April 9, 2022

Many years ago I visited the Venice Biennale and stood around under the hot, white, Venetian sun examining the paintings of Agnes Martin.

“Untitled 16” by Agnes Martin.

I remembered that long ago trip as I downloaded the absolutely free pass to the second occurence of the Toronto Biennale. And later, visiting some of the exhibitions, things felt almost normal.

The Biennale is a breath of fresh air! Wandering around in the early spring sunshine, mask free, I forgot for a short while that we are in the midst of a sixth wave.

Spring comes to Toronto

The exhibition is spread out around the city, but largely clustered in the west end, in an area dotted with construction cranes and debris. 72 Perth Avenue, the site of a future condo complex, now slated for demolition, functioned as a church before it was snagged to host the Biennale. The visitor can appreciate the raised, oratory platform and the long, vertical, stained-glass windows as evidence of its former incarnation as the Praise Sanctuary Ministry, Church of the Firstborn Apostolic and consider the connection between houses of worship throughout history and today’s grand museums; austere, white cube galleries; and newly minted biennales seeking an affordable venue.

Installation titled “Holdings” by Nadia Belerique

Nadia Belerique‘s installation, made of white plastic cargo barrels, anchors the space at 72 Perth, where it functions almost like an alter. The apparent lightness of the materials, their translucent, glowing, jewel-like coloured surfaces, which capture daylight flowing from behind, create the rooms’s focal point with an original sense of monumentality: lightfilled, colourful, airy. Within each barrel Nadia Belerique creates assemblages of found materials which may or may not refer to their original purpose.

Detail of “Hoildings” by Nadia Belerique

 What Water Knows, The Land Remember , is the title of the “curatorial vision” of the Biennale. This vision is highly idealistic, referencing the Toronto region i.e. the Great Lakes and their tributaries, and tying together ideas about ecology and the environment, inheritance and ancestry, relationships and collaboration. I did have a jarring sense of dislocation, faced with these touchingly utopian ideals and scrupulous political correctness, after a steady media diet of fear and despair: brutal war in Europe, global rise of authoritarian leaders, rage of white males, mass extinction and climate meltdown, endless Covid waves of misery. It was great to step away from all that for a few hours!

I was excited to be introduced to the work of Paul Pfeiffer. He did a fascinating, multi-media piece about a pop-star and his billions of fans around the world. In this case: Justin Bieber. He used this utterly contemporary phenomenon to explore the encarnacion-style of woodworking, which originated in sixteenth century Spain, and continues to this day in the Philippines, as a way to produce lifelike icons of religious figures.

Detail of “Incarnator” by Paul Pfeiffer
Detail of “Incarnator” by Paul Pfeiffer
Detail of “Incarnator” by Paul Pfeiffer

The artist named Aki Onda created a piece that had an uncanny resemblance to so much work that went on in the seventies. I really like looking at outdated technology, particularly from the seventies and eighties, so his piece called “Nam June’s Spirit Was Speaking To Me,” was a hit for me. The text that accompanies the piece, an oversized booklet, describes the artist’s ongoing attempts to channel Nam June Paik through various garbled radio broadcasts he chances upon.

“Nam June’s Spirit was Speaking to Me” by Aki Onda

Scanning through the station, I stumbled upon what sounded like a submerged voice, and began recording. I concluded this was Paik’s spirit reaching out to me.

Aki Onda, from the booklet “Nam June’s Spirit Was Speaking to Me”

It’s hard to know if Aki Onda is just relating his experiences earnestly, or not. I too have heard strange, submerged voices on the radio, from time to time.

In the gallery. the sound was very low, almost inaudible, but you can listen to Aki Onda’s piece on You Tube.

Lingering at the exhibition made me think that the fact that it takes place in a former church possibly influenced the curators decisions. Many of the pieces referenced spirituality, liturgical items or connections with deceased beings or those of distant generations.

For example, Andrea Carlson shows a sculpture and huge painting, referencing “Man Mound,” which is a 214-foot-tall earthwork in Wisconsin, dating back to between 600 and 900 BC, when it functioned as a burial and ceremonial site.

Detail of Painting titled “Cast a Shadow” by Andrea Carlson
Detail of Painting titled “Cast a Shadow” by Andrea Carlson

The painting, which is immense, composed of numerous panels, and painted in a joyful mash-up of styles, appears to contain many messages, laments, pleas and warnings from the beyond, or the distant past, or just elsewhere.

Detail of sculpture by Tanya Lukin Linklater titled “Held in the air I never fell (spring lightness sweetgrass song”

Tanya Lukin Linklater‘s sculptural piece has many components. I was very attracted to the drapped scarves that hung from the ceiling, which in keeping with the theme of this show at 72 Perth Avenue, appears to reference liturgical garments, tapestries and shamanistic cloaks.

