March 11, 2018

“Take My Breath Away” 

Danh Vo at the Guggenheim Museum

A Dane, a gay man, a refugee from the Vietnam War, a child raised in the Catholic faith, an artist who lives in Mexico and Berlin: these are some of the unique qualifiers that can be applied to Danh Vo, whose current exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum is entirely original and beautifully expansive.   I mean “expansive” in a particular sense: Danh Vo has a way of offering a succinct starting point with his work and assigning nuanced speculation and circuitous trails of thought to the viewer.  It is such a lovely and uplifting intellectual exchange.

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Installation view “Take My Breath Away” by Danh Vo

The chandelier, depicted above, already loaded with cultural, economic, sentimental and literary meaning, has been installed in a startling fashion.  It barely skims the surface of the glossy Guggenheim ramp. It is described on a nearby label as having a particularly disquieting provenance.  This, and two other chandeliers which Danh Vo was able to purchase and which are also in the Museum in different “states,” hung in the Hotel Majestic in Paris.  The Hotel was the site of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, which ostensibly ended the Vietnam conflict but also marked the beginning of a period of violence, betrayal and humiliation on both sides of that war.

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Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs by Danh Vo

What appears to be an abstract sculpture, above, is defined by the artist as leather upholstery from two chairs.  The chairs were purchased at Sotheby’s at an auction of items belonging to Robert McNamara.  McNamara was the defense secretary for both Kennedy and Johnson during the period of Vietnam War escalation.  They were given to McNamara by Jacqueline Kennedy after President Kennedy’s death.

Danh Vo deconstructed the chairs.  Parts of them are scattered around the exhibition.  The frames here.  The springs and stuffing there.  To me the dismemberment of these potent objects manifests as rage.  But then (…) I was 21 in 1973 and I remember the end of the war.  What do these objects and the wordy labels mean to someone in their 20s now?

I really like the way Danh Vo allows meaning to change, to evolve and to flicker in and out of objects.

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Robert McNamara – US Secretary of Defense, 1961-1968

There are other objects in the show that a similar proximity to notorious events: Ted Kaczynski’s manual typewriter for example. (Which somehow I did not see.  Only read about!  But even in pictures, it seems to hold barely restrained malevolence within its banality.  But of course that is my projection.  Not long ago I watched Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix.  All eight episodes!)

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Theodore Kaczynski’s Smith Corona Portable Typewriter, by Danh Vo

It should be pointed out that although many of the objects in the show are accompanied by rather lengthy texts the work does not rely on labels.  I concluded this because of the following: I was in NY for just a few days.  I went all the way up to 90th Street and Park to see this show on Thursday.  The Guggenheim is closed on Thursday.  Pressed for time and overly committed I went back on Friday.  At one point wandering up the ramp I got irritated waiting, in back of an overly witty couple, to read the descriptive cards.  I struck off, ignored the texts and was swept up in the pure visual power of the show.

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Massive Black Hole in the Dark Heart of our Milky Way by Danh Vo

The piece by Danh Vo entitled “We The People” is an extreme undertaking.  I didn’t quite understand that I was looking at a dismembered replica of the Statue of Liberty, constructed of copper at full scale, until I was on the subway going back downtown reading the exhibition notes.  This extraordinary artwork will never be exhibited in one place as it is gradually being dispersed to various cultural institutions around the world.

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We The People by Danh Vo

To see Danh Vo talk (in Danish with subtitles) about the creation of We The People, click here:

 

The inclusion of Catholic imagery, especially the medieval sculpture, adds gravitas and grace to the exhibition.

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Artwork by Danh Vo

The piece above is an example of the artist’s joining of objects from different era: damaged medieval wooden sculpture is fused to fragments of Roman marble statuary.  Elsewhere naturalistic tangles of branches have grafted to them tiny, finely wrought medieval countenances.

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Christmas (Rome) by Danh Vo

The artwork above is made of velvet fabric which was used as backing for an exhibition of objects in the Vatican Museum.  (Just thinking about how Danh Vo came to get his hands on this particular velvet has so much narrative potential.)

