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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



April 28, 2015

The Power Plant – John Akomfrah

The Unfinished Conversation, the three channel video installation by John Akomfrah, is so dense with ideas and images that I was obliged to make a return trip to The Power Plant and watch it multiple times.  Projected in a hushed room, on massive screens, and featuring a sound track that is at least as rich and layered as the visual component, I found every viewing of this artwork a rewarding experience.

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Installation view of The Unfinished Conversation by John Akomfrah

The cultural theorist Stuart Hall is the ostensible subject of the piece and his personal and professional life is effectively traced within it.  Visually and structurally, Stuart Hall functions as a fulcrum – around which a kaleidoscope of images swirl – illuminating societal and cultural forces at work, first in his home country of Jamaica, and then in Britain in the 50s, 60s and 70s.  John Akomfrah seemed to have access to the BBC archives as these distant eras are brought to life with so much fascinating material, including TV programming from the time, news footage, photographs and sound recordings.

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Installation view of The Unfinished Conversation by John Akomfrah

Stuart Hall came to the UK as a Rhodes Scholar in 1951.  He produced important academic writings, particularly theories of mass communications and he expanded the idea of cultural studies in the academic world.  But he hardly confined his activities to academia.  He was also a prolific journalist, television personality, champion of the arts, and is often referred to as the “Godfather of Multi-Culturalism” for his work in these various media on immigration, race and the politics of power.  Stuart Hall died in 2014.

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Stills from The Unfinished Conversation by John Akomfrah

“Identity is an ever unfinished, endless conversation” is a (paraphrased) statement made by Stuart Hall in the video.  His own identity was shaped in the intensely race conscious Jamaica in which he felt an outsider even in his own family.  He longed to be part of the modern world and for West Indians of that era the UK was an escape and a second “home,” to which, he decided soon after his arrival there, he would never belong.

The sixties in the UK were not just about mini skirts, the Beatles and Mandy Rice Davies!

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Mandy Rice Davies and Christine Keeler

With a focus on the impact of British colonialism around the world a steady drumbeat of upheaval is referenced in the artwork: Conflicts like the Soviet Invasion of Hungary and the Suez Crisis; social movements like the protests by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, natural disasters of every kind, the 1963 Profumo scandal, workers strikes, the beginning of the wars in Asia, mass immigrations, the travails of the poor in Northern England, Civil Rights demonstrations, the rise of consumerism are all depicted in this piece.  These events affected and changed the individual known as Stuart Hall, along with millions of other individuals.

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Installation shot of The Unfinished Conversation by John Akomfrah

Readings from William Blake, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Mervyn Peake and others, lectures and personal reminiscences by Stuart Hall, and music, particularly jazz of the era, along with sounds of all kinds are woven together to add much of the emotional resonance of the artwork.  The audio reaches a kind of crescendo at the point where Mahalia Jackson sings an extraordinary version of Silent Night, tears streaming down her face, within a melange of images including an actual birth.

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Mahalia Jackson in still from The Unfinished Conversation by John Akomfrah

Below is an (incomplete) list of countries and the dates they achieved independence from the United Kingdom.

  • 1922 – Egypt
  • 1932 – Iraq
  • 1947 – India
  • 1956 – Sudan
  • 1957 – Ghana
  • 1958 – Sierra Leone
  • 1960 – Nigeria
  • 1961 – Tanzania
  • 1962 – Uganda, Jamaica
  • 1963 – Kenya
  • 1964 – Zambia, Malawi
  • 1966 – Botswana, Lesotho, Barbados
  • 1967 – Yemen
  • 1970 – Fiji
  • 1971 – Qatar, Bahrain
  • 1974 – The Bahamas
  • 1980 – Zimbabwe

September 25, 2014

There is so much frenetic construction activity along Queen’s Quay on the way to The Power Plant. What’s going on?  It appears RBC’s marketing team are working overtime to hint about what might be in store for us when all this commotion is done and the dust settles.

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The Power Plant

The fall season at The Power Plant includes impressive work by three artists.


Shelagh Keeley

I admired Shelagh Keeley’s drawings back on September 6th at Paul Petro Contemporary Art. Here, covering The Power Plant’s vast clerestory wall, is an example of the artist’s site specific work, scaled up.

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The piece is called “Notes on Obsolescence.” It  has the spontaneity of jottings and doodles pinned up on a giant push-pin board but, amazingly, the numerous drawings, photographs and writings coalesce to create one monumental work of art.

Threads, strings and strands – sometimes drawn directly on the wall – drop, dip and fall in concert with layers of more drawings and many photos (of different textures, hues, vintage and size) depicting spindles, shuttles, punchcards, servers, circuit boards, weavings, intersecting woofs and warps, dye mechanisms, the factory floor, gadgets and widgets, quotes from Marshall McLuhan, cascading reams of paper from a long gone dot matrix printer and so on and on. The work follows the relentless march of technological innovation by looking backward at the abandoned remains.

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This piece is endlessly fascinating to look at. There is so much rich content and beautiful details.  It was annoying that I could not see the loftiest sections until I realized I could simply walk upstairs.

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Julia Dault

Seeing this sculpture by Julia Dault got me thinking: What if I owned an austere modernist rectangular house? What if I placed this sizzling pink and blue bundle in one of its large imposing rooms?

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How cool and sophisticated would I be?  Would I have to hire a staff just to dust my possessions?

Maybe its the playful colors and unconventional materials but I definitely got a sense of joy seeing this work. The high gloss sculpture appear on the verge of flying apart and the paintings have a late-night, rock ‘n roll high spiritedness to them.

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Julia Dault’s exploration into mark making is deep. At the same time it has a certain infectious giddyness most evident in the sprawling lexicon of marks, encased in a grid, which she created for one wall of the gallery.

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Pedro Cabrita Reis

This sculpture is brawny and muscular. I-beams appear to have been ripped from walls and scattered about recklessly as if in mid demolition. (There is no way this piece was not made by a guy.)

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It has a dangerous feel too: through the precariously balanced beams, sharp metal edges, vulnerable neon tubing and tangles of explosed wiring. Wandering through this huge installation reminded me of my walk through the construction site to get here. I really enjoyed the bold, massiveness of it as the lake sparkled outside in the morning light; and there seemed to be emotional content too but it was not out of control, instead it was more like thinking about havoc in a repressed, distant and thoughtful way.

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That same contemplative feel is evident upstairs in a gallery containing fourteen paintings by Pedro Cabrita Reis. These formalist paintings are very somber: Raw canvas, reddish stain, heavy slablike layer of dark brown nearly black paint encased in elaborate plexi and welded metal frames.

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(The lights in the gallery were so bright and the frame surface so reflective I was unable to capture the actual look of the paintings.  You’ll just have to see for yourself.)