In the opinion of both Shauna Thompson, curator at Calgary’s Esker Foundation, and long-time volunteer Suzanne Presinal, there is one exhibition in the history of the gallery that stands out: Wafaa Bilal’s 168:01.
“It was an interactive exhibition where the artist was interested in creating a project that would also have a bit of a social purpose,” Thompson says.
168:01 was created by the Iraqi-American artist to help bring to light, and rectify, a tragedy of the Iraq War — the destruction of the library at the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad in 2003.
“We had these empty white bookshelves … that had white books that he’d put on the shelves, and every Sunday we’d take the white books out and put art books in,” says Presinal.
Over the three months of 168:01’s 2016 showing, Calgarians donated “hundreds and hundreds” of books to the exhibit, filling the barren shelves. Esker then donated the books to help rebuild the library.
“We were kind of the broker of that exchange, and I thought that was really fun and really interesting to watch,” says Thompson.
The exhibition received attention across Canada and around the world; however, this sort of unique, limited-time display is not new territory for Esker.
Many art galleries and museums focus on permanent pieces and travelling mega-exhibitions, but Esker Foundation revolves around a constantly changing space and collaborations with artists to create work specifically for the gallery.
“We’re very much about supporting what’s happening locally, but also bringing artists and exhibitions into Calgary for people to see as well,” says Thompson, one of seven staff members at the gallery.
“I think we’re just really interested in looking at what artists are doing in the contemporary moment, and what issues are they responding to, what they are making work about, and trying to keep our finger on the pulse of what that is.”
Three times a year, the fourth-floor loft completely changes as each new exhibition arrives. Esker Foundation is non-collecting, meaning there are no permanent fixtures at the gallery. The one exception is The Nest, a spherical, metallic meeting space made to look like, well, a nest.
Esker showcases both rising artists and established talent, in the main loft area as well as a street level project space on the ground floor of the Atlantic Avenue Art Block in Inglewood. The exhibition space contains 10,000 square feet of space for artists to use however they wish.
“That’s simply to do with looking for people who are at a point in their career where they can handle the space, as we have a lot of space,” Thompson says.
Currently, that person is Kapwani Kiwanga, born in Hamilton, Ont., and her exhibition called A wall is just a wall (and nothing more at all). As the title suggests, it sets out to prove that a wall can, in fact, be much more than it appears.
Visitors are immersed into the exhibit from the moment they walk into the gallery. The sounds of a distorted audio installation describing the exhibit’s techniques plays overhead. A series of paintings, demonstrating the “disciplinary architecture” of public buildings, hangs in front of the guest. The neon hue of the exhibit’s central installation and a popular backdrop for Instagram photos, called “pink-blue,” invites you further in.
“It’s really just about finding something that resonates with us and feels interesting, and it varies every time,” says Thompson on selecting artists for Esker.
“We don’t set out with any particular agenda to find anybody … it’s about keeping your nose to the ground to see who’s out there working, and what’s interesting.”
This is how Esker found Dave and Jenn – the Calgary husband and wife duo of Dave John Foy and Jennifer Saleik. The two created a multimedia exhibition for the street level project space called Paradise for an in-between time.
“A lot of our work right now is dealing with the tension between the real and the fabricated,” says Saleik, who is the vocal one of the two.
The exhibit is largely crafted of metallic paper cut-outs, made to resemble various facets of nature. The 300-square-foot space can be viewed from the sidewalk through an arched window, as if looking in on a theatrical set.
Foy and Saleik started working together after graduating from ACAD 14 years ago.
“We were really driven to see what kind of interesting stuff we could make together, because it would be so different than what we could make on our own, because we are quite different people,” Saleik says.
“Jokingly, we often, sort of refer to Dave – David as like, the order, and I'm kind of like the chaos."
Foy chimes in, “Over the years, working together, obviously we’ve both changed slightly.”
Dave and Jenn speak highly of Esker Foundation’s open and interactive nature.
“They have a really wide range of programming that they do, that’s free to the public … you can go to artist talks and do workshops, and it really involves the public more with the artwork,” says Saleik.
“That’s a big deal, that it’s free, and it’s just more a space to see art and have art brought to the city,” adds Foy.
Esker Foundation organizes nearly 30 free workshops that pair with each exhibition, open to a wide array of participants. This is where Presinal comes in. She has held a volunteer position at Esker for more than four years.
“I’m very involved with all the programs that are happening here, so it’s really satisfied what I was looking for, and I didn’t even have to get a job doing it.
“What I find with Esker is that they adapt to amazing situations,” she says, going on to describe the installation of Optic Nerve by Kim Adams — a Ford van with dozens of holes drilled into it. The piece was part of Esker’s Oh, Canada exhibition in 2015 and required some heavy lifting to be placed in the gallery.
“They had put in this new elevator … They sent [the dimensions] to the artist … When the van arrived to Calgary, it was too big for the elevator, so they ended up having to get a crane, and crane it in through the window, so that kind of made the news,” describes Presinal.
She says the gallery is on track to finding its place in Calgary.
“I just feel like it’s become a landmark place in our city … I think it’s up to becoming this icon that people will come to when they visit Calgary.”
For Thompson, the “anti-elitist” disposition of Esker is most important. She says Esker is meant for everyone, regardless of artistic knowledge.
“I just want people to know that we’re open to them coming to visit and to meet us and see what we’re up to.”
Kapwani Kiwanga’s A wall is just a wall (and nothing more at all) runs until May 6.
Dave and Jenn’s Paradise for an in-between time can be viewed until April 29.
- By Noel Harper