February 19, 2019 § Leave a comment
During a visit to Toronto, Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa summons the greater prairie-chicken and passenger pigeon to provoke a change in mindset
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER FEBRUARY 19, 2019
Seances are boring in the way meditating is boring. You have to relax and let yourself sink into the moment. This requires letting go of things, including everyday worries and the non-stop, tyrannical pull of our electronic devices.
Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, visiting the city for the exhibition How To Breath Forever at OCAD’s Onsite Gallery, himself used the b-word when talking about his experience with seances.
The internationally shown and very busy artist (he will also be participating in the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art this fall) introduced the event by talking about his own history with this type of spiritualism, which was in vogue over a century ago. In Canada, such enthusiasts famously included William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister for the first half of the 20th century, who used mediums to get advice from his dead mother.
The soft-spoken Ramírez-Figueroa talked about being an art student at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University and attending seances with local spiritualist practitioners. “This was a way for me to have some communion with other Latin Americans because my school was pretty white,” he says.
He did this again when going to art school in Chicago. He experiments with the form in his art practice, but gives it a different focus. At the seance he conducted on a chilly Wednesday evening in Toronto, the goal was to contact not people, but extinct species of birds from the local area.
Wearing white toques to keep out bad spirits, 18 people held hands around a large table and tried their luck at contacting the beyond. Since spirits presumably stay close to the area where they once lived, the artist researched a number of extinct birds the seance might summon. Were the greater prairie-chicken, the Eskimo curlew and passenger pigeon haunting our gathering? It’s hard to say.
The former two birds were declared extirpated (gone from the area but still living elsewhere on earth) from Ontario within the last decade or so, while the passenger pigeon was notoriously hunted to extinction over 100 years ago.
Whether their spirits visited the Onsite Gallery on this particular occasion was somewhat beside the point, as Ramírez-Figueroa made clear in conversation after the event. The product of a non-religious upbringing, the artist saw his own spiritual investigations as mostly a kind of rebellion.
Calling the seance an exercise, he said, “I don’t think I’m guiding it too much but it does become a kind of guided visualization.” He cited the tradition of hippie idealism in British Columbia, where he lived from ages 12 to 26, as influencing this part of his practice. The grandeur of the landscape in B.C. has a spiritual power, though his interest is more in how we typically fail to connect with the natural world.
“You can live close to nature and ignore it at the same time,” he noted.
While at Emily Carr, for example, he said he “lived near the ocean but never looked at it.” Seances are a form of group projection, and Ramírez-Figueroa feels that humans tend to project things onto nature instead of seeing it for what it is.
For those at the seance who had never given much thought to extinct species in Toronto, it was a chance to contemplate what gets lost in the incessant busyness of contemporary life. There is a cost to never getting bored. “This is the reality we are all facing: mass extinction,” Ramírez-Figueroa says. “And we don’t even notice.”
So maybe we do need a medium, as opposed to constant electronic communication, to get back in touch with ourselves and our urgent predicament.
Ramírez-Figueroa is also preparing to make a work about extinct species in Lithuania for an upcoming biennial in that country. He feels there is a higher level of concern around looming environmental catastrophe there than in Canada. Perhaps part of the problem is that Canadians are fooled by their own PR. He talked about the dominance of Canadian gold mining in Guatemala.
“It’s a really small country and the damage it does is substantial,” he explained.
Upwards of 75 per cent of mining companies globally are based in Canada. The industry is massively destructive, but Canadians are only minimally aware of this. We’re happy to go on seeing ourselves as the good guy. Closer to home, oil sands workers are required to sign waivers preventing them from speaking about any form of environmental destruction they witness as a result of this now largely unprofitable form of resource extraction.
There is a lesson in the fragile stirrings that occurred during the seance. In the gentlest terms, Ramírez-Figueroa’s seances with extinct species are a form of collective action. The exercise suggests we need a new form of collective belief to avert humanity’s extinction.
Instead we are participating in a mass delusion of denial.
Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, “Seance for Extinct Species of Birds,” part of HOW TO BREATHE FOREVER at Onsite Gallery (199 Richmond West). ocadu.ca. January 16 – April 14, 2019.
January 4, 2019 § Leave a comment
Historical legacies and Toronto’s changing landscape were major themes in galleries and in public art works this year
DECEMBER 3, 2018
Toronto is growing by the square metre, with buildings popping up everywhere. The city’s art scene is also changing and, in some cases, responding.
