September 6, 2022

“Seeing the Invisible” at the Royal Botanical Gardens

view of the Royal Botanical Gardens of Burlington

Cybersickness“is just one of the many impediments slowing the ascent of the Metaverse. Virtual Reality is literally nauseating to many users, bringing on something like motion sickness.

Augmented Reality, on the other hand, is meta-lite. You are not immersed. You can talk to your friends and maintain awareness of what’s going on around you, in the real world.

A very pleasant way to dip into augmented reality (AR) is to wander in the lush, sprawling, verdant oasis of the Royal Botanical Gardens, in Burlington, and check out the exhibition called Seeing the Invisible.

This is a global project; a collaboration among numerous public gardens around the world, initiated by the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.

You have to download an app and then begin following a path around a swath of the RBG called Hendrie Park. (How did we manage to do anything — in the before times — without smartphones?)

Once you get the app installed there are no bugs or glitches. Everything works well and it’s an uncomplicated experience. The fact that it was a cloudy day was an advantage, eliminating screen glare.

AG + BA by El Anatsui

I really liked seeing the piece by El Anatsui; a gigantic form, covered in silvery trash, floating in the breeze next to a kind of cloak or curtain woven from colorful detritus – candy wrappers! – eerily suspended in an open expanse of the garden.

Detail of art work by El Anatsui

It was a beautiful and mysterious way to begin the exhibition trek. Except for a little gentle wafting, El Anatsui’s piece was one of the least active or interactive works in the show.

Refik Anadol, on the other hand, created a churning, throbbing interpretation of the natural world based on an Artificial Intelligence algorithm. Housed in a giant frame, the pulsing day glow colours resembled a kind of digital primordial stew of becoming.

Machine Hallucinations/Nature Dreams by Refik Anadol

Speaking of nausea, this piece was a little bit too much for me, like some early video art that relied on gooey feedback loops and solarization, but I love the idea.

AI as his collaborator, Anadol re-creates shapes, patterns, and colors of nature, transforming them into a hypnotic cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction of natural imagery, morphed into an AI “stream of consciousness.”

Refik Anadol, from promotional materials for the exhibition

And many of the art works are truly interactive, like the “Biome Gateway,” by Timur Si-Qin which is cave, that the viewer can enter, and observe a parallel environment; a digital, phospherescent biotope and a place of spiritual longing.

A violent explosion and it’s slow motion aftermath is the subject of the augmented reality artwork by Ori Gersht. At first, we are gazing at a perfect, 3 dimensional, massive bouquet in the style of 17th century Dutch still life painting when — kapow! — it blows up and the fragments cascade slowly and poetically into nothingness. The tension between “creation and destruction” and “violence and beauty” is the terrain that Ori Gersht has carved out for himself.

Forget Me Not by Ori Gersht

One of my personal favourites is the piece called Directions (Zero) by Mohammed Kazem. As the viewer approaches — walking up a slight hill –there are signs posted, cautioning the public about the dangers of walking backward while looking at the AR. There is a real possibility that some enchanted viewer might topple down the incline as they endeavour to see the entire piece.

Directions (Zero) by Mohammed Kazem
Detail of Direction (Zero) by Mohammed Kazem

Inscribed on the AR are geographic coordinates in numeric form, representing all countries of the world. The artist is getting at the fact that “the course of history was changed when Persian scholar Muhammad Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi discovered zero and considered it a number within the field of algebra.”

The viewer is invited to walk through the giant zero. It’s kind of a thrill.

And then there is Ai Weiwei‘s “Gilded Cage.” I pushed open the turnstyle and entered the massive structure. There was a fleeting moment of panic as I seemed to hear the bars clang shut behind me. Can I get out of here?

Gilded Cage by Ai Weiwei
Art work by Ai Weiwei

Maybe Ai Weiwei is speaking directly to his countrymen — trapped in big beautiful cities like Shanghai — where millions are still in lockdown, apparently because of their leader’s obsession with Zero Covid.

AR can carry some weighty ideas and yet there’s something light and playful about it that is appealing to all. In the shimmering portal created by Mel O’Callaghan the viewer is transported to a funhouse world, one dominated by the hypntoic breath of meditation.

“Pneuma” by Mel O’Callaghan

Exhibition viewers glitching out with “Pneuma” by Mel O’Callaghan

It all left me with a kind of “Be Here Now” vibe. Particularly as later that same day I read an article by Alan Lightman called “Life is an Accident of Space and Time.”:

Even if life existed on every planet that could support it, living matter in the universe would amount to only a few grains of sand in the Gobi Desert.

Alan Lightman, in The Atlantic

Reality, maybe slightly augmented, is more than enough for me.

June 21, 2022

So many of the people I encountered in New York last week had an edge of resentment and anxiety. The desperate days of the pandemic barely receding, the present dominated by spiraling inflation and violence at home and abroad, and the future — the future — looming as a terrifying mix of extremist, political mayhem and climate meltdown.

It made sense to visit the dark, deathy 911 Memorial, with its relentless flow of tumbling water into the black pit of eternity. What did that terrible event — now so distant — foreshadow?

View of the 911 Memorial

Quiet As It’s Kept – The Whitney Biennial

(I don’t quite get the title? “Quiet As It’s Kept” is referred to, in the materials about the show, as an expression, but it’s one I had not heard before.)

