Western Bridge is closing in August of 2012, ending an eight-year run that felt like a lifetime of art experiences created exclusively for the Northwest. While the current exhibit, Repossessed, engages questions of its legacy and collection directly, I want to focus on a single piece as the jumping off point for a commentary on the nature and importance of this space. The first thing that must be understood is that the gallery was conceived as a temporary project space that happened to house the collection of Bill and Ruth True, two exemplary patrons who are moved by their intense relationships with artists, and whose collection ranges from intimate photographs to witty conceptual gestures and grandiose architectural statements. The space is free and open to the public. There is no mission statement, no vision statement, no board, and no advertising efforts. Curated and directed by Eric Fredericksen, at its best the operation moved between symposium discussions, homey character, performance hall enthusiasm, and museum-quality presentation seamlessly. I think the best example and reminder of the ethos that was fostered and developed over time is Eli Hansen and Oscar Tuazon's Use It For What It's Used For, 2009. This piece was initially installed at LentSpace in New York, but became a near permanent fixture in the Western Bridge parking lot in 2010.
Consisting of utilitarian materials: concrete slab, steel, a solar panel, wood, cinder blocks, silicone, a 12V battery, wiring, and so forth, Use it... is an exercise in aggressive acceptance of difference. Immediately after the installation was complete, a group of transients emerged from the train tacks behind the gallery and peacefully occupied the platform, listening to classic rock on a tiny portable radio and drinking cheap beer and big cans of Arizona Green Tea. Later on that evening, I watched well-heeled gallery goers stand on the platform, swilling wine and engaging in conversations about private school.
The piece thrives on the fact that it has no initial or true intention—it merely wishes to be appropriated in whatever way the public decides. In some ways it is an orphan, abandoned to the whims of the world without any grounding to fall back on. The construction supports this, exposing the “interior” to the elements and seeming to betray the solidity of the materials. Perhaps what Hansen and Tuazon were aiming for was the grounding of simple existence, the thick and immovable concrete floor on which human interests are expressed, investigated, and valued. The lack of walls or determinate meaning coalesce into a strong stance of openness to difference and change, to the intentions of others, to the possibilities of the future.
As art that is only fully activated by participation or further use, Use it... serves as the perfect metaphor for my feelings about Western Bridge. The space functioned as a platform, a framework, a solid concrete floor and light to gather around (for a short time, also a job)—but it was also capable of fulfilling as many roles as people could invent for it. Of course the framework and structure were fixed—but it was the possibilities available within the framework that seemed infinite. Not only was Western Bridge, in my opinion, the best gallery in the region, but it has probably generated more connections and new potentialities for both outside artists in relation to Seattle and Seattle artists in relation to the outside than any other identifiable factor. The solidity of the True's dedication and Fredericksen’s steely and hospitable eye produced something greater than unity of purpose—it produced a vague assemblage that could support the infinitely diverse purposes of both artists and the community they operate in.
Like Hansen and Tuazon, Western Bridge understood that art didn't need to build walls or even express an ultimate goal. The lesson to be learned is instead that the experience of art is a process—it constantly changes and cannot be made to have a finite meaning, the only grounding necessary is the process itself, the use of things that can be used, the mere fact that usable things continue, and so too does the procession of uses for them.
Repossessed runs though December 17, 2011
Use It For What It's Used For is on view until August 2012