One of my favourite pieces in this show are the letters from Henry Kissinger to New York Post theater critic Leonard Lyons:

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In another letter, dated May 20, 1970, Kissinger writes the following:

“Dear Leonard, I would choose your ballet over contemplation of Cambodia any day — if only I were given the choice.  Keep tempting me; one day perhaps I will succumb.”

At the time, Kissinger was helping to orchestrate the so-called Cambodian Incursion.

 

January 11, 2018

York University Station

The exterior view of the brand new York University subway features a graceful, winglike swoop.  It resembles a miniature Kennedy Airport and has the same lightness and fluidity as that iconic structure, which was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1962.

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View of York University subway from AGYU on cold and rainy afternoon.

The new station, which is literally right across the street from the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), was a collaborative design effort between Foster + Partners with Arup Canada.  Seen from outside, the station has a lovely, rather modest scale.  It’s when the rider descends, or ascends, that the station reveals majestic curves, plunging light sources, grandly sloping glass walls and dramatic stairways.

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Making an entrance at the new York University subway station.

It’s capacious, filled with light and air and it is beautiful!

Apparently the vision for the new subway line started to take shape more than 30 years ago.  What was happening way back then, in Toronto in the mid 1980s?  One thing: getting to York University was a hassle.

Postcommodity at AGYU

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Postcommodity at AGYU

Because I arrived early  – whisked effortlessly upward, upward on the stunning new Line 1 extension – to AGYU, I was able to join the volunteers for the pre-opening stroll through the exhibition by Postcommodity.

Two of the artists who make up the collective were present, and they spoke about their work, explaining in particular the torturous relationships between the US Federal border patrols, the Mexican and Latin American migrants, and, the drug cartels, and how those relationships play out along the border.  Surprisingly, the artists expressed a stoic optimism about the situation, viewing the land itself as infinitely more powerful than the various frontier guardians and extant border walls.

Video of installation by Postcommodity (similar installation is currently at AGYU)

Looking at the artwork however – and experiencing the audio component, which is a major element of the show – did not exactly inspire optimism but rather evoked sensations of disorientation, uncertainty and dread.

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Artwork by Postcommodity

There is a lot of empty, dark space in the AGYU show.  The central room is filled with sounds – whispers and incantations – that dart about, now on your shoulder and then across the room. There is a sole projected photograph, shown above.

The tour group was asked to think about the symbolism contained within this photograph.  We viewed the  horse carcass, unflinching dogs, fence, bleakness, neglect, loneliness, general ghastliness.  (The horse as “symbol of colonialism” was mentioned but that, to me, is a stretch.  The horse is a symbol of so many things.)  We did not need to think about it too long.  It’s immediately clear.  This is a tough place to survive.

Below is another depiction, unrelated to the Postcommodity show at AGYU, of a border and hostile environment.

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Approaching Canada US border at Emerson, Manitoba

November 19, 2017

Lecture by Dr. Laura Marks at the Aga Khan Museum

Creative Algorithms: From Islamic Art to Digital Media

It is always a delight to race up the Don Valley Parkway for a visit to the Aga Khan Museum.  Today Dr. Laura U. Marks is in town, from Simon Fraser University, to deliver a lecture developing some aspects of her 2010 book Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art.

The lecture is well attended and the Aga Khan people are bringing in more chairs.

Dr. Laura Marks invites us to consider aniconism in Islam.  She talks about the fact that Islam restricts the imitation of God’s creations or representations of the Divine.  She states that Islam determines that God’s actions in the universe should be understood rationally and clearly, without the ambiguity of representation.  Incidentally to these strictures, aniconism creates a rich environment for abstraction.

