red, blue, white. There are beaded patches sewn onto the dresses.

Vanessa Dion Fletcher and Chandra Melting Tallow raise care towards the heavens at the RMG with textile works that play with floating and suspension. While Fletcher’s dyed and woven quills are actually vinyl prints, without boarders they appear to float adjacent to Melting Tallow’s dresses that are suspended from the ceiling. The appearance of floating plays into familial and cultural traditions that both artists are invested in: the illusion that we are suspended singularly, while actually being supported by generations before and strings of continuity. Dion uses quillwork, an artform largely replaced in Indigenous communities by glass beads. This differs from Melting Tallow who uses the aforementioned beads to represent personal memories stitched to patches on dresses. Both use Indigenous textile arts to express the individual in such a way that while we may attempt to locate a story in the work, they deny us access to the specifics. The beaded patches may be interpreted, discerning shapes, appreciating the different types of beads, but they defy exactness in storytelling. Each patch represents a life event not readily accessed, that may only be known in the manner the creator has gifted the public with. The only access available is in the self-expression of her existence.

jes sachse, undeliverable (courtesy of the artist)
Image description: Perpendicular walls with rows of metal plaques with the word “permission” running from the bottom of the frame to the top. Metal grab bars are bolted to the walls in the upper part of the picture.

Those boundaries of expression become exquisite to experience in light of jes sachse’s piece, undeliverable, which features a wall of one thousand metal plaques, likened to donor cards, each reading “permission.” They are accompanied by grab bars that climb up to the ceiling and a stream of consciousness textual piece. sachse asks us to consider the ramifications of Zoom and social media by drawing attention to remote access, which exists to include us in society, to give us a voice, but also requires permission to have unlimited access to our lives, without the ability to voice frustration, betrayal, or other negative emotions. This transactional relationship with accessibility is complicated, exemplified by the bars on the wall leading up to a place no one could reach without assistance. Accessibility should be community-building, life-affirming, and expansive, but what is the cost of insisting upon it?

Image description: A photo of an iPad on a wheelable tripod inside the Tangled Art + Disability Gallery, which is used to give virtual tours. On the walls straight ahead and to the right are three red pastel drawings of hands playing the string game cat’s cradle. The title is Open Access: Claiming Visibility by Heather Kai Smith.

The unique collaboration of the two galleries embodies the themes of accessibility and community building. With remote access made available in both spaces, most can enjoy all of Undeliverable even if in-person viewing is not viable. I was fortunate to visit RMG in person and had the immense pleasure of a remote visit to the Tangled gallery. While being able to stand and ponder over the words of sachse’s piece was an act of love, the remote access tour is so much in the spirit of collaboration and inclusion that the tour should almost be recommended over in-person visits. Remote access builds a temporary community between you and your guides as you navigate each of the works with assistance. It requires constant expression of needs, whether that be to pause, explain, or experience further, thus highlighting the communicative and communal nature of accessibility. Our self-care and our care for the arts are at the forefront of this experience.

Image description: A view of the installation of the Undeliverable exhibition at Tangled Art + Disability Gallery. Between two pillars in the middle of the gallery, there is a video that is part of Aislinn Thomas’s project ongoing, collective effort […] featuring Deaf artist and ASL interpeter Sage Lovell. On the pillars is jes sachse’s chrome grab bar installation undeliverable. Drawings by Heather Kai Smith are in the background.

As a counter, perhaps, to the brilliance of remote access, is Jessica Karuhanga’s multi-media piece you feel me?, which calls attention to touch – particularly poignant during the current pandemic, though especially concerned with the experiences of Black individuals and the realities of living in different bodies. This piece exemplifies the major themes of both communal and individual care, as the version at RMG invites us to weave between plexiglass that casts shadows and reflects the viewers and the available strobe lights, while the Tangled version is a solitary experience, a vibrating belt that engages the sense of touch. In both, the same music is pulsing: in RMG it plays over a speaker, communally engaging, while at Tangled it is fed through headphones or can be available on a personal mobile phone. This reflects the fact that accessibility is not only individually-based, but space-based. Accessibility can never be a single act or a single instance, but must be negotiated and experienced in different ways. It is wrapped up in the communal experience of seeing yourself in others, reflected, without reflection, in shadows, and the individual experience of feeling the vibrations of another person and learning to respond.

Jessica Karuhanga, you feel me? (photo: Michelle Peek)
Image description: Person standing in Tangled gallery space wearing headphones, a medical mask, and a belt with a circular buckle.

Undeliverable asks us to explore how we can care for each other. It calls attentions to the boundaries we need and those limits we must assist each other to cross. Among the couches that give space to sit and communicate, the sculptures we may imagine, and the pieces I touched upon more thoroughly, we are asked to take and make space to care.

 

Sam MacPhee-Pitcher, MA is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s English program. They are a writer and textile artist who explores identity and interconnection through short stories and puppets.