Kim Adams, Toaster Work Wagon (1997) 1960s VW bus parts, bicycles. Collection of Museum London; purchased with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program and the Moore Fund, 2013. Installation at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Photo: Mike Lalich
Kim Adams, One for the Road
Art Gallery of Hamilton
8 February – 4 May 2014
Review by Michael DiRisio
Recently on at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, One for the Road surveyed more than thirty years of Kim Adams’s interdisciplinary artworks. Though best known for his sculptural works, comprised of repurposed plastic models and full-scale structures, the exhibition also included numerous drawings and prints. Despite this wide range of materials, Adams’s sustained interest in repurposing and reconstructing objects from everyday life produced a cohesive exhibition, one that drew attention to Adams’s significant contribution to contemporary Canadian art. His recent receipt of a Governor General’s Award for Visual Arts further attests to this.
Adams is often appreciated for his criticism and exploration of consumption and production within contemporary society; but another, less noted strength revealed in One for the Road is an emphasis on what comes between production and consumption—the circulation of commodities. Adams’s frequent use of railcars, railway tracks, transport-truck semitrailers and other transport ephemera points to this circulation, and the title One for the Road can be understood within this field of reference as well. The functions of the railcars and semitrailers are almost always subverted, which speaks to Adams’s interest in reconsidering the use and purpose of these objects.
The clearest expression of this is found in Adams’s recent series Caboose (2013), includes numerous miniature environments built around railcars. Many of the cars appear disused—some have graffiti on them, some have been rebuilt, and others have been incorporated in the construction of larger buildings. Surrounding the resting railcars are lawns and gardens, with people leisurely talking or lounging. The work seems to suggest that we somehow live by these cars, both literally and figuratively, and that they are much more a part of our lives than we might recognize. Caboose makes these cars visible in a way that they commonly are not, and depicts them as firmly embedded within society—a depiction that says more about the current state of our political economy than these odd little environments might be assumed to represent.
Adams’s inventive illustration of repurposed cars takes this point beyond mere social critique and towards a new system of value and use. This certainly makes his project sound more dry than it really is; his keen sense of play and humour was present throughout One for the Road. Many of the characters within his models exemplify this humour, including the flasher exposing herself to a clown within Adams’s massive, though intricately constructed, miniature Artists’ Colony (1987–1989). Where Caboose offers meditations on discrete environments, Artists’ Colony overwhelms with the level of detail that characterizes the numerous structures and substructures. Artists’ Colony depicts people engaging in a wide range of activities, in a city that appears to be centred on a repurposed train yard. As in Caboose, railcars no longer transport goods here, but are instead used for shelter and to support large gardens, or are similarly put to alternative uses. Situated at the entrance to the exhibition, the work offered an appropriate introduction to Adams’s practice, as it reconsiders dominant modes of circulation and value through a city that is much more creative and resourceful than the cities that surround us.
Gift Machine (1988) offers Adams’s most direct, albeit no less playful, criticism of circulation and value. A work that appears oddly quiet within the gallery, it consists of two mopeds facing away from each other, connected by trailers and ladders that support umbrellas, suspended tent bags filled with tennis balls, and other miscellany. When this curious work is exhibited in the streets, Adams accompanies it and hands out small balls mounted on sticks—a gift that is equally curious. In the exhibition’s accompanying publication, Julian Jason Haladyn relates the long, horizontal ladders to an assembly line, and this apt connection emphasizes the relation that this work has to the inanity of contemporary production. Use value is continually overlooked in current forms of industrial production, with an item’s exchange value being the only value considered. Gift Machine upsets this shift from use to exchange value, with seemingly useless objects being given away, rather than sold.
Kim Adams, Gift Machine (1988). Scooters, wheelbarrows, ladders, tennis balls, umbrellas, bags. Courtesy of the artist and Diaz Contemporary. Installation at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Photo: Mike Lalich
The exhibition of Gift Machine left something to be desired, however, as the removal of the socially engaged element of the piece, and the lack of any documentation of it functioning in public, made it difficult to access the work’s content. While the exhibition’s publication addressed this work extensively, and no doubt filled in these gaps, until I read it I was left feeling somewhat lost.
Though the more socially engaged works included in One for the Road may have felt slightly too still, too quiet, Adams’s works on paper were unmistakably active. His lithograph print The Gift Tractor (1998), with its swirling lines of orange, blue and green, seems to represent the energy that an activated Gift Machine might possess. His drawings and prints complement and often expand upon themes taken up in his sculptures, and the almost frantic linework present in many of these works allows for a freedom of expression that his tighter sculptures do not. It is unfortunate that his works on paper have not received greater attention.
Also unfortunate was the lack of access to Adams’s Bruegel-Bosch Bus (1996–ongoing) during my visit to One for the Road. Found in the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Sculpture Atrium, Bruegel-Bosch Bus is a chaotic mix of models and toys built into, and exploding from, an old Volkswagen bus. Despite the work being a permanent display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, an installation taking place on the same level as the Bruegel-Bosch Bus rendered the work off-limits. This oversight was a real disappointment in my visit, given that Adams’s permanent work at the gallery should have been highlighted, not restricted, during the run of an exhibition that approached retrospective status.
Despite this lack of access, both to the permanent work and to supplementary information, One for the Road featured a series of works that attest to the depth and complexity of Adams’s critical practice. A strength of the exhibition, and certainly of his work more generally, was that it highlighted Adams’s ability to critique prevailing systems without relying on polemics or overt didacticism. His repurposing of mass-produced objects suggests that alternative structures and systems can be constructed, or at the very least, that we could be a little more creative with the consumer goods that surround us.
Michael DiRisio is a writer and visual artist based in Toronto. His recent work explores alternative economies and the construction of value, through projects involving the documentation of things given away for free and the construction of free stores in gallery spaces. His writing can be found in C Magazine, On Site review and PUBLIC journal, where he typically addresses the intersections between labour, politics and socially engaged art practices.