In 2018, all-night art event Nuit Blanche extended to Scarborough and Don Mills. Fighting condo glut, artists are building spaces in overlooked corners and raising voices against the threat of Toronto becoming homogenized for the rich.
Thinking about the urban landscape is second nature in a profession in which space is a core element. That’s one reason arts organizations here and across Canada are drawing attention to the contested status of the land beneath our feet. Land acknowledgments of First Nations territorial rights preceding art events have become common. This year saw Canadian art galleries cited internationally for changing the terms under which Indigenous art is exhibited. At the same time, one of the city’s leading curators, the AGO’s Wanda Nanibush, started a conversation to get arts professionals to better understand how to do it right.
With this attention to historical legacy, and commitment to reasoned dialogue, the art world increasingly feels like a realm more thoughtful and separate from wider public spheres. Artist-led dialogue contrasts strikingly with conniving public figures like Premier Doug Ford, who emulate the worst tendencies of our U.S. neighbours. Toronto artists are fighting back in the best way they know how. By making art and putting on shows – some of it explicitly in protest.
1. Ibrahim Mahama, Radical Histories, 2012-2018, Nathan Phillips Square (September 29)
For Nuit Blanche, the Ghanaian artist transformed the pedestal ramp of City Hall by wrapping it in a patchwork curtain of jute fabric that had previously been used in trade of cocoa, coffee and charcoal. A thrilling, instantly readable monument to labour, colonialism and the hard truths of commerce.
2. The Work Of Wind: Air, Land, Sea, Blackwood Gallery, Mississauga (September 14-23)
This massive art project in Mississauga’s Southdown Industrial Area featured 13 outdoor installations that visitors could tour using a specially commissioned MiWay bus. Many of the works captured the event’s theme of stewardship in the face of environmental crisis, while remaining playful. A show highlight was Tomás Saraceno’s giant walk-in air balloon made from thousands of plastic bags.
3. Rebecca Belmore: Facing The Monumental, Art Gallery of Ontario (July 12-October 21)
For those who saw Belmore’s excellent 2014 show at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, her AGO exhibition was a revelation. This show featured a different but equally compelling range of works. Her monumental stack of shopping carts packed with fresh clay offered a concise statement about Indigenous dispossession. Just one of many works on view that combined critique of social and power structures with strong emotional impact.Expand
4. GTA, Gentrification Tax, Trinity Bellwoods Park (February 25); Public Studio (June 1-July 30)
GTA stands for Gentrification Tax Action, an ad hoc artist group who – in different combinations of people – have made activist art since the 90s. Via a temporary billboard installation in Trinity Bellwoods Park and poster project, GTA proposed a practical solution to Toronto’s gentrification problem: a tax on real estate speculation, with the money redirected to affordable housing. Their work added much-needed nuance to the conversation around the city’s affordable housing crisis.
5. Shannon Bool, Bomb. Shell., Daniel Faria Gallery (November 1-January 12)
Canada produces a lot of strong artists. Bool is a contender for one of the best. Her stunning photo collages and tapestries in this show combine the work of modernist giants like Le Corbusier with vintage postcards of nude Algerian women, whom the architect also made sketches of in his off hours. A deft exposé of Orientalism and the darker underpinnings of modernism.
6. Shelley Niro, Ryerson Image Centre (April 28-August 5)
This was a welcome survey show for the 2017 Scotiabank Photography Award winner. Niro is skilled at bringing humour to dark subject matter like the decimation of her Indigenous ancestors by white settlers in Canada. The preference for comedy and a light touch on view in this exhibition made clear her connection to the sophisticated craft-based work of artists like General Idea and Allyson Mitchell.
7. Believe, Museum of Contemporary Art (September 22-January 6)
Attendees at the MOCA’s inaugural exhibition at its new home in the Lower Junction Triangle were probably as curious about the building – five floors in all – as they were the art. This show is multifaceted and sprawling, with textile works sitting next to a playable and wildly decorated pinball machine, adjacent to sculptures and video works. A total experience of art and space, its highlights include works by Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Rajni Perera.
8. I continue to shape, Art Museum, University of Toronto (September 5-December 8)
This group show features mostly First Nations artists taking a non-didactic approach to settler and Indigenous histories. By combining traditional First Nations and contemporary art vocabularies – see Nicholas Galanin’s re-carving of a traditional native mask – the artists bring viewers into a fresh dialogue with the subject matter. In a show of great works, Joseph Tisiga’s paintings using Archie comic characters as stand-ins for white obliviousness are standouts.
