Hanson and Sonnenberg’s internal language

Twenty-five years of the meticulous and unsettling work of Chris Hanson and Henrika Sonnenberg looms in the AGNS for The Way Things Are.

Take in 25 years of Hanson and Sonnenberg at the AGNS.
Take in 25 years of Hanson and Sonnenberg at the AGNS.

Most Haligonians are probably familiar with the three lampposts installed on the waterfront: one is drunk and has fallen over, one is pissing in the harbour and the other is probably checking its phone. Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg are the Brooklyn-based duo behind these pieces, which are part of a larger body of work and 25-year survey currently on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Originally, the lampposts were made to be displayed only for one night, at a Nuit Blanche event in Toronto. "When we were putting the show together," says Sarah Fillmore, the AGNS exhibit's co-curator, "we realized we had this opportunity and these works were about to be destroyed. For a night they existed and they were wonderful. We found a way to bring them to Halifax and I think their home couldn't be better."

Hanson and Sonnenberg met in Halifax while studying at NSCAD in the late 1980s. "They've been living for the last 17 years in New York but we wanted to foster an awareness of their work here in Halifax where it all started," says the exhibit's other curator, David Diviney. The pair's polystyrene sculpture of a beat-up bike tied to a signpost is a recent acquisition of the AGNS. Fillmore adds: "We thought it was important, in this city where they formed their identity as an artistic duo, to champion their first retrospective. It's difficult to say to people who are barely in their 50s that we are doing a retrospective. It's premature. What we're doing is a survey, a very close look at 25 years' worth of work."

The title of the exhibit is The Way Things Are. It's a bold statement but the work itself is much quieter. The images are all in white frames and the arrangement of sculptures give the small gallery a spacious, almost clinical feel. Coming out of the elevator, the first thing you're greeted with is a bucket of blood and a fence made of polystyrene. Even though a giant yellow smiley face watches over the strange scene, the mood it decidedly tense.

Further along is the smashed-up bike, a meat hook hanging from the ceiling, and three large bags filled with thousands of kidney beans made from Sculpey clay. There are collages, drawings and photographs, yet the intricate polystyrene sculptures are the highlight of the main room, as are the few pops of colour: mostly red, mostly blood.

The other focal point of the exhibit is the stop-motion animated video of a Brooklyn neighbourhood at night, also called The Way Things Are. In the film, stop signs come to life, lampposts bully bikes and throw trash around, and a garbage can leaps to its death from the roof of a building. The film's soundtrack of crashing and creaking metal can be heard throughout the gallery and provides a menacing undertone to the whole experience. The film is the exhibit's best piece.

The Way Things Are is not only interesting for its meticulousness and unsettling tone, but for its ability to create its own internal language. Pieces become related to one another through repetition or use of material and, for better or worse, Hanson and Sonnenberg have become masters of polystyrene.

It all works, though. A picture of a cat that could have easily been ripped from the pages of Cat Fancy magazine doesn't appear out of place, but rather seems to point to some private compulsion. A simple line drawing of a glue-gun seems to be a meditation on the artistic process. Bags of clay beans seem like a philosophy.

Hanson and Sonnenberg: The Way Things Are
To January 26
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1723 Hollis Street

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