Condo Living: An exhibition gets reprised after 30 years, revealing deep changes and some continuities in Toronto’s art scene

November 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

chromalives-install-06
Chroma Lives install image: stairs by Manden Murphy, Avocado Sprouter and Spoon for Return Baby Bird to Nest by Tammy McLennan, Book Stack andJumbo Playing Cards by Roula Partheniou, Spit Pits by Laurie Kang, Untitled Background 2 by Connor Crawford.

Visitor account by Rosemary Heather of ‘Chroma Lives’, Camrost Felcorp Yorkville Plaza Sales Centre, Toronto, 1-30 June 2016. Curated by Erin Alexa Freedman and Lili Huston-Heterich

The second time I visited Chroma Lives I sat on furniture that was part of the exhibition, happy to have escaped the blazing hot sun of the Toronto summer outside. Presented in a condo showroom, the exhibition was pleasantly air conditioned and accompanied by a treacly jazz soundtrack. There was no cake, and there had been at the vernissage, but I could live with that.

Curators Erin Alexa Freedman and Lili Huston-Herterich had assembled works by local artists and designers in one room in the sales centre. Devised in reference to Chromaliving, an earlier exhibition held in the same upscale Toronto neighborhood some thirty odd years before, Chroma Lives repeated its predecessors’ basic gesture of furnishing a retail space with artworks. The two shows however were on decidedly different scales: the former featuring 150 artists, and the latter just eighteen. This difference is one of a number of reasons Chroma Lives has a seemingly notational relationship to its past context. Another would be the more obvious explanation that, between now and then, historical circumstances have changed.

chromalives-install-04Chroma Lives install image: Heather Goodchild’s in the morning and in the evening, wool and burlap rug.

In the showroom, affixed in serif letters on the wall is the marketing slogan “Reside in a Modern Day Masterpiece.” The curators wisely chose to leave this feature intact. By giving credence to the hoary idea that artworks connote elegance, Chroma Lives made evident the narrow space of maneuver it was operating within. An agitated light fixture hanging in the centre of the room, animated to jerk constantly while making a crackling electric sound (Connor Crawford’s Light from a dilapidated interrogation room, 2016), was one of the few hints of disturbance amidst the otherwise placid facade of the show. Of course, closer inspection of the art on view revealed other signs of disruption, such as the wry humor of Oliver Husain’s phallic curtain tassels (Can we talk about the elegance in the room, 2016), for instance, or the subtle perversity of Laurie Kang’s seventeen aluminum-cast peach pits scattered across a silicone mat on the floor (Spit Pits, 2016). Many of the other works in the show were elegant takes on household items. Made by young designers who had responded to an open call, the show’s intermingling of art and design was for the general purpose of a mise-en-scene.

Throughout the exhibition, the curators used the showroom during off hours to conduct interviews with Chromaliving participants, from which they will produce a book and online archive about the project. This focus made Chroma Lives function like something of a portal into the past. A photo archive and catalogue provided documentation of the original exhibition. Presented in the vacated space of a bankrupt department store, Chromaliving was a maximalist endeavor. If that show’s contemporary incarnation presents mostly as decor, the latter exhibition was staged to serve an entirely different purview. Chromaliving aggressively positioned art and artists as values in and of themselves. In the documentation, one sees aesthetic excess that, among other things, might have pointed to a lack of infrastructure for the Toronto art scene of its day. If this art rawness is little in evidence today, this is perhaps an insight Chroma Lives helps to illuminate.

Toronto critic and curator Philip Monk has done important work chronicling the history of contemporary art in the city. His recently published Is Toronto Burning? : Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene (2016) is the catalogue for an exhibition that looked at the years 1977-1979. Monk positions this three-year period as foundational to the city’s current art scene. So called “artist-run” culture has always been strong in Canada, in part due to relatively lavish government largess. The galleries Mercer Union, Gallery TPW, and Gallery 44, so central to Toronto’s artist run culture today, were founded during that time, along with some of the city’s most influential artistic tendencies. Monk has written:

“In the midst of the economic and social crises of the 1970s, Toronto was pretty vacant—but out of these conditions its artists crafted something unique, sometimes taking the fiction of a scene for the subject of their art.”