9. Yoko Ono: The Riverbed, Gardiner Museum (February 22 to June 3)
How calming it was to visit the white environ Yoko Ono created in her three-part, ceramic-based installation. Ono was part of the first wave of artists making interactive (or instructional) artworks in the late 60s and 70s, and this recent work confirms her preeminence. Made with the help of museum visitors – who reassembled broken china and threaded twine into a room-sized spider web – and probably for that reason, the installations evoked the timeless mark-making of artists like Cy Twombly.
10. Diagrams Of Power, Onsite Gallery at OCAD University (July 11-September 30)
This exhibition articulates the forms power takes in the 21st century through works that highlight how today’s geopolitics are networked. We understand we live in a networked world and yet it remains intangible in important ways. The research-based works in this exhibition, such as Bureau d’études’ mappings of what they call “the World Government,” create a visual lexicon for grasping ideas society has yet to fully grapple with.
July 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
Including Rebecca Belmore at the AGO, an exhibition all about islands and rotating installations by furniture designer Patty Johnson
Feeling the heat? For temporary relief look to a number of summer-long exhibitions currently on view in the climate-controlled quiet of Toronto art galleries. At their most serious and pointed, art shows create an opportunity to think though the pressing issues of our time. Toronto art institutions frequently provide an influential take on this potential, some of them framing a conversation — about Indigenous issues, for instance — they are helping to lead internationally.
DIAGRAMS OF POWER, OCAD ONSITE GALLERY
July 11-September 30
An exhibition in OCAD’s flagship professional gallery that posits maps, diagrams and other forms of data visualization as the best way to understand the complexity of 21st-century geopolitics. Featuring works by the Anishinaabe art collective Ogimaa Mikana; monumental history painter, Julie Mehretu; and the controversial 2018 Turner Prize nominees, Forensic Architecture, this show is essential viewing for thinking about what representation looks like in a networked world.
A VIEWING ROOM V. 3, SUSAN HOBBS GALLERY
June 21-August 10
This is the third edition of the gallery’s yearly summer look at the intersections between art and design. A rotating series of installations puts the work of furniture designer Patty Johnson in dialogue with art from the gallery’s collection. Toronto-educated Johnson works all over the world and is known for her projects with developing countries to create sustainable design projects for local industries.
ISLAND[S], ART MUSEUM U OF T
July 25-August 18
Visit this gallery and enjoy the oasis of green that is King’s College Circle at the heart of U of T’s downtown campus. This show’s curator, Julie René de Cotret, suggests the island as an apt metaphor for the way artworks solicit our focused attention. Combines work by a selection of younger and emerging artists with that of Michael Snow, the celebrated Canadian artist who has made significant works that frame, parse and contemplate the Canadian landscape throughout his career.
COMMUNITY ART SPACE: RECENT HISTORIES, GARDINER MUSEUM
July 5-September 17
Thanks to its Community Art Space free summer program, now in its third year, this museum dedicated to the ceramic arts is enjoying an enhanced profile amongst Toronto art audiences. Driven by the mission of creating space within the venue for temporary exhibitions and performance-based work, the Gardiner partners with a range of artists, collectives and community groups to present events that tell the stories of the hugely diverse populations that make up this city.
REBECCA BELMORE: FACING THE MONUMENTAL, ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO
July 12-October 21
More and more, Canada is acknowledged as leading the global conversation about Indigenous issues in art. This major presentation of the West Coast Anishinaabe artist’s work adds to the dialogue. Presenting art from across Belmore’s career, the show features the artist’s powerful figurative sculptural works, photography and documentation from her trademark performance practice.
ELLEN GALLAGHER – NU-NILE; GRADA KILOMBA – SECRETS TO TELL; ABBAS AKHAVAN – VARIATIONS ON A LANDSCAPE, THE POWER PLANT
June 23-September 3 (Gallagher and Kilomba); June 23-December 30 (Akhavan)
Here is a venue with the added advantage of being next to the lake. Under the direction of Gaëtane Verna, the Power Plant is building a strong track record presenting exhibitions by people of colour. The show presents the internationally renowned Gallagher’s first solo exhibition of paintings in Canada. Also features the 2015 Sobey Art Award winner, Akhavan, who is enjoying increasing recognition abroad, and Portuguese artist, Kilomba, presenting work about the African diaspora.
Published in NOW Magazine, JULY 18, 2018