At the 2022 Whitney Biennial — the eightieth edition — that same feeling of future dread that was conjured by the 911 Memorial was in evidence. A mix of trauma, fear and pain was defnitely one of the thematic strands running through the massive exhibition.

The work of Daniel Joseph Martinez, for instance, made me think of the Flagellants of the middle ages, who “demonstrated their religious fervor and sought atonement for their sins by vigorously whipping themselves in public displays of penance.” 

Below is the Post-Human Manifesto presented by Daniel Joseph Martinez:

Artwork by Daniel Joseph Martinez

Daniel Joseph Martinez is an artist who works in many different media, including modifying his own body in monstrous ways. So much loathing, rage and frustration seems to be contained in this work. He describes his piece at the Whitney as a:

“radical performative experiment of becoming post-human and the evolution of a new species.”

Daniel Jospeh Martinez

Photographs by Daniel Joseph Martinez
Detail of Photograph by Daniel Joseph Martinez

Similarly, a video installation by Andrew Roberts called The Horde, displays creatures that are him, but not him. They are horrible — undead things — that he identifies with “as a Latino and queer person confronted by a crossfire geopolitical war where bodies and identities similar to mine are treated as disposable.”

The Horde by Andrew Roberts

A sculpture by Canada’s own Rebecca Belmore, of a human figure or maybe a sort of grim reaper wrapped in a sleeping bag, fleeing or hiding or in mourning, had a powerful feeling of despair. It was surrounded by a glittering array of gold coloured bullet casings and stood in the murky light of a gallery with walls painted black.

ishkode (fire) by Rebecca Belmore

“I’m hoping that the work contains some positive aspects of this idea that we need to try to deal with violence,” is a quote from Belmore in the Biennial notes.

Photographs by Buck Ellison confront violence from a circuitous distance. For me, the result was a lurid fascination.

“Rain in Rifle Season, Distributions from Split-Interest Trusts, Price Includes Uniform, Never Hit Soft, 2003” by Buck Ellison

Buck Ellison hires models and builds sets for his photographs, attempting to recreate particular moments in the lives of the very rich and priviledged. Here, Eric Prince is depicted, at his ranch in 2003, just before he received notoriety and billions of dollars for his role as the founder of Blackwater, the military contractor which figured so prominently in the war in Iraq.

Buck Ellison has stated that he tries to change the predictable narrative and force the viewer to confront their own emphathy or curiousity. (It kind of works … and then there is the fact that the model bears an uncanny resemblance to a close relative of mine.)

Photographs by Buck Ellison

This show has many moments of emotional power but one of the most dramatic was by artist Coco Fusco. It was a riveting experience, watching her 12 minute video essay, recorded in the waters around Hart Island, home to the largest mass grave in the United States, where New York’s unclaimed victims of COVID-19 have been buried.

Still from “Your Eyes will be an Empty Word” by Coco Fusco

Yes, there was painting.

In fact, it seemed like there is a resurgence of abstract painting. It is definitely great to look. The huge, somehow claustrophic paintings by Denyse Thomasos, another Canadian woman, are hectic, compulsive, bristling with energy.

Detail of “Displaced Burial” by Denyse Thomasos

Denyse Thomasos, who died in 2012, stated that her paintings “refer to the violent systems and structures that shape our world,” and that “…the paintings are deeply personal.”

The painting below is by Awilda Sterling-Duprey and it’s called “…blindfolded” because … well … watch the video.

“…blindfolded” by Awilda Sterling-Duprey

video of Awilda Sterling-Duprey performing at the Whitney Biennale 2022

I was really happy to see the paintings by Jane Dickson, one of the artists I remember from the East Village Art Scene of the early eighties. Her canvases looked so lush and rich in form and content.

“Save Time” by Jane Dickson

63 artists and collectives are participating in the eightieth Whitney Biennial. This is just a handful of the items that caught my eye on that sultry afternoon.


Often, there is some sort of controversey roiling the bi-annual exhibition at this particular museum, but this year there was none, that I could discern … yet.

  • 2019 – boycotted by a group of artists, in protest of the museum’s vice chairman, Warren Kanders. Warrren Kanders’ companies sell military supplies (teargas and bullets) via Safariland.
  • 2017 – In response to the exhibition a painting by Dana Schutz, depicting Emmet Till in an open casket, African-American artist Parker Bright began to silently protest it by standing in front of the painting wearing a T-shirt with “Black Death Spectacle” on the back.
  • 2014 – The YAMS Collective, or HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, a collective of 38 mostly black and queer artists, writers, composers, academics, filmmakers and performers participated and withdrew from the 2014 Biennial as a protest of the Whitney Museum’s policies including a lack of diversity.
  • 1987 – the show was protested by the Guerrilla Girls for its alleged sexism and racism.
  • 1976 – artists protested what was viewed as blatant economic pandering because the Biennial’s 1976 theme revolved around bodybuilding as art and featured California’s future governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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

March 4, 2022

Shary Boyle at The Gardiner Museum

Shary Boyle is an exceptionally accomplished artist. Her show at the Gardiner Museum, called Outside the Palace of Me, is a tour de force of skill and imagination. And the subject of the show — the idea of identity and how we create our “selves” — is an utterly timely and fertile one.

