Night at the Musée: Spotlighting the MBAM’s Clairs-obscurs // Chiaroscuro

by Aimée Tian

This past Friday, the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts hosted the second installment of their CLAIRS-OBSCURS/CHIAROSCURO series.

Describing the soirée as a “unique multisensory journey”, the MMFA targets young adults aged 18-30 as its primary audience, fusing the carefully curated and highly participatory artscape of the museum’s Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion with a taste of Montréal nightlife. 

As the name suggests, Chiaroscuro invites viewers to experience the museum in a new light. This ‘light’ under scrutiny is embodied by the pink-and-purple neon LED lights that bask the halls with a surreal, rosy glow, illuminating its quarters with a certain je ne sais quoi. On the MMFA’s basement level, bright pink electrical tape lines the floor, almost as if to mimic a contemporary make-shift red carpet. This tape serves to guide museum attendees to the site of the exhibition, and along the way, we are exposed to some of the museum’s permanent collections under new light exposures, as well as the SHE Photographs exhibit.

Two escalators later, after taking our time slowly meandering the halls, my friends and I find ourselves at the bottom of the carpeted, sprawling staircase of the Pavilion. Upon ascending the stairs, a friend jokingly notes: “It’s like the Met ball, except not”. Certainly, elements of Chiaroscuro are reminiscent of a swanky art gala, but its price of admission and spatial awareness of accessibility allows for it to remain affordable to the general public. Sitting at $12 per ticket (or free for VIP members!), the museum offered a reduced rate membership fee for the evening, encouraging greater community involvement and regular attendance among visitors. 

Sitting at the crossroads of hip- and high-society, museum goers came dressed in a range of outfits, from casual jeans and a T-shirt to semi-formal attire, and still others in their most striking avant-garde. Nibbling on finely crafted pastries and delicacies, and clinking their glasses of (slightly overpriced) cocktails, people seem to be enjoying themselves everywhere I look. It’s a comfortable atmosphere. 

Throughout the space, we find digital installations, dance performances by the Tentacle Tribe, and various other interactive creative workshops, including the work of MAPP_MTL, Baillat Communications, and Moment Factory. For me, the most striking feature (apart from the beautiful luminescence cast everywhere by the softly lit spotlights), is definitely the lively chatter that consumes the space. Laughter and animated banter fill the halls, ringing throughout the museum. I think to myself how strange it is that this highly institutionalized space - usually so governed and noise-regulated - has turned itself into a cultural playground. 

Boasting over one thousand attendees, the museum comes alive under Chiaroscuro. Music does not cease to impress, with live DJ sets mixing a fusion of synth-pop and rhythmic deep house. In another room, a playlist of classic, oldie-but-goodies are intermixed with Top 40 hip-hop tracks, blaring though the speakers as people surround the dance floor, swaying and singing along. We join in on the fun.

Each room is individually curated, allowing viewers to experience vastly different sensations each time they move throughout the space. In one instance, there is a multimedia installation of a perforated metal structure, containing large flashing compact fluorescents within it. (Would not recommend to people prone to epilepsy…) Across the room, wind machines blow into tinfoil-looking coats, taking the form of bodiless mannequins. The same purply-pink glow customary of the entire Chiaroscuro presentation is present here as well, manifesting a sense of otherworldly futurism.  

Audience favourites include the more participatory projects - seen in the tape wall (where visitors could design their own modes of expression out of pink and black tape, attaching it onto the two walls opposite the stairway entrance) as well as the interactive projections (dancing in front of a mechanized motion-detector while digital visuals are mapped out by the participant’s movements). These works seem to break free from the traditional artistic hierarchies that have long determined who can create, and how they create.

It is interesting that museum spaces like the MMFA are able to transgress these institutionalized boundaries, and I think it is very important that progressive events like Chiaroscuro are maintained. By disrupting the established patterns of canonical artistic creation and opening up the dialogue to greater communities, Chiaroscuro is successful at lending a hand to (more accessible) art education and providing a social space for these conversations to take place.

The CLAIRS-OBSCURS/CHIAROSCURO events take place three times a year and will return for a third session, date TBD. You can follow the MMFA on Facebook to stay updated.

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