What it is: . . . from the Transit Bar is “a seminal work of Canadian art” first built by Toronto artist Vera Frenkel in 1992, to represent Canada at the Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Frenkel is a leading figure in contemporary art. The installation toured Europe throughout the 1990s, and was first installed at the National Gallery in 1996. She gave it to the gallery as a gift (and partial purchase) in 1997, and now it’s up again for the first time in Canada in almost 20 years. It sat in storage at the National Gallery for 18 years, and Frenkel was surprised and thrilled to learn this year that the many, fragile pieces of the installation had all survived intact. It continues to Aug. 17.
2 Materials: It is a room-sized, multi-media installation, including full bar with stools, tables and chairs. There’s a digital player piano, which visitors can play and even record their efforts for replay. (Play well, as the bartender has a remote that can turn the recorder on. Or off.) Embedded in the walls are video monitors, over which friends of Frenkel talk about migration. Newspapers, printed for the exhibit and published in English, Swedish and French, are spread about the bar. “I was already dealing with issues of migration, and thought it would be interesting to create an environment in which immigrants, refugees and locals would feel at home,” Frenkel says. She wants visitors to think about issues of culture and identity, and how we decide who we are.
3 Drinks: It is a real, working bar. Any gallery visitor of legal drinking age can stop in for a drink, during regular gallery hours. (Minors are also welcome, for soft drinks.) Serving alcohol has sometimes caused problems for Frenkel. In Kassel, where the installation debuted, a permanent bar in the same venue complained about the competition, as did another bar at the Power Plant, in Toronto. In Sweden, there were complaints the bar was open past regular bar hours. Is there no exemption for art? “I wish that were true,” Frenkel says, and takes a sip of scotch. The Transit Bar prevailed in all challenges, and kept on serving alcohol. At times Frenkel has served as the bartender, incognito. She says she enjoyed hearing patrons talk about the piece of art, never knowing that the artist who made it all was serving their drinks.
4 Fictions: Making the Transit Bar a working bar was essential, Frenkel says, as she wanted the fiction to seem real, and to encourage people to create fictions about themselves, as they sometimes do in transit. Most of all, she wanted people who were not immigrants to get a real sense of what it’s like to be displaced. The entire room is situated within a larger room, which is revealed by looking through holes cut in the wall, heightening a sense of displacement. “You’re standing in the middle of this installation, which is an artwork, a functioning bar and a fiction,” Frenkel says. “The false walls will remind you of the evanescence, the transient nature of that reality.” The monitors project video of people talking in various languages, and their speech is subtitled in three languages, but only one language at a time, and randomly. As a result of all this, few visitors will understand all they see or read, and so to some degree everyone will “have the experience of being an immigrant or refugee,” Frenkel says.