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Tile Frieze,  Iznik, Turkey 1570  (from The Aga Khan Museum collection)

The necessity for abstraction, the infinitely large and the infinitely small, the properties of geometry i.e. the way it can be multiplied, rotated and mirrored, are some of the connections Dr. Laura Marks makes from historic Islamic art to digital media.  She sees the current digital landscape as directly emerging from this expression and talks about the connections between Islamic art, algorithms, atomism, pixels, performative geometry and the idea that the universe is created out of nothing, and, that it is rich, complex, interconnected and finite.

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Doors, North Mazanderan, Iran 14th century (The Aga Khan Museum)

(What is the definition of an algorithm?  It’s a set of rules that precisely defines a sequence of operations.  Also it has to eventually stop.  It can’t go on forever.)  Algorithms are all the same whether they depict the stock market gyrations, govern Google searches or create digital art.  And the idea of algorithms is ancient.

 

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Above is an animation of a simple algorithm.  It sorts some random values.  See Wikipedia to read about this particular algorithm: the high level language description of the set of rules and the related code.

In talking about these very old ideas Dr. Laura Marks gives us a glimpse of Baghdad in the 8th century.  It was apparently a hotbed of intellectual, scientific, creative and mathematical pursuits.  I’m going to have to read her book to find out more about the invention of algebra, the measurement of planes and spherical figures and the fact that Fibonacci studied mathematics in Libya in the 12th century.

At that time an individual may have carried a talisman that represented their personal handle on the infinite.  Dr. Laura Marks suggests a USB device or, for example, a smartphone can be seen as a modern talisman, containing a generative algorithm creating social interaction among users, and, a gateway to infinity.

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Talisman, carved quartz “script within script,”  Medieval, British Museum

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Modern day Talisman

Google, Facebook, Netflix and Instagram were called out as the dark side of algorithmic media!  Good point Dr. Laura Marks!  She says they function like the curses that were woven into certain carpets in the ancient world.  These are the cruel algorithms, designed to control, harvest knowledge and conduct surveillance.   Wherever possible, she avoids the manifestations of those corporate entities.

I particularly like her remarks on the “absolute mystery of the infinite” and the way tile patterning in mosques were designed to create “dazzlement and wonder.”

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Interior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, 8th-10th centuries

Many listeners in the audience look a little bewildered as Dr. Laura Marks talks about certain Islamic art functioning like a User Interface to God.  And her discussion of the pixel experience of time being similar to that of a whirling dervish –  intensive and non-linear, as opposed linear chronological time –  is a little rushed and somewhat baffling.  However, her diligent scholarship, refreshing enthusiasm and poetically nuanced presentation create an exciting atmosphere of  possibility.

 

What is the digital art the speaker references?  She does not have a lot of time left to discuss it.  The name Hasan Elabi was mentioned! His piece Tracking Transience is so cold and eerie.

Below is a still from Hasan Elabi’s piece which was begun subsequent to a brush with the FBI.  He documents every aspect of his life and provides all the data for public consumption.

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Detail from Thousand Little Brothers, by Hasan Elabi

I suppose this is not the future.  It is the now.

 

August 6, 2016

The McMichael Art Collection – Sarah Anne Johnson

In terms of the perpetuation of the species and the human life span, the period between 15 and 25 is the really crucial one.  This is the period of maximum fertility and all its attendant characteristics: the fierce courage, idealism and passion that belong only to the young; and of course, on the dark side, the selfishness, fecklessness and brutality that hopefully dissipates with maturity. Looking back to this era in one’s own lifetime can produce feelings of awe and possibly an overriding sense of good fortune that we even survived at all.  Sometimes we barely recognize our former selves and are obliged to murmur, almost inaudibly: “Was that idiot me?”

Sarah Anne Johnson wanders into this territory of youthful enthusiasm and misadventure in her exhibition called Field Trip, at the McMichael Collection.

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Yellow Dinosaur by Sarah Anne Johnson

The “trip” Sarah Anne Johnson takes the viewer on is deep and quixotic, at times hilarious, contemplative and hopeful, and then suddenly frightening and grim.  I really liked looking at this show.  For me the dazzling images conjure up a sense of how perception is shared, how my own perceptions conform to contemporary custom and how they change.