If creating an art scene out of fiction sounds familiar that’s because it was the modus operandi of General Idea, the artist group who are Toronto’s most internationally celebrated art practitioners, along with Michael Snow. GI (as they are always referred to in Toronto) also participated in Chromaliving, arguably having been a progenitor of the DIY ethos that made the show possible. This legacy is still evident in certain threads of Toronto art practice — the queer, low-fi aesthetic of Peaches, Allyson Mitchell, FASTWÜRMS, or the late and dearly missed, Will Munro, for instance. The demand for such self-invention never goes away. In light of this, the Chroma Lives project has the feeling of an interlude: an occasion to contemplate past eras, and how Toronto as a location gets manifested in art today.

Chroma Lives features works by: Joshua Brolly, Connor Crawford, Laura Dawe, Mike Goldby, Heather Goodchild, Oliver Husain, Tim Jocelyn, Laurie Kang, Jeremy Laing, Brittany MacDougall, Tammy McClennan, Pasha Moezzi, Manden Murphy, Roula Partheniou, Shakeel Rehemtulla & Dynasty, Wanze Song, Kristian Spreen, and Brad Tinmouth.

Text commissioned by If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution, summer 2016.

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Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz – An Exhibition

August 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Fassbinder: “Berlin Alexanderplatz - An Exhibition,” 2007

Fassbinder: “Berlin Alexanderplatz - An Exhibition,” 2007. View of the exhibition at KW, Berlin. Photo: Uwe Walter.

Writing about Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1983 when Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s 14 1/2 hour film epic was first shown in the US, the New York Times’ film critic Vincent Canby noted that the – at that time – recent appearance of home video rental offered a way to negotiate the film’s unfeasible length, and also possibly presaged the creation of a new art form. Canby was right about this, but in a way that he could not have anticipated. The idea that video rentals could democratize and decentralize artworks, putting control into viewer’s hands has been borne out in spectacular fashion by the online video site YouTube, which invented not only new conditions for viewing but an entire universe of viewer-created content.

The question of whether the short videos that can be seen on YouTube can be considered art is entirely germane to Klaus Bisenbeck’s presentation of Berlin Alexanderplatz at the Kunst Werker in Berlin. A major force at the KW since its inception, and now also a curator at PS1 in New York, Bisenbeck is a controversial figure in the Berlin art world. This exhibition will do nothing to alter that reputation. All credit should be given to him for the scale of vision he brings to the staging of Fassbinder’s film. Although revered internationally, the German attitude to the director continues to be ambivalent. As a friend of mine said Fassbinder was “too gay, too political and took too many drugs” to really be a welcome addition to the pantheon of great German artists. Recognition of Bisenbeck’s achievement, however, can’t avoid mention of the obvious caveat about the way this exhibition reduces the conditions for viewing the work to the diminished scale of a contemporary audiences’ YouTube-like attention spans.

Originally made for German television in 1980, the film’s 13 episodes plus an epilogue, which have been re-mastered for 35mm, are shown as loops in 14 separate viewing booths. The film is also screened in its entirety in a small adjacent room outfitted with cinema-style seating. While this is intended to provide a context for the liberties the KW takes in presenting the film as an art installation, the intact screening of the film also makes the weaknesses of the latter strategy apparent. Perhaps this was intentional too? Certainly the exhibition is successful in staging a dialogue between the two formats of viewing. In contrast to the strong narrative pull one experiences when the film is seen as a whole, the installation caters to a more distracted form of reception. Temporarily constructed for the show, the 14 connected booths snake around the perimeter of the KW’s ground floor exhibition space, the last booth functioning like an exit into a central atrium-like area where the obverse screen of all the projections can be seen simultaneously. The effect is spectacular, the coherence of Fassbinder’s vision being blown apart into competing disjunctive fragments.