“Cephalophoric Saint” by Shary Boyle

The image above, by Shary Boyle, is titled “Cephalorphoric Saint.” The word cephalophoric means a saint who is carrying their own severed head. In Christian art, this generally means that a saint has been martyred by beheading. I’m not sure if Shary Boyle sees the artist as a matyr, or a saint, but it is an interesting idea about how the artist functions in contemporary society. In some of her images of artists, the subjects are devoid of any legitimate head, instead, blindly and thoughtlessly — without any conciousness at all — they are engaged in self-representation, groping to create an outward, public manifestation of their limited identity.

“The Sculptor” by Shary Boyle
Detail of “The Sculptor” by Shary Boyle
“The Potter” by Shary Boyle

Ours is society consumed with self-image. The decorated visage is everywhere and each seemingly innocent Instagram post a plea for validation. Do we even exist if we aren’t “liked?” Shary Boyle explores that contemporary affliction with an absorbing collection of objects and images.

Fame, status, and our hunger for validation drive cultures of excess. Tweeted Tik Tok Selfie influencers. Fate, addiction, glamour, celebrity, greed, the Fool. We are all the centre of the universe.

Shary Boyle, handout at exhibition “Outside the Palace of Me”

Julia Fox Deletes All Kanye West Photos From Instagram – XXL

The arrangement of the show references theatre. The visitor gingerly enters from a darkened hallway to pass three muses (“Focus,” “Lens” and “Pupils”), which are visible in a two-way mirror. Emerging onto a bright proscenium lined with ten, glass-encased, ceramic sculptures — each exqusitely rendered and fascinating to look at — the visitor is then obliged to consider their own participation in the show.

“Oasis” by Shary Boyle
“Peacock Spider” by Shary Boyle
“The Sybarites” by Shary Boyle

At center stage is the coin-operated star!:

“Centering” by Shary Boyle

Shary Boyle weaves an old timey sense of performance into her up-to-the-minute observations: traditional hucksters, wax museums, vanity cases, Punch and Judy performers, ventriloquists, vaudeville, carny folk, puppet masters and manipulators of all stripes are represented in the exhibition. She creates a slightly seamy, corrupt, down-market vibe, like a stroll around Clifton Hill after checking out Niagara Falls.

“Judy” by Shary Boyle
“Ventriloquist” by Shary Boyle

Walking to the Gardiner Museum along Bloor street I encountered a protest march. About a dozen people took part. One held a sign that read “Fuck Trudeau!,” while the leader shouted “Jesus Loves You” through a bullhorn. The Bloor Street shoppers, still masked and tentative, glanced with mild irritation at the noisy interlopers. I could really relate to Shary Boyle’s piece called “The Procession” and her quote:

One person’s parade is another’s riot.

Shary Boyle, handout at exhibition “Outside the Palace of Me”
“The Procession| by Shary Boyle
Detail of “The Procession” by Shary Boyler

Detail of “The Procession” by Shary Boyle

And then there is “The White Elephant.” I imagined this freakish creature striding around, blithly wrecking the place, leaving a path of misery and destruction wherever she goes, like a preppy white Godzilla in a twinset.

“White Elephant” by Shary Boyle

.

No comment.

January 4, 2022

Robert Houle: Red Is Beautiful at the AGO

One of the many large, elegant paintings by Robert Houle, in his retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario, is particularly arresting. An Indigenous man sits alone on an outcropping of rock, contemplating the shoreline and beyond. He is beautiful and calm; tatooed and tranquil in a bucolic, parklike setting, with broad, green lawns. He is looking east, to Europe, and evidently, he knows what’s coming.

“O-ween du muh waun (We Were Told)” by Robert Houle

The image has a sorrowful quality, like an invented perfect childhood, or the idea of heaven, where a dead loved one might now reside.

It made me think of the video piece by New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana — which I was able to watch numerous times at the AGO. One could think of Lisa Reihana’s piece as a moment later in this perfect, imaginary time. The tranquil Indigenous are no longer alone. The British have landed, and they have disembarked.

Still from “In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) by Lisa Reihana

And I was also reminded of Robert Hughes and his book “The Fatal Shore” in which he reflects upon the shattering of perfection, as the British first sailed into Botany Bay.

“One may liken this moment to the breaking open of a capsule. Upon the harbor the ships were now entering, European history had left no mark at all. Until the swollen sails and curvetting bows of the British fleet round South Head, there were no dates. The Aborigines and fauna around them had possessed the landscape since time immemorial, and no other human eye had seen them. Now the protective glass of distance, broke, in an instant, never to be restored.”

The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes

But this is just one painting in an immense exhibition, covering many decades and using many different media, in a career spanning more than fifty years.

This is the kind of show you might want return to again and again. But that is not possible because the Gallery is now closed due to the Omicron variant.

Entrance to Robert Houle Exhibition “Red Is Beautiful” at the AGO

Robert Houle takes the viewer on a journey; often it’s personal. The painting shown below is entitled Sandy Bay and refers to a residential school in Manitoba attended by the artist. Photographs of the school building, an image of Robert Houle’s sister, and other photographs are included in the painting.

For me, the gorgeous formal aspects of this work exalts its intense emotional weight. It’s a very powerful piece.