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Zombie Dance by Sarah Anne Johnson

I’ve been reading a book by Jenny Diski called The Sixties.  She writes:  “We were …a bunch of dissolute, hedonistic druggies.  We lay around and got stoned, had sex, listened to music that exalted lying around, getting stoned, having sex, and hymned our good times.”  It seems that fifty years later this is the same crowd that Sarah Anne Johnson has photographed. In her book Jenny Diski goes on to chronicle how the sixties became the Reagan years and turned into ” that beast: the Me generation.”  Time will tell.

Chillin’ at the Void by Sarah Anne Johnson

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Detail of Chillin’ at the Void by Sarah Anne Johnson

Sarah Anne Johnson intertwines so many interesting threads of thinking. The detail of Chillin’ at the Void depicts a new crop of “dissolute, hedonistic druggies.”   It makes me think of a different kind of chill: a cold and dreadful chill, of how marketing and propaganda ease each  generation through its own very special, unique and individual journey.

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Group Portrait by Sarah Anne Johnson

In the piece entitled “Group Portrait” Sarah Anne Johnson captures the joy and satisfaction of belonging, so critical for the young.  The individuals are obliterated with dopey masks and transformed in an instant to exotic creatures that have banded together.   We will always be together!!  We celebrate our originality!  We defend our tribe!!  It’s such a brief sentiment.  Maybe only an afternoon or two.  That weekend at Bird’s Hill Park.

Sarah Anne Johnson’s trip includes some dark alleys, strewn with garbage, seriously dangerous drugs and stoners slipping over the edge.

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Blob by Sarah Anne Johnson

The lurid, day-glow monsters of nightmare and death are observed with nonchalance.  This is an ability of the very young and very stoned, and a feature of their passage into the humdrum adult world….if all goes well.

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Glitter Bomb by Sarah Anne Johnson

May 26, 2016

Here’s something you may or may not know: say your laptop gets wet, due to an unfortunate incident.  You dry it out for a day or two and suddenly it comes back to life.  All is well!  These things happen, after all.  Six months later it won’t turn on and when you take it back to Best Buy you learn it is filled with rust and useless.  You have to buy a new one.

Alison Milne Gallery Dean West

The Alison Milne Gallery, tucked away on Osler Street above Bloor, is a cool, stylish oasis in the urban summer and the current show, part of the city-wide CONTACT Photography Festival, brings a note of self-possessed LA glamour to the Junction.

I couldn’t help wondering if Dean West is a made up name.  Maybe its because the photographs are all about surface, artifice and style.  In this exhibition, titled The Painted Photograph, people and objects populate hyper-art directed environments.

There is not a trace of the messiness of life in these sumptuous art works.

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St. Pete Beach by Dean West

This vista is so pristine it does appear to be kicked up a notch on the realness scale and hence painted.  Possibly there is an Instagram filter that creates such a vivid blue.  Maybe X-Pro II or…Mayfair?

Some colours are owned by certain artists.  I guess David Hockney lays claim to this particular shade of aqua, so much so that Dean West placed him poolside, in the photo shown below, looking relaxed, enjoying a smoke and the view.

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Palm Springs #2 by Dean West

My favourite piece in this show has to be the domestic interior: the red and white, the fireplace, the bizarre presence of a reindeer, the oppressive tension, the eerily disconnected couple, all these elements work together to create a updated Surrealist Christmas card for the moment.

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Palm Springs #1 by Dean West

Imagine hanging out with these two, in this sterile room, with a low ceiling.  I like the way Dean West takes a fashion shoot type concept it makes it suffocating and ghastly.

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Detail of Orient Point Ferry by Dean West

When is a celebrity not a celebrity?  I think in this Dean West photograph the celebrity is used more as a signifier of artifice than for any typical celebrity points. (Of course this guy does not present like a standard celebrity.  He has a somewhat clownish demeanor.  He is overweight and he wears a pained expression rarely seen on a celebrity.)  And whereas normally celebrities in art are tiresome in this case it really works.  The idea of cast of characters is pumped up to constitute another element along with the colours, the angles of gaze, the perfect light and the flawless sea.