The claim of the show’s press release is that presenting the film in this way allows the viewer to decide “how they want to approach it”. The assertion ignores the fact that viewers’ have always been able to decide how they approach an art exhibition, but the KW is merely speaking in lingua franca of the contemporary art world when it emphasizes the viewer’s ability to participate in an exhibition as one of its main attributes. As English literary theorist Terry Eagleton notes, the current culture’s preoccupation with audience interactivity originates in reception theory’s insight that, “readers were quite as vital to the existence of writing as authors.”1.

Reception theory gave the world the idea that readers and viewers have an active role to play in the creation of meaning, but the question remains: What meaning can result from presenting Fassbinder’s film in this way? Fragmenting the German director’s massive cinematic accomplishment into bite-sized pieces would seem to play to our culture’s worst atomizing tendencies. Take the time to watch an episode from beginning to end, sitting in a viewing booth on one of the cushions provided, and your patience will be rewarded; Fassbinder’s greatness as a director ensures that. Presented with so much choice, however (leaving aside the possibility of watching each episode in full, laboriously going from booth to booth in chronological order to undermine the show’s premise) the urge is to flit around and sample the film, suggesting that the point is to experience its ambience rather than meaningfully engage with its content.

View the work as a momentary series of encounters, and the static quality of Fassbinder’s dramaturgy becomes apparent — but then he never was a director interested in naturalism. Enter a random choice of rooms in quick succession and you get the impression that all of Berlin Alexanderplatz takes place while the characters sit around talking to each other in one bar or another. The presentation makes the film’s typological connection with the genre of the soap opera apparent. Regardless, viewing the film in this way also gives it the fascinating quality of a parallel universe. Each screen is like a window proving a figurative glimpse into Berlin’s past, a world comprised of the extraordinary history of the city and the artworks and literature it has inspired.

The precedent for Bisenbeck’s show is Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993). Gordon’s premise was that presenting Hitchcock’s famous film as an installation (slowing the projection down to a speed of 24 frames per minute) would reveal the film’s unconscious: the ulterior world it created beyond any of individual element of the director’s intention. Considered from this angle, Bisenbeck’s installation works exceptionally well; he compounds the brilliance of Fassbinder’s work by abstracting it. In the process, the prismatic reality he created is made apparent, not only in this film but in Fassbinder’s body of work as a whole.

1. After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Penguin Books, London, 2003. p. 53.

By Rosemary Heather

Curated by Klaus Bisenbeck
Kunst Werker Institute for Contemporary Art
Berlin, March 18-May 13th, 2007

This text originally appeared in Bordercrossings # 103

Rodney La Tourelle: In the Absence of Unambiguous Criteria

August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Rodney LaTourelle, In the Absence of Unambiguous Criteria, 2007

Rodney LaTourelle, In the Absence of Unambiguous Criteria, 2007

For his show at Program Berlin-based Canadian artist Rodney LaTourelle created one of his so-called walk-in paintings, a site-specific installation he has created in a number of cities internationally. Occupying two-thirds of the venue’s store-front exhibition space, the maze-like structure came complete with ceilings and three small, all but hidden, vestibules with a built-in seat that was big enough for one person. Leaving the construction’s steel studs visible on the outside like the frame on the back of a canvas, visitors to the exhibition could navigate the work’s three interconnecting hallways, each one painted with alternating bands of colour; of three sets in all, these vertical stripes comprised the work’s fictive dimension. Using natural light from the venue’s exterior windows, which the structure abutted, and ceiling-mounted florescent lights at each section’s opposite end, LaTourelle created the tactile conditions for shifting perceptions of colour, light and self

By Rosemary Heather

Rodney La Tourelle, In the Absence of Unambiguous Criteria was presented at Program, Berlin, Winter 2007

This text was orginally published in Von Hundert, Berlin, Spring 2007

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