Art / by Jack Ruttan

Betty Goodwin: Permanent installation at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

When the doors open to the new pavilion of the Museum of Fine Arts, two important transitions will have taken place. One is obvious: the museum will have a shiny new building and acres of gallery space for its once cramped collection. The other is an adjunct to the first, but in its own way as big a step. Artist Betty Goodwin will be done at last with her latest and largest installation, a project which has occupied her for the past two years.

Perhaps she is not done with it entirely. It was the near the end of October 1992 when this writer visited the site of the three part installation at the museum. Only two of those parts had been set up. High on a wall hung a huge metal ear about the size of an old Buick. For the ear to listen to, there was on the opposite wall a stylized "loudspeaker" made up of two angled planes of polished steel. This looks less like a regular speaker than it does the face of some futuristic Japanese robot, especially with its mirrored surface and the long eye-like slits from which shine blue neon light. This light reaches out and strikes the ear, which is across the way in the supper reaches of the tall, narrow hallway.

It takes no great critical perception to guess that the piece is about communication. This fact will be made even clearer when the third part of the installation is in place, which will consist of two quotations inscribed on the floor in letters of stainless steel. One is from Carolyn Forche: "How long does it take for one voice to reach another?" The other is from Elie Wiesel: "Every question possesses a power that does not lie in the answer."

The work was created by Goodwin in collaboration with architect Peter Lanken. Lanken's role was mainly to translate Goodwin's conception of the installation, which was embodied in a maquette or model about two feet high, into the full-size version on walls sixty-five feet high. Goodwin tells of how the project became transformed when questions of engineering came into play. She views her work with Lanken as a real collaboration, as his input affected the piece in ways she could not have foreseen. She was surprised, for instance at all of the reflections the two elements produced, both on the mirror-like surface of the speaker, and on the many windows in the hall enclosing it.

That hall, called officially The Cultural Corridor, is a quirky, Canadian invention. It's basically the laneway between two of the old buildings whose shells make up two of the three parts of the new addition. This old alley has been covered over with glass and made into a passageway that really doesn't do anything except provide a shortcut to the next street. There will be a few shops, but no benches, because no one will want to loiter there. It's just basically an enclosed street, perhaps reflecting an unspoken but common Montrealer's wish that all of the city be sealed over and weatherproofed.

Viewed from the front, the new Museum of Fine Arts gallery shares nothing with its older sibling across Sherbrooke Street other than a similarity in the streaked texture of its marble facing. Otherwise, it looks as if a spaceship landed on the lot which used to be occupied by some private galleries and the old Academic and General Book shop, it seems now centuries ago. By the way, Gerald Glass, the durable proprietor of that shop which has moved further east on Sherbrooke, says about the new pavilion "It's wasting half the space."

It's a modern building, no doubt about that. Whether the very contemporary and bold blocks and portholes will age into something as well loved as the city's famous buildings from the twenties and thirties, only time will tell. A lovely touch on the Crescent Street side of the new museum is the spectrum of colours in granite which changes from the white of the building's front down to the red of the brick townhouses beside it.

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