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April 26, 2001 When does walking become a work of art?



Performance artist Kinga Araya, walking, as Princess Headgear (Adjustable).

Performance artist Kinga Araya, walking, as Princess Headgear (Adjustable).


by James Martin

Forget that old line about other people’s shoes: You really don’t know Kinga Araya until you’ve walked a mile in her 30-pound copper hat.

The 34-year-old, Polish-born performance artist is working on an Art History/Visual Arts PhD in Concordia’s Special Individualized Program, a unique setup affording her time to both study theory and create her oddly compelling “prosthetic paradox” sculptures.

The happy recipient of a coveted SSHRC grant, Araya is also in the unique position of receiving academic funding (as opposed to the traditional artist gravy-train that is the Canada Council) for her artistic work.

Having completed undergrad and Master’s degrees in Ontario, Araya originally started her PhD studies in Lubbock, Texas, but was surprised to learn the program didn’t encourage the academic-artistic crossover she enjoys at Concordia.

“There are very few programs in Canada that allow you to still practice as a visual artist, yet do theoretical work,” she explains. Both sides of her academic life concern the act of walking, “the most basic, the most humble, the most beautiful perhaps, means of moving from one point to another.”

Her dissertation-in-progress approaches the question “When does walking become a work of art?” by examining the works of several walking artists from around the world, including Marina Abramovic and Ulay (they walked the Great Wall of China — for three months) and Sophe Calle (she follows people on city streets).

As for Araya’s own peculiar creations, that’s a whole other story.

“I make objects that are paradoxical prostheses of the body,” she explains, “so they function in a way to aid the body to perform speech or walking.” These are not, however, dusty museum pieces, and a crucial part of Araya’s art is to make videos of herself test-driving the creations.

The catch is that the immaculately-crafted prostheses are more hindrance than help, as seen in Orthopedic Device, in which Araya sports a two-metre-long iron tongue that renders speech painful. (Other side-effects include: making the wearer resemble a cross between Hannibal Lecter and a fossilized hummingbird.) Discipline is a series of striking cast-glass sandals (available in sizes to fit the whole family) that are beautiful but unwearable. Grounded, without giving away too much, involves a third leg.

Araya weaves personal history into her work. Some of the references are subtle, such as Peripatetic Exercise, which sees the artist struggling to maintain her balance as she plays violin while wobbling on two iron half-spheres. (Araya is a classically trained violinist.)

Other components of her work, specifically her walking “obsession,” speak to her larger experiences. She illegally immigrated from Poland to Rome in 1988, when she walked away from a school trip “with one little bag and my two legs,” beginning a journey that would take her from Rome to Ontario to Texas to Montreal.

Her story is filled with the humility and tiny Sisyphean struggles that are central themes in her work. But Araya is reluctant to “put a stamp on myself as ‘immigrant,’” or to “over-dramatize, to put it into cheap words” her life. To this end, she’s injected recent creations with a humour not found in her earlier work.

“With humour and relaxation,” she explains, “we can get across much more than by being very serious about, let’s say, a pretty tough immigrant experience. Some of my [older] works were directly political, like videos attacking unemployment in Canada. Now I’m moving away from that and trying to deal with it in a more, I don’t want to say universal or philosophical way, but a more general way, and to introduce humour.”

Princess Headgear (Adjustable) is a great example of Araya’s humour. In the companion video, Araya wears the sculpture — a copper “hat” complete with dangling spikes and one-size-fits-all adjustable headband — as she climbs Mount Royal’s wooden stairs. The princess negotiates each step with care, betraying the paradoxical danger of her lovely crown and its cacophony of clanging spikes.

Inspired by the enthusiastic response of passersby on the mountain, Araya incorporated a hands-on element to the current showing of Princess Headgear (Adjustable) at Ottawa’s SAW Gallery. On-site instructions invite viewers to don the dome for a “three-minute royal promenade” — a challenge, Araya says, accepted by several visitors on opening night. Many commented on the irony of just how heavy the pretty thing really is.

But a burning question remains: Did anyone manage to wobble around the gallery for a full three-minute walkabout?

“People just made a couple of steps,” she says, giggling. “And then they wanted to take it off!”