March 29, 2019

It can be tricky to find the right building in the maze of U of T. Look for Sidney Smith Commons and you will find your way to the Trans-Disciplinary and Trans-National Festival of Art & Science Exhibition. This year’s theme: Evolve, Mutate, Transform!

What better time to follow the lead of those in the Art & Science Salon and opt to “reflect on the condition of co-habitation and co-existence of human and non-humans in this world (and beyond?) and pose questions about transformation; forced or elective mutation and survival; agency and decision making; conservation and intervention.”

Detail of “Mud (Lake Ontario)” by Nicole Clouston

The exhibition is on a relatively modest scale. For example, the flourishing colonies of microbial life displayed by Nicole Clouston, in her piece called “Mud (Lake Ontario)” fit into a few feet of eye-level vitrine. The contained ideas, however, are big, highly original and delightful to observe.

“My work with mud arose out of a desire to engage with microbial life,”

is how Nicole Clouston describes the origins of her project, which involves harvesting mud from the lake bed and nourishing it with sunlight and nutrients until the living colonies are visible. Looking through Nicole Clouston’s on-line book, Lake Ontario Portrait, gave me an optimistic sense of the irrepressible life-force all around us.

Detail of Mud (Lake Ontario) by Nicole Clouston

No subject is too large for the trans-disciplinary crowd. Jenifer Wightman, for example, addresses our prevailing creation myth — including the tree, the snake, the apple, and, Adam and Eve — in her piece, Addendum (to the Gutenberg Bible).

The piece consists of a single page letterpress broadside, which updates the story of Genesis, using contemporary scientific images and references.

“Addendum (to the Gutenberg Bible)” by Jenifer Wightman

In 2014 this artist pulled 180 editions of the print (shown above) in the style and dimensions of the 42-line Gutenberg bible. That same year, she began hand-delivering editions of the “Addendum” to the 49 libraries and institutions of the world which hold these priceless artifacts, i.e. the world’s last remaining Gutenberg bibles.

One of the shimmering, ethereal “multi-species portraits” by Gunes-Helene Isitan is on display in the exhibition. Gunes-Helene Isitan refers to these portraits, which include the microorganisms from her subjects faces, as “Hybridities.”

“Zania-Microorganisms Hybrid” by Gunes-Helene Isitan

The artist regards the notion that a human is a “unified and autonomous entity” as stemming from “a modernist conception of ‘human exceptionalism.'” In fact, she points out, we are all made up of 50% microbial cells!

And microbial cells can be beautiful. When I googled “microbial” I was surprised to be shown this page from Zazzle (which is a global shopping platform) and given the opportunity to buy DNA MICROBIAL MISCROSCOPIC CELL STRAND LEGGINGS. 92.00 CAD

Suzanne Anker showed several small black sculptures. They have the appearance of some obscure, minute insect life, or maybe they reference Rorschach blot tests. Were they made with a 3D printer? They have an appealing weighty, mysterious quality.

Sculpture by Suzanne Anker

On her website Suzanne Anker’s creative interests are described as follows: “Concerned with genetics, climate change, species extinction and toxic degradation, she calls attention to the beauty of life and the “necessity for enlightened thinking about nature’s ‘tangled bank’.”

Possibly the artists in this exhibition represent the vanguard of change in how humans think about the biological world; the “tangled bank” not simply as a resource to master and exploit, but as a sentient partner and ally.

Biosphere 2

Back in 1991, it was not that way. “Biospherics” – the study of closed systems that recreate Earth’s environment – found some deep pocketed adherents and Biosphere 2 was built, in the Arizona desert, near a town called Oracle. I am trying to imagine the hubris of deciding to build a closed system replicating all the complexity of Biosphere 1.

Biosphere 2 was an epic failure.

Elaine Whitaker filled a vitrine with vaguely organic shapes entangled with human by-products.

“Intertwined” by Elaine Whitaker

The piece, called “Intertwined” seems to suggest that organic life forms are responding rapidly to human intervention. Or maybe not rapidly enough.

