Culture & Conversation

The Culture Of Obsession

There is a wooden pin board, headphones and hair twisted into words, but the first thing you notice is the same sequence of words being broadcast by every work: “Obsessions are helpful professionally and inane privately.”

It’s an epithet well-suited for our culture, so what does that say about us? The exhibit, Open Design, is a collection of works from different artists who have offered up their interpretation of the phrase. It’s all part of 2009 Biennale de Montréal put on by Le Centre international d’art contemporain de Montréal (CIAC).

For the past five years, Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister has been presenting phrases from his diary of collected maxims, Things I Have Learned in my Life, So Far. The above aphorism was designed specifically for Montreal in 2008 and offered up for interpretation in an open call for submissions. The results have been quite varied.

The most striking piece is by Alexandre Landry and Melinda Pap. It’s a large white, rectangular board that is pierced by long, thin wooden sticks that are meticulously spaced into rows and columns. In the middle of it, sticks are more closely packed to together to spell out the exhibit’s slogan. It is a work that evokes the compulsive and painstaking preoccupation that accompanies obsessions.

ZhenYin Qiao’s audio project tunes us into a man as he recounts his daily schedule and personal rules at work. Environmental sounds typical of morning traffic and the average office fill up the background with noise. At one point, the male voice tells us that he never takes personal calls at work and then we hear the following exchange between the man’s daughter and wife:

Daughter: Mom, why daddy never answer my call?
Mother: Honey, it’s ok. Let’s find a new daddy!

The dialogue alludes to the personal sacrifices we make in service of our obsessions, and specifically our careers.

The CIAC is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The organization’s goal is to promote and support the dissemination of contemporary art. It created the Biennale in 1998 in order to provide an opportunity for artists to interact and to gain exposure both for themselves and for the creative process they undertake. The underlying theme of “open culture” permeates all the events and exhibits of the show.

While not every piece on display gives an illuminating interpretation of the show’s dictum, the phrase itself is worth examining. Where do we draw the line between hard work and obsession? Why is it helpful to our professional lives and not our personal lives? And how much time can we spend on these questions before it becomes inane?

Open Design is showing at École Bourget, 1230 rue de la Montagne on the main floor. The exhibit is open from noon to 18h00 daily except Thursdays when it is open until 20h00. La Biennale de Montréal runs through May 31. Admission is $5. For more information, visit

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