June 8, 2020

In Toronto and elsewhere, the lack of distracting activities like movies, concerts and sports is contributing to profound events. The real world is changing so fast, as people get focused and rise up. Meanwhile, in the cultural domain, time and place, and, openings and closings, don’t really matter. Many cultural products have become digital and are therefore on demand, untethered by time constraints. Time itself can be compressed to almost nothing or drawn out and made to last.

2020 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival

Ho Tam at Paul Petro Contemporary Art

For example, the 2020 Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, which normally takes place throughout the city in the month of May, was largely postponed, except for the bits and pieces of it which can still be seen, either online or, in a few instances, as outdoor public installations (in the real world.)

In a 25-year-old video by Ho Tam, which was exhibited at Paul Petro Contemporary Art as part of CONTACT, Godzilla is the opening act. The video, titled “The Yellow Pages”, has a lightness and playfulness that belies its serious content.

The Yellow Pages by Ho Tam

Silent and less than eight minutes long, Ho Tam’s video is an illustrated alphabet of racial cliches and assumptions. A is for “Asian Crimes,” B is “Butterfly”, C is “Chinatown,” D is “Dogmeat.” The artist has a very graceful way of layering one cliche upon another. E is for “Enter the Dragon” but instead of Bruce Lee we are treated to a clip of a painfully decrepit Mao Zedong meeting (possibly) Soviet dignitaries sometime in the early 70s. Everything feels so weighted with meaning. Maybe that’s why the piece is so delightful to watch. The cliches are off, and, therefore unsettling.

Uniformly bathed in sepia, the images diverge wildly: “Head Tax” is a ghastly heap of skulls documenting the reign of the Khmer Rouge, “Ninja Turtles” refers to a group of elderly Tai Chi practitioners, and the “Asian Crimes” section — the first letter — introduces the endearing yet ruinous antics of Godzilla. I’m not sure if Godzilla is punishing “Asian Crimes,” or maybe Godzilla himself is the crime, unleashed upon the world.

According to social theorists, since the first Japanese movie featuring Godzilla debuted in 1954, the giant lizard has effectively tapped into our fears and preoccupations. He embodies nuclear weapons, catastrophic bio-hazard, global environmental degradation, cross-species virus transmission and whatever comes next. That’s why we love him!

Toho Studio

Dawit L. Petros at Power Plant

On the CONTACT Festival website I was advised there was a public installation currently On View at The Power Plant. I rode my bike down to Queen’s Quay to have a look. The Power Plant was closed. But, I did get to see the giant, outdoor banner, art piece by Dawit L. Petros, erected as part of the 2020 CONTACT festival.

Installation view of Artwork by Dawit L. Petros titled “Untitled (Overlapping and intertwined territories that fall from view III)

Reading the accompanying text makes clear that this is a scene of current and historic misery. A man is holding a large photograph, which conceals his identity. The man is named Moktar. He is described as one of the millions of migrants who have embarked on dangerous journeys all over the world. Coming from Eritrea, Moktar traveled through Sudan, Egypt, Libya, and across the Mediterranean to a new life in Italy. He was photographed at an unspecified location.

Detail of installation view of Artwork by Dawit L. Petros titled “Untitled (Overlapping and intertwined territories that fall from view III)

The photograph Moktar is holding is “a reproduction of an etching by Georgina Smith, an eyewitness to the sinking of the transatlantic steamship SS Utopia. In a tragic accident on March 17, 1891, the SS Utopia—used frequently to transport European immigrants to the United States—collided with a battleship off the shores of Gibraltar and sank quickly, killing over 500 passengers, many of whom were poor southern Italians seeking better lives across the Atlantic Ocean.”

Detail view of installation by Dawit L. Petros titled “Untitled (Overlapping and intertwined territories that fall from view III)

Looking closely at the photograph of the etching, the detailed image of the terrible event can be seen.

The migrant experience, quickly forgotten by subsequent generations, is perilous today, as it was in 1891.

View of Lake Ontario from southern facade of the Power Plant.

The view southward from the art installation appears serene. Queen’s Quay, normally thronged with tourists during the summer months, is deserted. The lake is very calm in the sudden summer heat.

Museum of Contemporary Art

MOCA closed on March 14th, right in the middle of a exciting moment in the Museum’s brief history. Exhibits by four celebrated artists —Shelagh Keeley, Megan Rooney, Carlos Bunga and Sarah Sze — at various points in their respective career — made the building feel suddenly packed with bold endeavour. What a letdown when the pandemic wrapped things up way too soon!

Since that time, MOCA, like so many other cultural institutions, has tried to figure out ways to retain their audience and foster engagement.

Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art is located at 158 Sterling Road
Ben Rahn/A-Frame/A-Frame

During the lockdown, each week the Museum presents a new time-based work, frequently in collaboration with another local cultural organization. This week you can watch an experimental play, which is particularly relevant to the Black Lives Matter events of the moment. It is titled On Trial: The Long Doorway, by Deanna Bowen, and it can be seen on MOCA’s Shift Key platform.

Meanwhile, the real exhibits, which were scheduled to run to mid-May, languish in the silent halls of the Museum. Hesitancy and confusion about when shows start and end constitute more pandemic fallout. (So many changes in the world right now: I really like the fact that Grind Cultural is taking a hit during this global episode! Slow the hell down!)

Guided virtual tours, by MOCA curators, are provided in connection to some of the works inside, including a tour of An Embodied Haptic Space which is the title of Shelagh Keeley’s exhibition of site specific wall drawings and photographs. Tarp paintings from 1986 and a fascinating video are also in the exhibition.

Installation view of drawings at MOCA by Shelagh Keeley

Watch a guided tour of the exhibition here.

Shelagh Keeley, “Fragments of the Factory / Unfinished Traces of Labour”, 2020. MOCA Toronto. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid

The washed out greens and purples in the drawings multiply the feeling of decay and putrescence seen in the photographs, themselves part of the visual wall, which the artist took when the site at 158 Sterling Road was still unrenovated.

The sense of intuitive confidence, so evident in the beautiful drawings, was also at work in the video part of the exhibition. The text accompanying the video, titled The Colonial Garden, explains that this place, now largely shuttered and in disrepair, was part of the 1940 Portuguese World Exhibition, where it functioned as a kind of human zoo, exhibiting native people from Portugal’s colonies. Shelagh Keeley’s video, creates a growing sense of the sinister, as it takes the viewer on a slow tour of the shambolic garden.

Still from The Colonial Garden by Shelagh Keeley

May 18, 2020

Where is Clarington?

After the pandemic, it may be that visual art exhibitions no longer principally take place in urban centers.

To get to the Visual Art Center of Clarington, for example, take the 401 past Ajax, Whitby and Oshawa. Continue all the way to Bowmanville. Make a left.

At present, the Visual Art Center of Clarington is closed, until further notice. All planned activities and exhibitions are canceled or postponed, except for the digital incarnation of an art piece by Cole Swanson titled The Hissing Folly.

Documentation from the phragmites harvest at Thickson’s Woods Land Trust, 2019. Photo by Jamie McMillan

An online video beautifully documents the construction of the mysterious “Hissing Folly.” (A “folly,” in architecture, by the way, is defined as “a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose.”) Cole Swanson’s folly, built within the gallery space, is made of phragmites thatched over a wooden frame.

Phragmites are an invasive species. They came to Ontario from somewhere in Europe in the 1920s. They are huge plants, over five meters tall, which form dense thickets of vegetation, crowding out native species such as wild rice, cattails, and native wetland orchids. Cole Swanson partnered with Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority to collect and remove the phragmites from the Thickson’s Woods Land Trust of Durham Region in an operation involving chain saws.

The video, which shows the harvesting of the towering reeds, features a lovely sighing, rustling sound which emanates from the phragmites as the breeze whistles through them. That same hissing sound is reproduced on speakers within the installation.

The completed folly, pictured below, has a serene simplicity and attests to the long history of thatched structures. They go back 5000 years.

The Hissing Folly by Cole Swanson

Interior of the Hissing Folly by Cole Swanson

Phragmites are a disaster for Ontario’s wetlands and Cole Swanson seems to find this a fitting metaphor for the whole shit show of colonialism as he gamely wades into a “dense thicket” of ideologies. I really like this artist’s confidence! He does not pretend to have a solution to problems caused by invasive species in Ontario’s wetlands or by “the colonial, consumer, and cultural systems” which conveyed them here. He spends his energy collaborating with various stakeholders in the region and stirring things up to create this thought provoking art piece.

Covering the crops… In 1880’s Sussex, England. Photo from Thatching Info.com

Devil’s Colony

I happened to see another art piece by Cole Swanson, at Hamilton Artists Inc., last year. The Devil’s Colony is described by the artist as a “cross-disciplinary exhibition that examines the sociocultural, material, and scientific relationships between humans and an often-reviled colonial species, double-crested cormorants.”

Prior to being enlightened by Cole Swanson’s art piece I was totally down for reviling these appalling birds. For example, on a sultry summer afternoon last August we rented a kayak and paddled down the Humber river. At one point, we entered gang territory, and by this I mean we were surrounded by thousands of cormorants, perched on dead trees — trees they killed! — on either side of the river. They literally growled, in menacing unity, as we rushed by.

Photo courtesy of Muskokablog.com

What is with these birds?