Marta de Menezes included a video in the exhibition. In this video, the artist and her partner, Luis, undergo skin grafts from one another. The grafts are summarily rejected as anti-bodies are created. How does the body identify itself and it’s non-self?

Still from video “Anti-Marta: Self and Non-Self” by Marta de Menezes

Despite the rather shocking gore – the bloody operation is witnessed in the tape – the artwork is charged with philosophical suggestions that will take some time to unravel.

Meanwhile, Marta and Luis are recovering nicely.

October 8, 2014

Hart House

Nestled in the U of T campus, just off University Circle, is Hart House, a student activity center which contains a gym and the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, among other facilities.

John G. Hampton, the curator of the current exhibition at Hart House, titled “Why Can’t Minimal,” for some reason decided to illuminate the lighter side of the Sixties art movement known as Minimalism. (Incidently, when searching for a good Minimalism site I stumbled upon a whole new meaning of the term. Yes, there is, in fact, a second type of Minimalism: it’s an entirely contemporary social movement which advises people on how to get rid of the excess stuff in their lives in order to make room for the essentials.)

Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella (for his minimalist Black Paintings) are a few of the artists associated with Minimalism. Carl Andre, the ultimate American Minimalist sculptor, likes to say “It’s all the materials… there are no ideas hidden under those plates. You can lift them up but there is nothing there.” No hidden ideas and therefore nothing funny… about zinc plates or a pile of bricks or massive oak cubes.

Rather than actually finding the humour in Minimalism what the curator did was round up some Conceptual artists who commented on utterly humourless Minimalist standards. The result has a particular off-key, dry wit (verging on absurdity) so close to the heart of the Conceptual artist.

Some of the works in this show are delightful: John Boyle-Singfield’s Untitled (Coke Zero) references the Hans Haacke Condensation Cube of 1962, replacing water with Coke Zero. The Coke Zero does create condensation but it has also undergone a gross transformation, breaking down into its elemental components: On top, an evil looking red liquid and below, a suspicious powdery substance.

coke zero

Ken Nicol created Carl Andre Drawer Piece and got into the spirit of “truth to materials” by typing the Carl Andre quote “If a thing is worth doing once, it’s worth doing again” on 1611 index cards.

File piece

I always associate John Baldessari with Cal Arts and a particular brand of flat humour that came out of that school. In his video Baldessari “sings” each of Sol LeWitt’s 35 “Sentences on Conceptual Art” to the tune of popular songs. It must have been Christmas when he made this video because the tune sounds distinctly like a holiday carol.

JB

There is a certain slyness to John Marriott’s various sized cubes surfaced with pigeon-proofing strips. They also achieve a cool elegance in an incidental, i.e. Minimalist, manner.

See below for an installation view and a close up of the pigeon-proofing strips.

cube and spikesspikes


University of Toronto Art Center (UTAC)

A few steps from Hart House is UTAC and an exhibition of the photographs of Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) called “We are Continually Exposed to the Flashbulb of Death.” This is a fascinating show for anyone with an interest in the Beat Generation.

A recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his 1955 poem “Howl” can be heard throughout the gallery’s rooms.

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It is, of course, primarily as a poet that Allen Ginsberg is known. These photographs however attest to his skill as a photographer (he was mentored in this ability by Robert Frank) and moreover they document a life profoundly rich in relationships, friendships and experiences.

Below, William Burroughs in 1953:

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Gregory Corso, Paul Bowles and Burroughs in 1961.

From Gary Snyder, Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac and Paul Bowles to Kathy Acker, Rene Ricard, and Michael McLure the pictures in this show depict so many of the literary and intellectual luminaries of the past four of five decades. Each picture includes a description, hand-written by Allen Ginsberg, identifying the subject, the date, the place and the circumstances.

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An essay by Louis Kaplan in the exhibition catalogue quotes Ginsberg as follows: “The poignancy of the photograph comes from looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world.” Captured here in black and white, the humble New York diners and living rooms of the fifties have disappeared forever. This show provides a glimpse of this vanished world and its inhabitants.