“Sandy Bay” by Robert Houle

Many of Robert Houle’s paintings explore the history of Indigenous struggles in Canada as they explore, with equal intensity, the sensuality of paint.

Detail of “Premises for Self Rule: Constitution Act, 1982” by Robert Houle
“Premises for Self Rule: Constitution Act, 1982” by Robert Houle

The painting above is part of a series which extracts texts from Canadian historical documents (The Royal Proclamation, 1763; the British North American Act, 1867; Treaty 1, 1871; and the Indian Act, 1876 and the Constitution Act of 1982) and combines it with a contemporary painting and historical photographs.

Robert Houle never loses sight of his subject matter — which in a way is the entire history of this country– but he does not take a didactic tone. It’s more like he is sharing information. We learn a lot.

“Aboriginal Title” by Robert Houle

The Ipperwash Crisis is commemorated, below, in a painting of jolting colour, embedded with meaning.

“Ipperwash” by Robert Houle
Detail of “Ipperwash” by Robert Houle

Painting appears to be a constant for Robert Houle but the show includes works in other media: prints, drawings, sculpture, video and large scale installations including one which features a big, beautiful, buttery yellow, antique Pontiac.

“I will stand in your path until dawn” by Robert Houle

The AGO provided a quote from Robert Houle in connection with the Pontiac piece.

Growing up in the ‘rez in Southern Manitoba in the 1960s, Pontiac was the family car we drove down to the lake. It was not until High School that I read about Pontiac, the Odawa chief who led a confederacy of eighteen nations against the British Army in the summer of 1763 (the year of the Royal Proclamation.)

Robert Houle

In the painting below, Robert Houle memorializes a troupe of dancers who visited Europe in the 1840s.

“Mississauga Portraits (Waubuddick, Maungwudaus, Hannah)” by Robert Houle
Detail from “Mississauga Portraits” by Robert Houle

I really like looking at the portraits of these confident, graceful, imperious performers. The artist has endowed these pictures with haughty vitality and vivid emotional content.

And occaisionally the artist strikes a light-hearted note and it’s just fun to see, like the video below.

Part of a multi media installation “Paris/Ojibwa” by Robert Houle

It was really great to wander through this expansive exhibition and feel colour and light washing over me. And it’s true that timing is everything! I was able to slip into the “Red Is Beautiful” exhibition the afternoon of January 4, just a few hours before the AGO and every other cultural institution in the city pulled the plug and shut their doors to the public. We are back in lockdown.

October 29, 2021

Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through

The Art Museum at the University of Toronto is hosting an experimental exhibition. This one has a twist. It questions the whole idea of exhibiting art at all.

The work of The Synthetic Collection, a collaboration between scientists and artists, comprises the basis for the exhibition, in particular their work studying the microplastics pollution of the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes: Accumulations by Kelly Wood, member of the Synthetic Collection

Whereas the exhibition does a great job of displaying numerous art works, it also posits an institutional critique, and it is hardcore. It’s not just a show, but a manifesto on responsibility in making and showing art, a series of public dialogues, and a call to action.

A Manifesto for Curating and Making Art in a
Time of Environmental Crisis

1. If you’re going to make it, make it count.

2. Lead by example.

3. Take steps to mitigate environmental damage of art making and exhibitions. Doing so reveals other economies of inequality and acknowledges the art world’s culpability in upholding systems of oppression. Projects should enhance initiatives aimed at preventing, reducing, and mitigating harm.

….

excerpted (first three steps of ten) from downloadable booklet: A DIY Fieldguide for Reducing the Environment Impact of Art Exhibitions

Unlike most other exhibitions, here the gallery space has not been made immaculate in preparation for a new exhibition. Nail holes, scuff marks, scratches are left as is.

Signage at Plastic Heart

Signs are handwritten and pinned to the wall. Nothing is hidden. There is no dumpster filled with incidental debris that is hauled off to a landfill. The “Plastic Heart” exhibition aims to be totally transparent.

Waste on display

It’s a big show, featuring numerous artists – contemporary and historical – and tackling a breadth of topics, some truly nightmarish. Particularly in the visual depictions of toxic pollution in the Great Lakes, one difficult upshot of the exhibition becomes clear, i.e. the overwhelming sense that there is no way out of this mess.

Watching one of the teaser videos for the show, the following phrase stood out as alarming, verging on terrifying: “All the plastic we have ever made is still with us.”

Visual depiction of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes region, by Synthetic Collective member Skye Morét

I was so impressed by Skye Moret’s website! She describes herself as a designer /scientist /adventurer and the site provides a glimpse of the many roles she inhabits.

Mermaid’s Tears
Description of Mermaid’s Tears by Synthetic Collective

Some of the artwork took the form of lists of plastic producers or plastic descriptors.

Research documents by Synthetic Collective

The names of the various plastic compounds have a particularly chilling, incantory quality. I randomly googled “crystal styrene” and learned the following:

The conventional method of producing styrene involves the alkylation of benzene with ethylene to produce ethylbenzene, followed by dehydrogenation of ethylbenzene to styrene. Styrene undergoes polymerization by all the common methods used in plastics technology to produce a wide variety of polymers and copolymers.

 

And voila! …”crystal” styrene is the fully transparent form of styrene, a rigid and rather brittle low cost thermoplastic. When you by a box of organic baby spinach, chances are you are buying crystal styrene. Is it recyclable? Maybe.

