I Can See Your Underwear: a shamefully unique exhibit at Centre A

Vancouver-based artists Kelly Lycan and Natalie Purschwitz describe their latest art exhibit I Can See Your Underwear as a return to schoolyard taunts.

“Like the emperor and his new clothes, the metaphoric transparency of the materials belies its true nature, and while we are seduced by its colorful cheer we also come to realize that we are frolicking in our own demise,” said in a press release.

Housed in the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art on West Hastings, it is a testament to the social and physical malleability of plastic that knows no geographical boundaries.

“Plastic as a material has a very Asian undertone because it is a material widely used and produced in Asia, and if you go to a city like Hong Kong everywhere you go they have plastic products,” said assistant curator Debra Zhou.

Various white plastic objects and materials strewn about. Photo by Celia Leung.

Affectionately known as Centre A, the non-profit gallery provides artists and art-lovers alike a platform for discussion said Zhou.

“[Our] exhibits always have some aspects dealing with what is Asia, what is Asian?”

Granted permission to visit the centre on a normally-closed Sunday afternoon — they were hosting a special Canada Council for the Arts workshop that day — I had the privilege of having the entire gallery to myself.

Immediately entering the front door, visitors find themselves walking through the vestibule — a partially cordoned off area covered in opaque plastic reminiscent of a greenhouse. Several plastic shopping bags of all shapes and colors are scattered overhead foreshadowing the theme of the exhibit.

Stepping out from the entrance area to the rest of the gallery, your eyes are treated to a feast of visuals.

Almost everything is displayed in one room: the cavernous main gallery area. It can be confusing to decide what to see first, but luckily a map is provided at the front with a breakdown of the layout and brief descriptions of the works.

I Can See Your Underwear display, a giant working swing from
which the exhibit is named. Photo by Celia Leung.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the marquee display I Can See Your Underwear, a 22-foot swing attached to the ceiling made entirely from Rapunzel-length strands of colourful plastic. Its inspiration comes from an 18th century painting called, well, The Swing. A wooden seat is installed at the bottom and to my surprise is fully functional — I was even encouraged by Zhou to take it for a ride. I politely declined.

If you haven’t already guessed, almost everything used in the show is made from some form of plastic in either its normal everyday appearance (shopping bags, containers, furniture) or modified and mutilated (painted, melted, cut items).

Miscellaneous pieces of plastic suspended by plastic chains. Photo by Celia Leung.

Another display that caught my attention is aptly named Pretty Uglies. Hidden from view behind a wall, it gave me the heebie geebies. Plastics of different shapes, colors and textures ranging from pink bubble wrap to black netting hang from plastic chains, which are suspended from tree branches wrapped in black plastic. It was like some kind of bizarre plastic meat locker. I inexplicably found myself returning to this isolated scene a few times.

Freezies in a variety of flavors hang from plastic pipes. Photo by Celia Leung.

Next door to Pretty Uglies is NO NAME 1298, an exhibit that any child can relate to. Dozens of plastic freezies hang in symmetrical and color coordinated fashion, eerily illuminated by a bright central light. It evoked in me conflicted feelings: on the one hand there were all these delicious treats ready to be frozen and eaten, and on the other I couldn’t help but be reminded of hospital IV drips.

Other notable works: Water Bottle, a large geometrically-shaped piece of styrofoam with a sports water bottle cap adorning the top; I Can’t Believe They’re Not Jeans: a shockingly realistic two-dimensional replica of a pair of jeans made from plastic, wood and metal.

The displays are abstract and, like the exhibit’s name, may not be entirely self explanatory. However, it’s up to the viewer to come up with his or her own conclusion, and I also think it certainly lives up to the centre’s mission of fostering discussion.

I Can See Your Underwear runs until Mar. 11, visit the website for more information.

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