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He Named Her Amber…

How do you define art?

Well, the old definition, which many still adhere to, is that art is either a painting, drawing or sculpture exhibited inside an art gallery.


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917. Image: toutfait.com

Others might expand the definition to include video, or anything exhibited inside an art gallery. After all, Marcel Duchamp made the point with Fountain, the mass-produced urinal that he signed with the name R. Mutt, that was refused entry to the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists at the Grand Central Palace in 1917. Since Duchamp, we know that something signed by the artist and shown in the context of art, is art, right?

Well, maybe, but the definition of what art is has expanded enormously.

Since the latter part of the 20th century artists have been metaphorically or literally destroying the white walls of the gallery:

-In 2005, Elmgreen and Dragset created an exact replica of a Prada retail shop on a dusty strip of barren land in Marfa, Texas. The artwork boasts minimalist white stucco walls and a window display housing real Prada shoes and handbags, but the door doesn’t open…


Elmgreen and Dragset, Prada Marfa, 2005. Image: kultureflash.net

-The German artist Gregor Schneider (one of VoCA’s absolute favorites) is a genius at creating unsettling, uncanny, deliberately life-like reconstructions both inside and outside of galleries.

-Improv Everywhere infiltrates daily life with their public performances, as when over 200 participants suddenly froze, in synch, for five minutes in New York’s Grand Central Station:

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The result of these kind of works is that life is revealed as a theatre. When we are no longer sure where the line between art and life sits, then the difference becomes less important.


An artwork by Gregor Schneider, 517 West 24th, 2003. Image: artnet.com

The idea of life as theatre also relates to the concept of Maya in eastern philosophy, the principal deity who creates, perpetuates and governs the illusion and dream of duality in the phenomenal Universe.

He Named Her Amber…is an artwork installed in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Grange.


Inside the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Grange tour. Image: ago.net

The work is based on the story of Mary O’Shea, a maid who worked at the Grange, the city’s first brick house and original home of the the AGO collection, in the mid-19th century.

O’Shea had an intriguing penchant for hiding beeswax-coated objects – from a child’s fingernails to a bound collection of letters – under floorboards and behind walls. Her habit had been mapped by the Grange butler Henry Whyte.

The AGO, with the “excavation coordinator” Chantal C. Lee, PhD, has been undergoing an excavation, and it is this historical project-in-process that visitors witness on a tour of the Grange.

Do you believe the story? Why or why not? Why shouldn’t you believe it? Is it truth? Is it art? Is it theatre?

For more info on the Grange tour, please click HERE.
Read more about artist Iris Haussler’s work HERE.
Read one amateur historian’s perspective on He Named Her Amber HERE
And an article from the Toronto Star, HERE.

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