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.

installation-srgm-dahnvo-take-my-breath-away-16x9

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.

Lot 20. Two Kennedy administration Cabinet Room Chairs

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.

mcnamara

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!)

IMG_9040-350x350

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.

merlin_134729343_71cb0dda-552d-4ec2-b6fe-768afe387e18-superJumbo

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.

merlin_134847447_f71d0e19-185b-480f-990b-596269d7a4bd-master675

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.

merlin_134729502_4f0f7b50-c9d8-466d-a59a-4d005b1975da-master1050

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.

merlin_134847399_0f0c35a5-e62a-454d-8257-4b9af93d7eac-superJumbo

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:

tumblr_mak2umKNgz1qd9a96o1_1280

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.

 

November 1, 2015

The Power Plant

The Power Plant was originally part of the active, industrial Toronto port, built in 1926 for the purpose of housing heating equipment for the Queen’s Quay Terminal.  Maybe Carlos Amorales was referencing this vaguely industrial past with his installation entitled Black Cloud, on display at the The Power Plant Clerestory exhibition space, until January 2016.

20151101_135941

Detail of “Black Cloud” installation by Carlos Amorales

As cities became blackened and gritty in the distant industrial past, pale moths adapted by darkening their hue and thus were less visible to predators.  In the installation a massive swarm of black moths (made of lazer-cut black paper) has returned to recall a former incarnation of Toronto and settled in the airy, brilliantly lit gallery creating a striking, graphic effect, which hovers between the sense of a slightly menacing infestation, with overtones of pestilence and doom, and expensive wallpaper.  Of course, in this era, the industrial muscle of Toronto has been banished and the waterfront is now all about shopping, dining, walking around and absorbing culture.

20151101_135921

Detail of “Black Cloud” installation by Carlos Amorales

It was nice listening to Ed Pien give a rather emotional talk about the Black Cloud installation.  Ed Pien and some members of the audience became tearful in connection to a reading on the fleeting nature of time, loss, love, and just, well, life.  It must have been something to do with that sad Sunday afternoon feeling you get when you realize you have to get up early and go to work tomorrow.

In an adjacent galleries three sumptuous film loops by Mark Lewis are showing.  Pavilion, shot in the atrium of the TD Center, is a gorgeous mesh of grids, glass sheen and intersecting planes caught in strangely tentative and yet fluid camera movements.  According to the curator’s notes Mark Lewis’ films “reflect on the nature of cinema through the means of urban architectural perception.”  As a practiced consumer of film I immediately felt the presence of a narrative in this piece, possibly the story of an unhinged, peripatetic camera seeking connection amid urban alienation.

Mark Lewis 1

Still from Invention installation by Mark Lewis

I See Words, I Hear Voices is the title of an installation by Dora Garcia, also at The Power Plant.  This artist pushes into various subconscious realms using compulsive writing, graphomania and voice-hearing.  The installation is dimly lit, features tables strewn with books and written materials; a lengthy, subtitled dialogue-heavy film is in progress featuring what appear to be academics engaged in intense discussion; antique chalk boards display symbols and random words, and mysterious drawings are barely visible in their position high up near the rafters.

20151101_150915 20151101_151007 20151101_150920 20151101_151139 20151101_151104

I See Words, I Hear Voices Installation by Dora Garcia

This piece has a seductive absurdity that I really like.  It made me think about the pleasure of work, pure thinking, note taking, research, documentation, collaboration, all that studious activity that can be so engaging but in this case there is no  endpoint.  Rather it is diffuse, meandering, extra-sensory, undefined, ongoing, loose and circular.  It is quite a radical statement and a sly, subversive challenge to the way our society rewards the obedient producer.



October 24, 2015

The Gardiner Museum

Bone China is actually made from animal bones; specifically a minimum of 30% bone ash, mixed into a paste with calcium phosphate.  Kent Monkman alludes to this fact in his installation entitled The Rise and Fall of Civilization at The Gardiner Museum, where he has created a diorama-like buffalo jump.

20151024_155520

Detail from The Rise and Fall of Civilization by Kent Monkman

The bison approach the precipice as traditional taxidermied animals, shepherded by a glamorous Cher-like beauty of ambiguous gender.  As they leap to their death they are transformed into cubist sculptures and their remains, below, are a heap of china shards (maybe referencing Julian Schnabel’s Plate Paintings of the late 70s?)

20151024_155821

20151024_162738

Detail from The Rise and Fall of Civilization by Kent Monkman

The walls of the installation are covered with large drawings approximating those rendered in the Lascaux caves during Paleolithic times.  The mash-up of iconic imagery from art history next to the buffalo jump scene, (an activity that commenced more than 12,000 years ago on the North American plains) ties history and art history together.  It’s a big subject.

20151024_155310

Detail from The Rise and Fall of Civilization by Kent Monkman

According to Wikipedia, ” The Blackfoot Indians called the buffalo jumps “pishkun”, which loosely translates as “deep blood kettle”.  They believed that if any buffalo escaped these killings then the rest of the buffalo would learn to avoid humans, which would make hunting even harder.  In Kent Monkman’s installation, the bison appear to be resurrected and trot away from the scene of carnage on delicate hooves; flattened, spindly, attenuated ideas of what they once were, appearing now in the style of 20th century sculpture.

20151024_155904

Detail from The Rise and Fall of Civilization by Kent Monkman

A few years ago, while camping in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park I came up fairly close to a massive bison. Maybe it was my imagination but it seemed to me this animal gave me a look of pure hatred.  Is there such a thing as genetic memory?  Did this creature recall that 50 million of his kind where wiped out by white people?  (I also have the weight of global warming on my shoulder.)

bison

In his article titled The Age of Exhaustion, Joshua Mitchell, writing about the current state of politics in the US, comes up with some very depressing conclusions.  It doesn’t matter if we can trace our ancestry directly to “Buffalo Bill” Cody or not, in still Puritan America we are either pure or stained, guilty or innocent.

I am this or I am that; and therefore no reasoned discussion or argument you might offer need trouble me, for deeper than my capacity to reason is who I am, and who you are—‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘male,’ ‘female,’ ‘heterosexual,’ ‘homosexual,’ ad infinitum

But Joshua Mitchell is writing about the USA.  In Canada we shook off the politics of division and came up with a hopeful alternative.  The US election is more than a year away.   Soon enough Donald Trump may just blow over.

trump

Donald Trump may blow over soon

Strolling through the Gardiner Museum I came upon another artwork with a subtle and graceful cultural mash up.

20151024_161344

20151024_161404

Mother Teresa Bowl by Carl Beam

Carol Beam’s 1982 earthenware bowl shows Mother Teresa in prayer surrounded by halo of a First Nation’s headdress.  It is a beautiful sketch of Mother Teresa, someone I have always tried to emulate (and failed).