Some of the artists in the show decided to bite the bullet and work with the ubiquitous material.

Flexi-Shield (Eostra) by Amy Brener is made from Platinum silicone, pigment, larkspur and chrysanthemum flowers, fern leaves, miscellaneous objects.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png
Detail of “Permeations of a Dataset’ by Tegan Moore

Tegan Moore has a very successful piece in the show, balanced beautifully on the edge of elegance and banality. The photo above depicts a very small section of the long, complex stream of material. The work is made from “Factory reject’mystery foam’ sheet with anti-static agent, haildamaged polycarbonate roofing, photodegraded corrugated plastic, plastic pellets, plastic fragments, salvaged phone, starch packing peanuts, mulberry paper.”

Detail of “New Balance,” sculpture by Meghan Price is made from used sneakers

Detail of “Water Song” by Hannah Claus, made from acetate, thread, pva glue and plexiglass

In the notes about Hannah Claus‘s piece, “Water Song” the fact that it “packs small” is mentioned.

I couldn’t help thinking about some of the superstar global artists and the “bigger is better” sensibility that has existed for many decades.

For example, below is an installation shot of a 2020 show of the work of Anselm Kiefer. Clearly, this work does not “pack small.”

Installation view of 2020 exhibition of the work of Anselm Kiefer.

Anselm Kiefer — and he is only one example! — talks about his work in extravagant terms. He claims he is trying “to articulate the known fundamental interactions of the universe and forms of matter.” Could it be that this type of work, boundless in its ambition and scale, corporate in its fundamental self-absorption, might be slightly out of touch?

That is the really interesting thing about seeing the “Plastic Heart” exhibition: suddenly we are thinking about a different moral equation and a different motivation for making and exhibiting art.

Artwork by Christina Battle

For instance, Christina Battle‘s piece alerts us to those “plants helping us to remediate land and wonders how we might support them in return.” Part of this artwork is to invite her audience to receive a Natural Plant toolkit in the mail, and to plant and monitor seeds appropriate to the region. (I was too late. All the seeds were sent out.)

And then there is this video by Leticia Bernaus. What can I say?

Excerpt from video by Leticia Bernaus

Plastic Heart: Surface all the Way Through includes work by the following artist.

Christina Battle, IAIN BAXTER&, Sara Belontz, Leticia Bernaus, J Blackwell, Amy Brener, Hannah Claus, Sully Corth, Heather Davis and Kirsty Robertson, Aaronel deRoy Gruber, Fred Eversley, Naum Gabo, General Idea, Kelly Jazvac, Woomin Kim, Kiki Kogelnik, Les Levine, Mary Mattingly, Christopher Mendoza, Tegan Moore, Skye Morét, Meagan Musseau, Claes Oldenburg, Meghan Price, Françoise Sullivan, Catherine Telford-Keogh, Lan Tuazon, Marianne Vierø, Joyce Wieland, Nico Willliams, Kelly Wood

The featured image at the top is by Iain Baxter.

October 8, 2021

GTA2021

The title of the big, new exhibition at MOCA is GTA2021. This title “plays on the name of the city’s broad metropolitan area” we are earnestly informed, on the MOCA home page. It wasn’t until I looked at the biographies of the participating artists that I understood why a definition of GTA would be required. Many of these artists have deep connections elsewhere. Places — around the world — are named, where the artists currently live, where they were raised or educated, where they exhibit or find influence and inspiration. Other places and a sense of otherness, are core to many of these artist’s identities and overtly manifest in their work. “GTA” wouldn’t mean much back in their far-flung communities and too, there is the possibility of confusion with a certain popular video game.

What then, does the show say about the GTA? Yes: Toronto is the most diverse city the world! But beyond that cliche, in this context, Toronto doesn’t really exist at all. Instead it has a sort of airport status, bland, meaningless, a place from which to participate in a “global discourse.” A characterless point converged upon rather than a vital place from which art emerges.

21 Greater Toronto artists and collectives address the most pressing issues of our time — and our city.

MOCA GTA2021 brochure

The idea of addressing city issues was not really in evidence. But does that matter? Could be it’s just a marketing glitch. The important thing is there are many interesting things to look at and think about in the GTA2021 show! Here are a few:

Mashrabiya Ghazaleh Avarzamani

On the main floor of MOCA, inserted into the exterior wall, is a sculpture by Ghazaleh Avarzamani. Referencing Islamic screens and patterns, Catholic confessionals and some undefined utilitarian object, the work plays with daylight and shadow and with ideas about private and public, outward and inward and seeing and being seen. Encountering this object upon entering the exhibition sets the viewer up perfectly. This piece is beautiful and thought provoking.

Detail of The Parade of All Feels by Common Accounts

Also on the main floor, displayed in a hard plastic bubble, is a model for a parade float by the collective Common Acccounts.

The Parade of All Feels by Common Accounts

I wish this artwork was bigger! It’s packed with tiny details and shimmering mini-video displays, but it’s so small that it becomes toylike, hard to look at and to take seriously.

Installation by Walter Scott

I’m still on the main floor! Walter Scott could not ignore the pillars in MOCA. He half-dressed them and created a complicated installation with a raw, youthful, shambolic appeal.