Our culture is so saturated with these larger than life figures that seeing one used in this context was refreshing.  But … generally I’m tired of celebrities and their feckless antics and I was happy to read the recent article in the New York Times defending Gawker and their “opposition to the triumph of celebrity culture.”  Down with the mono-culture!  Long live Gawker!

 

 

 

 

May 14, 2016

I was wandering by the Piri Piri Churrasqueira Grillhouse at the corner of Dupont and Campbell and took some time to check out the neighbourhood.  Just a few steps north there is a cluster of no-nonsense, newish buildings.  They look like the kind of place you might go to pick up parts for, say, a malfunctioning Moccamaster or maybe confer with an insurance broker.  But no, in fact, here is a chance to look at art in Toronto.

Richard Rhodes Dupont Projects – David Clarkson

Speleogenesis, I have just learned, means the origin and development of caves.  In the exhibition of paintings by David Clarkson, called Remotes, caves function as formal device, content and metaphor.

Here’s another word you don’t hear often: trippy.

On entering David Clarkson’s show there is a painting by the door.  It depicts a rabbit hole, yes, the pathway that Alice took into the discombobulating environment that made no sense.  In this painting bunnies, giant gems and a perfect oval looking-glass are bathed in a dreamy blue light.  For me this painting set up the whole show with a feeling of philosophical nonchalance.   The viewer is free to descend into a labyrinth of ethereal vistas and subconscious triggers without any kind of didactic price to pay.

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Detail of Rabbits and Mirrors by David Clarkson

The cave imagery is a constant in the show.  Such a potent symbol could be heavy handed but David Clarkson creates unpredictable, droll and imaginative art work that never stumbles into cliche.

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Cascade and Curtain by David Clarkson

Looking at Cascade and Curtain the viewer is in utterly unknown territory, gazing outward through the pictorial plane to glimpse what lies beyond the shimmering veil of liquid.  Which way is the sinuous sluice spilling?  Into the frame or out of it?

The inclusion 0f photographic elements, pop art fragments and tiny renderings of hallucinatory creatures combine to form an otherworldly tableau.  But it is the striking formal aspect – the yawning mouth of the cave – that creates such a powerful image.

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Moth and Frog by David Clarkson

A sense of claustrophobia dominates the painting above as ice and mist frame a route to open air but no, it is another cave that confronts the viewer, like a maddening hall of mirrors.  Life is delicate but relentless in this harsh environment.  And consciousness is brutally linked to physical realities.

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Statues and Fog by David Clarkson

In Statues and Fog surrealist tropes litter a grim trail to the void.  Here the cave is the tough slog of life itself.

Ahem…there is only one way out.

 

Erin Stump Projects (ESP) – Elise Rasmussen

Around the corner on Dupont there is an exhibition by Elise Rasmussen called Fragments of an Imagined Place.  (…am I detecting a theme…?)

As part of the artwork Elise Rasmussen declares that the myth of Atlantis “serves as a metaphor for the artistic practice.”  Within this context she presents some fascinating fragments of a Robert Smithson piece that was never created.

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People had a very different appearance in 1970 than they do today.  Within the selection of xeroxed newspaper clippings, cartoons, letters, pamphlets and snapshots is a picture of Robert Smithson posed as a rugged outlaw.  Truly, this artist was onto something new, big and bold and he looks the part.

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Robert Smithson circa 1970

The planned Earthwork was called “Glass Island” and it was to be constructed off the British Columbia coast near Nanaimo.  One hundred tons of broken glass were held at the border and finally sent back to Los Angeles.  Environmentalists opposed the project.

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Installation view of Robert Smithson’s “Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis),” 1969

Included in this sort of scrapbook-like array are copies of the Robert Smithson drawings for other Earthworks.  It was so startling and refreshing to see these humble drawings on graph paper, efficiently packed with ideas and potential.