In his show in Hamilton, Cole Swanson replicated a bird blind. He also showed films of the huge numbers of double-crested cormorants nesting in Tommy Thompson park, on Leslie spit. For this exhibition he worked with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and under the mentorship of an environmental biologist from York University. I really like the way this artist works with scientists to explore the way various plant and animal species, including humans, continually alter the natural world. Cole Swanson seems to be able to do this without judgement or didactic scolding.

The cormorants make bulky nests full of sticks and other materials, like rope, deflated balloons, fishnets, plastic debris, parts of dead birds (yes). Cormorants love the colour blue (like me) and Cole Swanson documented the blue festooned nests of the Devil birds, as part of his exhibition in Hamilton.

Nest Samples is a photographic archive of nests containing human-made waste products selected by the cormorants at Leslie Spit. They evince the material and colour preferences of the birds while providing a glimpse into the after-life of commonplace materials. – Cole Swanson
The Blind is an installation artwork that recreates the scientific observation blind within which environmental researchers are able to observe the world’s largest colony of double-crested cormorants at Toronto’s Tommy Thompson Park. – by Cole Swanson

Cormorant populations suffered greatly from exposure to DDT in the 20th century and their numbers were decimated. Over the last few decades the birds have made a comeback. So much so that they are now viewed as destructive to sport fishing stocks. Some scientists, however, insist the birds actually protect native fish stocks, since they feed on invasive fish species whose presence is harmful to human interest. People loath these creatures, so much so, that they are now threatened by massive culling efforts.

Photo by Peter Wallack, from Great Lakes Echo

The show in Hamilton included photos, video and a life-size sculptural representation of a bizarre creature formed from non-biodegradable materials gathered by the cormorants.

Spit Spectre (sculpture), human and cormorant-foraged materials, textiles, PVC, and earth by Cole Swanson

What is it about this sculpture that makes me uneasy? Oh yeah…

May 6, 2020

Is the global pandemic a good time to restart this blog?

Random wandering through art galleries and museums in real-life is only a memory now, since Covid-19 brought down the hammer. Previously– before the global pandemic –I had not bothered with the digital realm as a primary source for looking at art. I saw it as a secondary, less interesting, impoverished facsimile of the real thing, and, as a vast back-up archive for research, speculation, discussion and documentation. And now? Digital art is ascendant, the only game in town, so I’m looking at it.

Artists, galleries and art institutions are all trying to come up with ways to maintain their audience, offer up a virtual version of themselves for consumption, and survive. What seems to work, in the digital sphere, not surprisingly, is work that is originally made using the right tools: digital tools.

csm_Photo_by_ian_dooley_on_Unsplash_wsp_21a2c9e074

Conversely, trying to contort a real-life exhibition into a digital show, is often disappointing. For example, the various stake-holders in the highly anticipated (all Judd, all the time) show of Donald Judd’s work, which opened on March 11 at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and is scheduled to run through this summer in New York, are trying to come up with some way of realizing their labor. The Judd exhibition involved 12 years of planning and negotiations and was to occur not just at MOMA, but also at the Judd Foundation, the DIA Foundation and several of the biggest galleries in the city. There was a lot of excitement about seeing so many extraordinary objects by Donald Judd together, for once!

Donald Judd. Untitled. 1991. Enameled
aluminum. 59” x 24’ 7 14” x 65” (150 x 750
x 165 cm). The Museum of Modern Art,
New York.

Now, with the galleries closed, the MOMA website invites visitors to view photos of the work, listen to talks about the work, see a video of the curator of the show as she walks us through it, hear interviews with Judd’s children, and, so on and so forth. But none of that is particularly interesting, compared to what it would have been like to see the show.

Online Exhibition of Brad Necyk’s Beyond Here Lies Nothing

Joshua Tree and All of Everything by Brad Necyk. Created with Gary James Joynes

I stumbled across the ARTsPLACE Gallery Online Exhibition of Brad Necyk’s Beyond Here Lies Nothing through the Akimbo listing service.

ARTsPLACE is a gallery and arts center, operated by the Annapolis Region Community Arts Council. It is located in Annapolis Royal, in Nova Scotia, a town with a current population of 491. The town was originally founded (as Port Royal) in 1605, by Samuel de Champlain, and it has had a turbulent history, fraught with assaults, sieges and expulsions.

The artist, Brad Necyk, is from Alberta. He looks just like any guy you might see loading up his SUV with groceries in the Costco parking lot; kids in the back seat, wife scrolling through her phone. A few minutes into a conversation with Brad Necyk, however, would probably dispel those first impression notions of suburban normalcy. This is a man with very dark preoccupations, a precarious grip on his own mental health, and a past of endured pain, illness and trauma that is truly shocking.

Alberta #3, video by Brad Necyk

The first video I watched was Alberta #3.