In the background are hung big, bold, voluptuous, painted curtains by Julia Dault, one of the most well-known artists at GTA2021.

Paintings by Julia Dault

I wandered upstairs and was startled and impressed to encounter the sound installation by Sahar Te, which consists of a massive SUV, a Toyota Tacoma from 2003, this one draped in stretchy black nylon and emitting a deep, throaty, menacing breath. It made me wonder how many incel creeps are roaming the streets of the GTA in their oversized potential weapons of mass murder!

“Listening Attends” by Sahar Te
2003 Toyota Tacoma

The artist indicates the vehicle beneath the drapery is a 2003 Toyota Tacoma: truly a beast!

Also upstairs, is work by Tony Romano, a Toronto native who is drawn to the imagery and culture of Southern Italy, his ancestral home. Here, Tony Romano fuses fragments of found objects to create a romantic sense of yearning for another place and time. All these pieces have a soft, dreamy, tenderness about them.

Sculpture by Tony Romano
Installation by Tony Romano

Personal ethnic heritage is more often the subject of the art in GTA2021 than Toronto and its problems. Maybe the artists have to look back first, and only then, can they look ahead.

Installation by Azza El Siddique

The artist Azza El Siddique used the “architectural plan of a Nubian burial chamber” to create an atmosphere of decay and abandonement. Cultural artefacts and heirlooms lie scattered, looted, broken and water streams down to further erode and destory. Here there evocation of a cultural past feels sorrowful and bitter.

Installation by Azza El Siddique

I kept going.

At the back of the third floor I found a screening room. Here are the results of a collaboration. Parastoo Anoushahpour, Faraz Anoushahpour & Ryan Ferko worked together to create a truly original, witty and engaging video titled Surface Rights. I was so happy that I made the effort and rounded the corner of the third floor at MOCA to find this wonderful video tucked away in the most distant part of the exhibition.

“Charity” by Ron Baird

This is what it’s all about: The city of Markham has an illustrious past as a leading breeder of dairy cows. A work of public art, in the form of a chrome cow, by the artist Ron Baird, was gifted to the city. From there, everything unfolds.

Parastoo Anoushahpour, Faraz Anoushahpour & Ryan Ferko have two pieces in the show. Charity, which you can watch here, is an interactive documentary (jointly produced by the NFB and MOCA) in something called 360 video. “Surface Rights,” a related video, you have to see at the Museum. It’s worth the trip.

I hope one of Toronto’s most celebrated cultural ambassadors makes his way down to MOCA to check it out.

Toronto Booster and Art Collector

September 26, 2021

The end of September is one of those perfect times in the year; the honey-coloured light, the tension between perfection and decay, new clothes and sharpened pencils, and suddenly, Gallery Weekend!

Dahlias peak at the end of September

Everything feels tentative after this long period of fear, isolation and lockdown. I enter cautiously: masked, distanced, with proof of a second dose ready on my phone.

Will this city ever feel carefree again?

Maybe next year.


Bill Burns at MKG127

Installation of view of Bill Burns show at MKG127 titled “The Salt, The Oil, The Milk”

At MKG127 Bill Burns is into the third year of his slow performance, described below:

Bill began his slow performance called variously The Great Trade or The Great Donkey Walk in Amden Switzerland in 2018. With the help of two Donkeys, Bill carried salt from the local salt mine up some gentle slopes in the Swiss Alps and so this project began. Goat milking, donkey walking, sheep shearing, honey rendering, cheese making and occasionally country singing are Bill’s modes. This exhibition includes several dozen drawings that Bill refers to as “pre-documents”, pictures that depict events that have yet to occur, as well as “documents”, pictures of events that have already occurred.

MKG127 handout

The numerous drawings — which are small, pale, delicate watercolours, featuring text, which is sometimes descriptive and sometimes not — were apparently ripped from Bill Burns’ notebooks and then meticulously framed and hung in tight grids.

Detail of drawing by Bill Burns

Detail of drawing by Bill Burns

Installation view of drawings by Bill Burns

It’s such a liberating concept of what art could be: slow, thoughtful, lots of unexpected twists, delightful objects that spin off the activities and make sense in terms of the internal logic of the piece, big questions to mull over.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 4-2000x567-1.jpg
Pennants by Bill Burns

I have yet to witness a Bill Burns performance but I am excited to report that I will attend one October 8th, at the Oculus on the Humber River Trail.

In the meantime, I appreciate the meandering, round about, surprising way this artwork touches on so many aspects of our present day world: Where does all the stuff that we have come from? How do things get done, made, traded, shipped, bought and sold? What is our connection to farms, to animals? What kind of hierarchies govern our lives? Our we wasting our time rushing around, getting, and spending? What does time even mean now?

Bill Burns walking a Donkey in Amden, Switzerland in 2018. This was the start of the slow performance.

I really like the way Bill Burns uniquely speculates, slows down and simplifies contemporary life, teases it apart and offers it to us — with a light and playful touch — for consideration.

And what about Donkeys? They are so appealing. I learned the following on The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada website:

Donkeys have been a cornerstone in human existence and they still prop up entire communities today, ferrying water, food and crops.