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Detail of Fragments of an Imagined Place by Elise Rasmussen

I really liked observing the connection Elise Rasmussen created with Robert Smithson and his beautiful idea of a glass island.   She also produced a video in connection to the unmade piece.  Dancers in white stretchy pants and pastel t-shirts gingerly hold shards of coloured glass move and about in a serious though desultory way.

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Still from Video Fragments of an Imagined Place by Elise Rasmussen

https://player.vimeo.com/video/163575629“>Click here to see a section of the video

I wonder what Robert Smithson would make of the art world today?

 

April 9, 2016

Lately I have been obsessed with getting to work on time.  If I’m late I might not have a place to sit.  There are always a few latecomers lugging their laptops down to Starbucks to set up shop for the day and I don’t want to be one of them.  I tried working from home – some people (slackers?) seem to love it, but not me.  My home life and my work life start to become one seamless parade with work edging out home until it seems like that’s all I do.  I started going in to the office again, joining the flow of humanity on the TTC, earlier and earlier, 7:30, 7:20, 7:15…And then I remembered:  Looking at Art in Toronto.

Trinity Square Video – Heather Phillipson

Trinity Square Video’s new location is not optimal for viewing.  Skylights wash out the projected video images.  (I was advised they are fixing the problem and custom blinds are on order.)  Fortunately, the inaugural exhibition of the space features work by Heather Phillipson, and the  show, titled “sub-fusc love-feast,” has such a powerful audio component that the diminished visual impact is hardly missed.

 

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Installation view of sub-fusc love-feast by Heather Phillipson

Also, three video projection screens are tucked into an elaborate installation of cut out photographs.  It’s like walking around in an oversized collage, cut out from cheerful travel postcards and National Geographic magazines.

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Installation views of sub-fusc love-feast by Heather Phillipson

The layers of sound and music, dominated by a bell-like female voice, are completely absorbing.  Heather Phillipson is a thinker and a poet.  She takes on the slippery task of defining nature in this era of unrestrained production and gives voice to the places, things and animals caught in the terrifying cycles of consumption.

The piece has a plaintive, uncertain feel to it, the sound in particular grows panicky at times and fearful.  This makes sense given the subject matter.  Heather Phillipson explores the grim news that is easier to deny than accept; the scale and finality of the environmental crisis that looms over us all.

 

Gallery 44 – Sarah Anne Johnson

The victim of a medical experiment, perpetrated without the consent or knowledge of patients, Sarah Ann Johnson’s grandmother suffered crippling depression and agoraphobia following her treatment.  Sarah Anne Johnson explores this trauma, which continues to ripple through generations of her family, in a video installation called The Kitchen.

 

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Still from The Kitchen by Sarah Anne Johnson

On numerous monitors we watch short loops of a woman, alone, on a kind of stage set which is a kitchen.  The clothes and decor signify the nineteen fifties.  She wears a dress and heels but everything else is wrong.  This woman is strangely afflicted, nuts probably.  A mask is warn on the back of her head and a wig obscures her face.  She carries out her lonely kitchen activities backwards, freakish, awkward, perpetually failing, occasionally crying out in frustration, hurling plates in this filthy kitchen where she seems to be trapped.

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Still from The Kitchen by Sarah Anne Johnson

It’s fascinating to watch the intense and torturous contortions the woman performs to carry out simple tasks as our vision flips back and forth, trying to make sense of the impossible.  And maybe that is what Sarah Anne Johnson is getting at: the misery of trying to succeed in an situation which is impossible.

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Still from The Kitchen by Sarah Anne Johnson

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Still from The Kitchen by Sarah Anne Johnson

In a separate room, a projected video in black and white, shows the same woman.  She is still in the kitchen.  Now she lies on the floor, trundling heavily in an abstract, compulsive manner.

In acting out these moments in the kitchen Sarah Anne Johnson may be re-creating childhood memories or simply seeking to understand her family and herself.  The art work she comes up with has a strange tragic aspect to it, dark and painful.