Details about his multiple surgeries, recollections of a madness experience “coarse and twisted,” references to the genetic matter nested within him and to his awareness of genetic strands stretching across a geologic time scale, reflections on illness as a “very ancient space we all inhabit”, yearnings for a connection to grandparents and great grandparents as a way to understand himself and his children, fears around his bi-polar diagnosis and the statistical probability that he will suicide, painful scenes from his marriage, and many other intense topics, are recounted with a flat, perfunctory Alberta delivery.

I found this work quite riveting, fearless and very original, and I spent some time watching this video and others in the exhibition.

The early work of Brad Necyk — like Alberta #3 — is so raw and autobiographical that it was a relief to watch something very recent and completely different. I had the feeling that Brad Necyk could not take working with all that intensity. He needed a respite and so he moved into meditation. I really like looking at his waterfall pieces. They are just as powerful and mesmerizing as the earlier work but in a different way.

Jewels by Brad Necyk

There are so many fascinating ideas in this show. The idea of genetic lineage, for example, really got to me and seemed to dovetail into an event that occurred a few months ago. I happened to chat with someone at an event whose favourite pastime is ancestry tracing. I gave her a few facts about my Manitoba family and the next day she sent me the photo below. The little girl in the center is apparently my grandmother, Flora Taylor. She stands beside her father, John “Johnny Boy” Taylor and the rest of the family is arrayed around her. Is it just me or does “Johnny Boy” look more than a little bit like Freddy Mercury…?

Cluster XI Digital Edition

The 11th Cluster New Music and Arts Festival, usually held in Winnipeg in late February/early March, was cancelled shortly after the pandemic struck. But then, the organizers saw the writing on the wall, pulled themselves together and decided to push on. This year’s Cluster was resurrected and opened on May 1st as the Cluster XI Digital Edition.

(Full disclosure: I participated in Cluster X and my nephew, Eliot Britton, is one of the curators. Also, I love the vibe of being in Winnipeg in February; it is extreme in so many ways.)

Although I do miss the reality of Winnipeg and actually being there, I think this Cluster digital edition is definitely a success. Cluster excels at getting the mix of art works exactly right, in real-life and digitally. It is never too slick , there is a feeling of newness, experimentation and “becoming”and there are always at least a few stunning events.

The piece called Quigital, for example, put together by a collective of artists known as Made by Mandate, is so weird that it took me a while to realize it was not an advertisement for an unlikely Cluster sponsor.

Quigital Intro Video with Susan Solomon

The Quigital call tree, just one component of this sprawling art work, is really masterful. That familiar feeling that we are endlessly mined for our thoughts and opinions by corporate interests with an earnest offer of “points”, goes off-the-rails absurdist in the call tree. (Somehow, hearing the news today about the cancellation of the Sidewalk Labs project, which involved creating a futuristic data-gathering city on the Toronto Waterfront, relates to the Quigital call tree. Data mining hits a wall! )

I spent nearly an hour listening to “The Joy Channel”, a collaboration between sound artists Emmanuel Madan and Anna Friz. The whole Mad Max-y type narrative is a little bit cliched at this point, as per below:

In the year 2146, after nearly 150 years of business as usual (government corruption and privatization, toxic resource extraction and industrial practices, bad weather, civil uprising, earthquakes and pandemic), approximately 40 million people remain in New North America.

Anna Friz describing the “Joy Channel”

But the sound is great. Particularly when it becomes entirely abstract, the dialogue fades out and the listener is left with sheets of ambient, shimmery sound, switching and clicks and soft hisses to get lost in.

There are some straight-up musical groups like Slow Spirit in the Cluster mix. “Sound baths”, “High-rising melodic arcs”, “frolicking” and “defiant” are some of the words and phrases on the Cluster site used to describe the gorgeous Slow Spirit sound. On their Facebook page the band members list their influences: Joni Mitchell, Land Of Talk, Dirty Projectors, Radiohead, Feist, Parquet Courts, Sufjan Stevens, Sam Amidon, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Wilco, Patrick Watson, Deerhunter, Lhasa, Big Thief, Neko Case, Aidan Knight, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Plants and Animals, Elliott Smith, Stevie Wonder.

Photo of Slow Spirit band members

The manipulated wildlife sounds by Brendon Ehinger are based on a banged-up cassette tape found in Riding Mountain park, South Asian hip hop by Shamik is a joyful escape from the dreary pandemic world; Bad Wave achieves emotional depth in a cross-country duet of piano and voice, and there is much more to peruse in the Cluster XI Digital Edition, during its run until the 31st of May, including images by Luke Nickel, which through Machine Learning software, compress ten years of pictures from Cluster Festivals past.

3ladies-blur by Luke Nickel