December 8th, 2010 Walking Home Projects visits the Rennie Collection

December 8, 2010 Review

Written by Sam Knopp

Stepping into the Rennie Collection at the Wing Sang Building it suddenly seemed as though we had left the busy streets of Chinatown behind.  From the outside, the only distinguishing feature of this heritage building was the nice clean paint job.  Once inside, the stark white walls and minimalist design were quite shocking, but after a few minutes of readjusting, we could slowly begin to make out the traces of Chinatown that were still permeating through the space.  Our docent for the day, Jennifer Chong, and the Rennie Collection’s Coordinator, Anne Cottingham, greeted us warmly at the door and we quickly began Walking Home Project’s tour of Vancouver’s newest private gallery.

The Rennie Collection is an important landmark in Vancouver, not just because it is one of Canada’s only private galleries, but because the building itself is the oldest in all of Chinatown!  Formally known as the Wing Sang Building, it was built in 1889 by Yip Sang (a wealthy Chinese businessman), and functioned as one of Vancouver’s first Chinese family societies.  Some of us had already learned from John Atkin that the original building actually had two very different functions – the side facing Pender acting as the business headquarters, while the back face along what is now Market Alley provided housing for Sang’s numerous wives and children.  Anne went on to explain that the building has in fact accumulated many more histories in its 100 years.  After Yip Sang died in 1927 the building was used for various purposes until it was finally abandoned in 2001; it remained that way until 2006 when Bob Rennie, Vancouver’s famous “Condo-King”, decided to purchase the deteriorating structure and repurpose it as both a gallery space for his private art collection (one of the largest in all of Canada) and an office for his business, Rennie Marketing Systems.  It seemed the building’s days of double-duty weren’t over yet!

Anne Cottingham and Jennifer Chong invite us to the Rennie Collection (Photo Credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

But this transformation was no easy task; the building had incurred a lot of damage over the years from time, the elements, and a few unwanted guests, including a lot of pigeons. The process was made especially difficult because Rennie wanted to maintain the historic integrity of the space.  As such, Rennie spent a lot of time and money to preserve as much as possible while artfully blending in modern elements in order to create a functional and balanced space.  Now only a year old, the Rennie Collection is now showing its third exhibition in the space.  The two previous exhibitions featured prominent international artists Mona Hatoum and Richard Jackson.  Exhibition Coordinator Anne Cottingham explained that because the gallery is private, the overall theme and curation of an exhibition is dependent on Rennie, which seems fair considering he’s the one paying the bills.  Because of this, the gallery has up to this point focused on contemporary art, Rennie’s favourite, and on photography and painting in particular.  Although Rennie continues to pick up the tab, the gallery is open to everyone free of charge, so long as a tour is booked.  This last requirement is the result of the very different insurance policies required of public and private galleries.  Unlike the Vancouver Art Gallery – where visitors are free to wander – the Rennie Collection requires all guests to be accompanied by a docent.  Although this results in a little bit less freedom, having a guide also enriches the viewer’s experience of the artwork and the building.

Taking in the artwork (Photo Credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

The current exhibition features two artists, Amy Bessone and Thomas Houseago, a married couple living in Los Angeles, but despite a rather lengthy marriage, this is the first time the two have ever shown together!  Even though they work in separate studios, it was impossible not to see resonances of one another in each of their works.  Bessone is a painter, while Houseago is primarily a sculptor, but both deal predominantly with the figure and how it has been understood and represented throughout history.  Working large and gesturally, the artists invite the audience into their process.  After taking in the first two pieces on the gallery’s lower level we made our way upstairs along a sleek metal staircase.

Greeted by a magnificent white sanctuary we found ourselves in awe of the large room housing a variety of works by the two artists – what used to be the upper six floors of Yip Sang’s family quarters has been made into one large viewing space.  The original windows had been covered up, except a top row along the north wall, stretching the space upwards and providing some natural light.  The size of the space was wonderful as it allowed the numerous artworks to be displayed without any sense of overcrowding.

Walking through the "other" Market Alley (Photo Credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

Behind the south wall there was a narrow hallway, and the original brick facade of the family headquarters caught everyone’s attention.  The space between the brick and opposite white wall of the hallway marks the original gap between the two buildings, a passageway that passed through Wing Sang and continued through all the buildings along this block of Pender Street to Main Street- the original Market Alley.  The outdoor version is familiar to most of us, but this interior alley served as a necessity because of the strict curfew laws imposed on the Asian community during the early 20th century. Not allowed to go out after dark, this narrow hidden lane provided a way for the Chinese community to do business, visit and even gamble late into the night.

After taking our time visiting all of the pieces, we made our way to the roof, to take in the rooftop garden.  Passing the offices of Rennie Marketing System, we couldn’t help notice the company’s unique boardroom, the original classroom where Yip Sang and numerous other children from the Chinese community were educated.  This is the only room in the Yip Sang Building that hasn’t been remodelled – only a coat of fresh evergreen paint was added, matched exactly from a sample found on the original wall.

Checking out the rooftop art collection (Photo Credit: Catherine Pulkinghorn)

On the roof, out last stop for the day, we were given a spectacular view of Chinatown, a new perspective for all of us.  The simple yet beautiful rooftop Garden showcased a permanent work by Dan Graham, Two Half Cylinders, and a permanent piece from the exhibit, Striding Man, by Thomas Houseago.  Behind us was a tall wall, giving us a clear picture of the two original buildings.  On the brick facade there was another permanent artwork, Everything is Going to be Alright, by Martin Creed.  The title of the work is lit up in large electric neon across the wall, making it quite visible from a distance.  A few of us commented that the placement of this work in the Downtown Eastside was quite fitting since it could be understood both optimistically and cynically.  I chose to see it as a sign of hope, especially in the context of the Rennie Collection, which is itself a positive example of how we can honour the past while envisioning a new future.

-Sam Knopp