SURREY — I spent nearly 90 minutes staring at, walking around, looking inside, looking over, looking under, listening and interacting with it. I then spent another 30 minutes chatting with the guy who created it.
And I still wasn’t sure what I’d experienced.
I came away feeling retrospective and melancholy, a bit weirded out. And I definitely wanted to go back. Maybe twice.
“It” is “Secret Citadel,” the latest exhibit at Surrey Art Gallery, and it’s unlike anything that’s been at the SAG in quite some time. And for that, you can fully credit the artist, Sackville, New Brunswick’s Graeme Patterson.
Patterson spent five years of his life in its creation. And all along, he wanted people to come away from it feeling as I did: thoughtful and fully immersed.
“Secret Citadel” is a broad and deeply complex installation that spans the entire gallery and incorporates several distinct components. It melds life-size objects (a working player piano, a high school gym bleacher, a la “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) with ridiculously complex miniature scenes (fully decked-out cutaway houses, a locker room, a weight room and much more), and then tops it off with a liberal dose of stop-motion animation.
More interestingly, you’ll miss so much of it at first blush. You’ll need to peel away the layers, and perhaps even lay on the floor or stick your head inside something to fully appreciate all that’s going on here.
All that’s going on here begins in Patterson’s youth.
“I started with this piece,” he says, motioning to the module he calls Grudge Match. “I used to wrestle in high school. This body of work is about male friendship, male bonding, and my life’s experiences with that.”
Patterson talks about Yuki, a childhood friend.
“We grew up together in Saskatoon, but I lost touch with him when we were nine.”
“This,” he says, pointing to one of two hand-crafted figures at opposite ends of a wrestling mat, “is a teenage version of him. When I finished this piece, I knew there was more to this story, to this investigation.”
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As it turns out, the entire project is an ethereal extension of the truncated Graeme/Yuki relationship, and it’s not always pretty.
“It gets really grim in the second one,” says Patterson as we walk to the fixture he calls “Camp Wakonda.” On one level, children at play. On the next, a crash scene between school bus and car.
“It speaks about adolescence and destruction and where friendships go to die. I had a car accident with a van when I was 16. No one got hurt, but a friendship was basically ruined. It was my fault…. There was a lot of guilt and this is the semi-fictional spark that ignites those memories.”
I look across the room and see a ballet of sorts, a stop-motion projection that features two humanoids with animal heads.
“At some point in this narrative, I didn’t want to just talk about me and Yuki specifically, with our faces and our likenesses. I wanted to have these avatars, these mascots. So I used a bison mascot and a cougar mascot. Both are kind of Canadian animals, and also very male. They allowed me to talk about all my friends.”
I tell him they also look somewhat frightening, and he agrees.
“Yeah, they’re scary. Everything here has that rough esthetic. It’s supposed to be a little dark and grim.”
Over here, a mountain topped with bedsheets and scarves, separating the childhood homes of Yuki and Graeme. Inside, figurines at play dressed in their finest ’70s and ’80s garb and, if you manage to spot them, tiny projections whirring away.
Over there in another room, that player piano. I deposit a coin and it fires up, playing a haunting melody Patterson composed. Above it, more scenes – a pub, a lonely guy in his living room, another fellow playing darts. Is this Yuki and Patterson, separated by events, living their lives out? Is it a reflection of ourselves?
Soon, the seemingly huge discrepancies dissolve. Figurines versus projections, life-size versus miniature, animal head versus human head, old versus young – somehow, it all blends together.
“It’s a maximalist thing where I want to have the world fully explored,” says Patterson in explaining his multifaceted approach. “I keep adding, and keep adding. And then maybe I think about it differently now, so I’m going to slightly change it. Eventually, I’ll know when it’s done. Sometimes something is too gimmicky and I take it out. It’s a gut feeling.”
Surrey Art Gallery is the fifth stop, and the only one in B.C., of Patterson’s current six-city, country-wide tour with “Secret Citadel.” It’s a massive undertaking that involves a “large semi truck” and an experienced squad of art shippers. And lots of insurance.
“Shipping is one of the biggest challenges,” the artist says.
By the time you read this, Patterson will already be back in Sackville, at home in his studio and working again on his current project.
“Right now I’m working with some stuff that’s very animal oriented. A little more representational. But I’m also using more interactive components, using new technologies, computers and more video.”
“Secret Citadel” will remain on view at Surrey Art Gallery until March 20. Brutally candid and exceptionally inventive, it’s well worth your attention.