Mitchell Burton takes centre stage in new SPAO show

 Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ottawa Little Theatre

Story by Alisdair MacRae  /  Photos courtesy the artist

Typically, our experience of art places us as viewers in a position of relative authority over the work. We look onto a scene from our vantage point, mostly secure in our knowledge of what is depicted before us. In his recent work, however, photographer Mitchell Burton turns these tables by offering images of public viewing areas, presenting a subtle but telling analysis of how social forces shape, and are shaped by,
institutions of art, religion, and entertainment. In his current exhibition at the School of Photographic Arts Ottawa (SPAO), Burton shows us The Seats.


After moving from Calgary two years ago to pursue studies at SPAO, Burton is currently an artist in residence at the school. For his exhibition that opened March 4, he took photographs of empty seats from podiums, stages, or just in front of film projection screens—the areas upon which we are accustomed to focusing our attention. The title of the exhibition might sound mundane, however the resulting images are anything but. They show us what we might miss as we arrange ourselves comfortably in a given viewing space, and, perhaps out of stage fright, what we may be too timid to consider.


The eight large-format colour photographs depict the seats in various spaces including Ottawa Little Theatre, the de-sanctified St. Brigid’s church, and the large auditorium at the National Gallery of Canada. Burton uses a four-by-five negative and long exposure times, allowing him to capture a lot of detail and a particular stillness within the dim, voluminous spaces.


While the interiors range in architectural styling, all of the images have a strangeness to them. Burton admits that he began to feel anxious at times while standing in front of all those empty chairs, but the works do not induce that same feeling. For me, they invite closer inspection, and slowly, I begin to consider how and why we gather in these context-specific spaces. Thinking of human behaviour as performance makes Burton’s work that much more engaging.


In the image that looks towards the back of St. Brigid’s, we get a glimpse of the monstrous yet darkly lit pipe organ, looming up behind the pews. The same feeling of atmospheric gloom is gone, however, from Burton’s photo of the First Baptist Church basement, where stackable chairs lit by fluorescent lights are the setting for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The National Gallery of Canada auditorium, meanwhile, is massive in comparison yet fairly staid with its regular arrangement of seats and slate grey color scheme. The dark crimson interior of the Ottawa Little Theatre is warm and inviting: we gaze out from an intimate centre stage position from behind two chairs and a table.


Burton also took photos from inside some of Ottawa’s movie houses, both new and old. The interiors of the Bytown Cinema and Mayfair Theatre look palatial, given the grace and character of these purpose-built spaces. In sharp contrast, the Rainbow Cinema 1 and 5 offer a starkly modern cinematic experience. The day-glo purple seating in Cinema 5 reminds me of a late-night Rock-and-Bowl, while the photo of Cinema 1 features anonymously designed space with a pale grey floor and only a small strip of patterned carpet.


In all of Burton’s spaces, it is intriguing to see what we typically ignore or take for granted, especially given how we usually enter and depart these places in near or total darkness. The photographer readily admits to an interest in the sociological intersections and the resulting tensions found in the work. While high society has its own rigid codes of conduct for viewing spaces, I find such tensions most compelling in the temporary space arranged for the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Burton intends to produce more work based on similar locales.

Bytowne Cinema

Mayfair Theatre

St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts

National Gallery of Canada Auditorium

First Baptist Church basement