Kohkom is Cree for grandmother, and for Tanya, the scarves are a way to evoke “women’s intergenerational, embodied, experiential (and sometimes land-based) knowledge.

from Toronto Biennale of Art Website

I dashed over to MOCA — apparently my free pass entitles me to a discount on coffee at the MOCA cafe — which is around the corner on Sterling. The main floor of MOCA is part of the Biennale.

It was very enjoyable to look at the installation by Maria Qamar. This artist strikes me as completely of the moment, freely moving between the worlds of fashion, art and digital stardom.

“Dhamakedar, Superstar!” by Maria Qamar

Strolling into MOCA, and Maria Qamar’s installation, I had left the spiritual realm behind at 72 Perth, and was into a version of the material now: young, glamourous and Desi!

More Maria Qamar

November 19, 2017

Lecture by Dr. Laura Marks at the Aga Khan Museum

Creative Algorithms: From Islamic Art to Digital Media

It is always a delight to race up the Don Valley Parkway for a visit to the Aga Khan Museum.  Today Dr. Laura U. Marks is in town, from Simon Fraser University, to deliver a lecture developing some aspects of her 2010 book Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art.

The lecture is well attended and the Aga Khan people are bringing in more chairs.

Dr. Laura Marks invites us to consider aniconism in Islam.  She talks about the fact that Islam restricts the imitation of God’s creations or representations of the Divine.  She states that Islam determines that God’s actions in the universe should be understood rationally and clearly, without the ambiguity of representation.  Incidentally to these strictures, aniconism creates a rich environment for abstraction.

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Tile Frieze,  Iznik, Turkey 1570  (from The Aga Khan Museum collection)

The necessity for abstraction, the infinitely large and the infinitely small, the properties of geometry i.e. the way it can be multiplied, rotated and mirrored, are some of the connections Dr. Laura Marks makes from historic Islamic art to digital media.  She sees the current digital landscape as directly emerging from this expression and talks about the connections between Islamic art, algorithms, atomism, pixels, performative geometry and the idea that the universe is created out of nothing, and, that it is rich, complex, interconnected and finite.

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Doors, North Mazanderan, Iran 14th century (The Aga Khan Museum)

(What is the definition of an algorithm?  It’s a set of rules that precisely defines a sequence of operations.  Also it has to eventually stop.  It can’t go on forever.)  Algorithms are all the same whether they depict the stock market gyrations, govern Google searches or create digital art.  And the idea of algorithms is ancient.

 

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Above is an animation of a simple algorithm.  It sorts some random values.  See Wikipedia to read about this particular algorithm: the high level language description of the set of rules and the related code.

In talking about these very old ideas Dr. Laura Marks gives us a glimpse of Baghdad in the 8th century.  It was apparently a hotbed of intellectual, scientific, creative and mathematical pursuits.  I’m going to have to read her book to find out more about the invention of algebra, the measurement of planes and spherical figures and the fact that Fibonacci studied mathematics in Libya in the 12th century.

At that time an individual may have carried a talisman that represented their personal handle on the infinite.  Dr. Laura Marks suggests a USB device or, for example, a smartphone can be seen as a modern talisman, containing a generative algorithm creating social interaction among users, and, a gateway to infinity.

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Talisman, carved quartz “script within script,”  Medieval, British Museum

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Modern day Talisman

Google, Facebook, Netflix and Instagram were called out as the dark side of algorithmic media!  Good point Dr. Laura Marks!  She says they function like the curses that were woven into certain carpets in the ancient world.  These are the cruel algorithms, designed to control, harvest knowledge and conduct surveillance.   Wherever possible, she avoids the manifestations of those corporate entities.

I particularly like her remarks on the “absolute mystery of the infinite” and the way tile patterning in mosques were designed to create “dazzlement and wonder.”

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Interior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, 8th-10th centuries

Many listeners in the audience look a little bewildered as Dr. Laura Marks talks about certain Islamic art functioning like a User Interface to God.  And her discussion of the pixel experience of time being similar to that of a whirling dervish –  intensive and non-linear, as opposed linear chronological time –  is a little rushed and somewhat baffling.  However, her diligent scholarship, refreshing enthusiasm and poetically nuanced presentation create an exciting atmosphere of  possibility.

 

What is the digital art the speaker references?  She does not have a lot of time left to discuss it.  The name Hasan Elabi was mentioned! His piece Tracking Transience is so cold and eerie.

Below is a still from Hasan Elabi’s piece which was begun subsequent to a brush with the FBI.  He documents every aspect of his life and provides all the data for public consumption.

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Detail from Thousand Little Brothers, by Hasan Elabi

I suppose this is not the future.  It is the now.

 

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