Donkey carrying water in Kenya



*****

Marcel Van Eeden at Clint Roenisch

Marcel Van Eeden is a major Dutch artist. I learned this from the many publications available at the Client Roenisch gallery, on the occasion of this exhibition, titled “Stolen Pictures.”

Drawing from the Rijks Museum series by Marcel Van Eeden

According to Client Roenisch, there is a key to this artist’s obsessive rendering of imagery which existed prior to his own birth. Marcel Van Eeden came into this world on November 22, 1963. Yes, that was the day JFK was murdered in Dallas! Even as a child Marcel Van Eeden saw the coincidence of the assassination of JFK and the beginning of his own life as an almost mystical nexus.

Marcel Van Eeden’s creative production has been to draw everything – “the light, the architecture, the travel, the people, the cities, the familiar, the foreign, the intrigue, the art, the violence, literally everything” — from the period including the start of photography and concluding at the moment of his own birth.

Drawing from the Rijks Museum series by Marcel Van Eeden

The drawings in the main gallery at Clint Roenisch — which all reference a distant art theft, including text and locale — are huge, powerful, intensely black (rendered in charcoal), and extremely elegant. They have a certain reckless vitality that also manages to be very precise.

Artwork by Marcel Van Eeden
Artwork by Marcel Van Eeden

There are also some small paintings, some in colour, also referencing the past, which is moving further and further away from Marcel Van Eeden.

Video about Marcel Van Eeden

I found this video on You Tube. It goes deep into the practice of this fascinating artist, his relentless drawing and his obsessions. There is very little talking in the video, although at one point the artist does explain his underlying motivations and what he’s getting at and why and just what its all about and so on… but then, of course, I don’t speak Dutch.


*****


Rae Johnson at Christopher Cutts Gallery

At the Christopher Cutts Gallery Rae Johnson’s paintings are on display. Sweeping vistas and low horizons, serene and majestic, filled with awe and reverence, these paintings express a deep and joyful love of nature and an acknowledge of the stark indifference we are all faced with — in our brief, frantic lives — as we look out, in a moment of calm, on this astonishing world.

STORM FRONT BREAKING, 1989, painting by Rae Johnson

The show is called “Of Light and Dark” Water, Land and Sky Paintings: 1989-2009.

SELKIRK/GROUND SHADOWS, 2008, painting by Rae Johnson

In many of her paintings, not shown here, Rae Johnson has depicted archetypes of depravity and redemption, populated by lonely, dreamlike sylphs in dimly lit nighttime haunts, or caught in painful scenes under a harsh fluorescent glare. This exhibition is another side of Rae Johnson’s work. Here, she is enthralled by the elements: air, light and colour

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is untitled-5.jpg
STORM FRONT WINNIPEG MANITOBA, 1998, painting by Rae Johnson
GREEN SKY, 1989, painting by Rae Johnson

I wanted to bring the sublime into people’s existence.

Rae Johnson

It’s so uplifting to wander around the Chris Cutts Gallery, look at Rae’s paintings and realize that yes, she definitely succeeded in her goal.

*****

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 Culture 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

May 6, 2020

Is the global pandemic a good time to restart this blog?

Random wandering through art galleries and museums in real-life is only a memory now, since Covid-19 brought down the hammer. Previously– before the global pandemic –I had not bothered with the digital realm as a primary source for looking at art. I saw it as a secondary, less interesting, impoverished facsimile of the real thing, and, as a vast back-up archive for research, speculation, discussion and documentation. And now? Digital art is ascendant, the only game in town, so I’m looking at it.

Artists, galleries and art institutions are all trying to come up with ways to maintain their audience, offer up a virtual version of themselves for consumption, and survive. What seems to work, in the digital sphere, not surprisingly, is work that is originally made using the right tools: digital tools.

csm_Photo_by_ian_dooley_on_Unsplash_wsp_21a2c9e074

Conversely, trying to contort a real-life exhibition into a digital show, is often disappointing. For example, the various stake-holders in the highly anticipated (all Judd, all the time) show of Donald Judd’s work, which opened on March 11 at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and is scheduled to run through this summer in New York, are trying to come up with some way of realizing their labor. The Judd exhibition involved 12 years of planning and negotiations and was to occur not just at MOMA, but also at the Judd Foundation, the DIA Foundation and several of the biggest galleries in the city. There was a lot of excitement about seeing so many extraordinary objects by Donald Judd together, for once!

Donald Judd. Untitled. 1991. Enameled
aluminum. 59” x 24’ 7 14” x 65” (150 x 750
x 165 cm). The Museum of Modern Art,
New York.

Now, with the galleries closed, the MOMA website invites visitors to view photos of the work, listen to talks about the work, see a video of the curator of the show as she walks us through it, hear interviews with Judd’s children, and, so on and so forth. But none of that is particularly interesting, compared to what it would have been like to see the show.

Online Exhibition of Brad Necyk’s Beyond Here Lies Nothing

Joshua Tree and All of Everything by Brad Necyk. Created with Gary James Joynes

I stumbled across the ARTsPLACE Gallery Online Exhibition of Brad Necyk’s Beyond Here Lies Nothing through the Akimbo listing service.

ARTsPLACE is a gallery and arts center, operated by the Annapolis Region Community Arts Council. It is located in Annapolis Royal, in Nova Scotia, a town with a current population of 491. The town was originally founded (as Port Royal) in 1605, by Samuel de Champlain, and it has had a turbulent history, fraught with assaults, sieges and expulsions.

