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Tunirrusiangit for a digital era

See the groundbreaking AGO exhibition reborn in virtual reality, thanks to students at York University.

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Installation view Tunirrusiangit_ Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak.Photo Courtesy of ArtGate VR.

Following its debut at the AGO in 2018, Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak has come to life again, thanks to students enrolled in the Curatorial Placement seminar at York University. Directed by Anna Hudson, a former AGO curator, professor at York University and principal Investigator of Mobilizing Inuit Cultural Heritage (MICH), the students in the class were charged with recreating the exhibition utilizing Art Gate VR, a virtual reality exhibition platform accessible via computer or virtual reality headset. 

Of the challenges this presented, crowd management was not what York University MA student Olivia Mikalajunas, the project manager for the exhibition, had in mind.

“Dealing with noisy crowds – the happy result of so many internet types unaccustomed to being in a gallery setting – was a real surprise. In the virtual realm, people are represented by avatars, floating hands and heads, so as you move through the exhibition, your presence is felt – you overhear conversations, you brush against others going through a doorway, you wave across a room at someone you recognize. In a year of limited contact, it feels very real.” 

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Installation view of Tunirrusiangit_ Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak at ArtGate VR. Photo courtesy Olivia Mikalajunas.

Free for the public to explore through June, this exhibition is no carbon copy, but a collaborative extension and reimagining of the original. “The goal was to really make this exhibition available – ideally to communities up north,” said Hudson. The original exhibition was brought to life by a team of Inuit artists and curators – including sculptor Koomuatuk Curley (based in Ottawa), writer and storyteller Taqralik Partridge (based in Ottawa), curator Jocelyn Piirainen (based in Winnipeg) and performer Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory (based in Iqaluit) and showcased works on paper by “the grandmother of Inuit art”, Kenojuak Ashevak (1927–2013), and her nephew, Tim Pitsiulak (1967–2016). 

“The students met with the exhibition’s original curators in the virtual platform and shared their ideas,” says Mikalajunas. “The Art Gate VR platform hosts exhibitions of up to five galleries, each a distinct white octogon where images of artworks can be installed. So after dedicating space to both legendary artists, there was much discussion about how to recognize living artists and to explore their legacy through them.”

Their solution? To include a selection of rarely seen prints from the Cape Dorset Art Archive housed at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and to invite the three contemporary Inuit textile artists currently exhibiting as part of ᖃᓪᓗᓈᖅᑕᐃᑦ ᓯᑯᓯᓛᕐᒥᑦ Printed Textiles from  Kinngait Studios , at the Textile Museum of Canada, to participate. Projects by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Taqralik Partridge, original to the first exhibition, are also included. 

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Installation view Tunirrusiangit_ Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak at ArtGate VR. Photo courtesy Olivia Mikalajunas.

The exhibition debuted as part of the ArtGate VR International Art Fair 2021 on April 15, and remains on view until the end of June. “As part of the opening, the seminar students led a tour and hosted a panel discussion. The response from the public was overwhelmingly enthusiastic,” says Mikalajunas. 

As for next year? Anna Hudson is quick to describe the virtual realm as one of possibilities. “The Art Gate Platform was a COVID blessing in some ways, as both an exhibition space and a way to connect. The challenge of how to bring exhibitions and digital experiences to the North is one that we continue to face – the digital bandwidth just isn’t available yet. But this is one step in the right direction.” 

Interested in seeing the exhibition? Download the Art Gate app onto your device: Download Art Gate, then select download for a PC or a Mac, or Oculus Headset.

This process should initiate the install on your computer. You will then be prompted to enter in a name and select a colour for your avatar as you are welcomed into Art Gate. Once inside the Art Gate lobby, walk through the doorway titled Tunirrusiangit: Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak.

And don’t miss upcoming AGO Art in the Spotlight’s talks with Taqralik Partridge and Koomuatuk Curley, happening in June.

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