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.)