The artist, Brad Necyk, is from Alberta. He looks just like any guy you might see loading up his SUV with groceries in the Costco parking lot; kids in the back seat, wife scrolling through her phone. A few minutes into a conversation with Brad Necyk, however, would probably dispel those first impression notions of suburban normalcy. This is a man with very dark preoccupations, a precarious grip on his own mental health, and a past of endured pain, illness and trauma that is truly shocking.

Alberta #3, video by Brad Necyk

The first video I watched was Alberta #3.

Details about his multiple surgeries, recollections of a madness experience “coarse and twisted,” references to the genetic matter nested within him and to his awareness of genetic strands stretching across a geologic time scale, reflections on illness as a “very ancient space we all inhabit”, yearnings for a connection to grandparents and great grandparents as a way to understand himself and his children, fears around his bi-polar diagnosis and the statistical probability that he will suicide, painful scenes from his marriage, and many other intense topics, are recounted with a flat, perfunctory Alberta delivery.

I found this work quite riveting, fearless and very original, and I spent some time watching this video and others in the exhibition.

The early work of Brad Necyk — like Alberta #3 — is so raw and autobiographical that it was a relief to watch something very recent and completely different. I had the feeling that Brad Necyk could not take working with all that intensity. He needed a respite and so he moved into meditation. I really like looking at his waterfall pieces. They are just as powerful and mesmerizing as the earlier work but in a different way.

Jewels by Brad Necyk

There are so many fascinating ideas in this show. The idea of genetic lineage, for example, really got to me and seemed to dovetail into an event that occurred a few months ago. I happened to chat with someone at an event whose favourite pastime is ancestry tracing. I gave her a few facts about my Manitoba family and the next day she sent me the photo below. The little girl in the center is apparently my grandmother, Flora Taylor. She stands beside her father, John “Johnny Boy” Taylor and the rest of the family is arrayed around her. Is it just me or does “Johnny Boy” look more than a little bit like Freddy Mercury…?

Cluster XI Digital Edition

The 11th Cluster New Music and Arts Festival, usually held in Winnipeg in late February/early March, was cancelled shortly after the pandemic struck. But then, the organizers saw the writing on the wall, pulled themselves together and decided to push on. This year’s Cluster was resurrected and opened on May 1st as the Cluster XI Digital Edition.

(Full disclosure: I participated in Cluster X and my nephew, Eliot Britton, is one of the curators. Also, I love the vibe of being in Winnipeg in February; it is extreme in so many ways.)

Although I do miss the reality of Winnipeg and actually being there, I think this Cluster digital edition is definitely a success. Cluster excels at getting the mix of art works exactly right, in real-life and digitally. It is never too slick , there is a feeling of newness, experimentation and “becoming”and there are always at least a few stunning events.

The piece called Quigital, for example, put together by a collective of artists known as Made by Mandate, is so weird that it took me a while to realize it was not an advertisement for an unlikely Cluster sponsor.

Quigital Intro Video with Susan Solomon

The Quigital call tree, just one component of this sprawling art work, is really masterful. That familiar feeling that we are endlessly mined for our thoughts and opinions by corporate interests with an earnest offer of “points”, goes off-the-rails absurdist in the call tree. (Somehow, hearing the news today about the cancellation of the Sidewalk Labs project, which involved creating a futuristic data-gathering city on the Toronto Waterfront, relates to the Quigital call tree. Data mining hits a wall! )

I spent nearly an hour listening to “The Joy Channel”, a collaboration between sound artists Emmanuel Madan and Anna Friz. The whole Mad Max-y type narrative is a little bit cliched at this point, as per below:

In the year 2146, after nearly 150 years of business as usual (government corruption and privatization, toxic resource extraction and industrial practices, bad weather, civil uprising, earthquakes and pandemic), approximately 40 million people remain in New North America.

Anna Friz describing the “Joy Channel”

But the sound is great. Particularly when it becomes entirely abstract, the dialogue fades out and the listener is left with sheets of ambient, shimmery sound, switching and clicks and soft hisses to get lost in.

There are some straight-up musical groups like Slow Spirit in the Cluster mix. “Sound baths”, “High-rising melodic arcs”, “frolicking” and “defiant” are some of the words and phrases on the Cluster site used to describe the gorgeous Slow Spirit sound. On their Facebook page the band members list their influences: Joni Mitchell, Land Of Talk, Dirty Projectors, Radiohead, Feist, Parquet Courts, Sufjan Stevens, Sam Amidon, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Wilco, Patrick Watson, Deerhunter, Lhasa, Big Thief, Neko Case, Aidan Knight, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Plants and Animals, Elliott Smith, Stevie Wonder.

Photo of Slow Spirit band members

The manipulated wildlife sounds by Brendon Ehinger are based on a banged-up cassette tape found in Riding Mountain park, South Asian hip hop by Shamik is a joyful escape from the dreary pandemic world; Bad Wave achieves emotional depth in a cross-country duet of piano and voice, and there is much more to peruse in the Cluster XI Digital Edition, during its run until the 31st of May, including images by Luke Nickel, which through Machine Learning software, compress ten years of pictures from Cluster Festivals past.

3ladies-blur by Luke Nickel