Thursday, November 25, 2010

Vague Terrain: Thoughts on "Formerly Exit Five: Portable Monuments to Recent History" Kenderdine Gallery, Sept 17 – Dec 17, 2010, BY SPECIAL GUEST CORRESPONDENT KRISTY TRINIER

Late September I traveled to Saskatoon to meet with the city’s cultural and urban planners about public art; from the air, the land around the city was drowned in rain and the area looked more like a paddy field than a wheat field. Downtown I stood with the city workers in the rain, looking at an artwork under the Traffic Bridge, a rusting hulk of a truss structure, which spans the South Saskatchewan River. It is over one hundred years old, and as the first vehicular bridge in the city, it is now closed and subject to the clouds of civic debate. How do you, or should you memorialize a bridge, and the millions who have made the crossing over the river? Should the next structure be a replicant, to give an illusion of immortality to the urban realm? What room is left to give to the unfunctional in our cities? It was an interesting time to be there; with water, weather, and time, the city is finally old enough to decay in on itself.  

It was the bridge that I thought of when I went to the University of Saskatoon campus and visited the Kenderdine’s latest exhibition, curated by Dr. Shauna McCabe, pedantically entitled Formerly Exit Five: Portable Monuments to Recent History. The gallery space was an underground bunker-like space in a beautifully conserved College Building, which you appropriately reach by passing under carved gargoyles and terracotta plaques listing deceased war alumni. Reaching the gallery and surveying the work, I noted that each artist approached the concept in a vastly different way, but independently asked the natural question, can you accurately plan for and visualize anything beyond your own lifetime?

Image credit: Cyprien Gaillard, "Pruitt-Igoe Falls" (video still), 2009. Courtesy Galerie BUGADA & CARGNEL, Paris; Laura Bartlett Gallery, London

I was familiar with David Rokeby’s Seen from a presentation in Amsterdam for his seminal 2002 submission to the Venice Biennial for Architecture. It was exhibited originally as part of Next Memory City, curated by architect and fellow public-space photographer Michael Awad as a digital projection. Within the context of McCabe’s exhibition, and with the quotidian onslaught of modern technology, the work is more ominous than future-positive. The artwork’s RGB digital surface resembles a 3D airport x-ray body scan image of a public square and the visual technology is so common the artwork now seems more dated than it is. It tracks the physical shapes of pedestrians moving in continuity across the time dimension, so you can visualize the space inhabited by the person long after they have left it, the image trailing ghost-like behind them. An image finally given to the idea of apartment walls talking: we are looking at the exact people in this exact place nearly ten years ago. The image appears abstracted and interrupted by frenetic shapes darting through the space, immediately identifying it as Piazzo San Marco to anyone who has suffered the shit and detritus of its numerous fowl, an iconic annoyance of the original sinking city.

Century of Growth is a documentation of sprawl. Sara Graham’s chronological series shows municipal growth as a map: ever expanding, never contracting. Like an embryonic drawing, the lines invite you to consider the time when your own city was just a handful of roads, once conceding only to natural obstacles like rivers and ridges. Man-made construction in this country is still embryonic, and so the works seemed conceptually incomplete to me despite the viral beauty of the images.

The central dominant work of the exhibition, Arc, a painting by Denyse Tomasos, envelops you in both scale and composition. With a colour palette reminiscent of fellow Yale alumnus Jessica Stockholder’s, the forms are instead rendered entirely in paint with pure physicality of gesture evident on the platform of the canvas, creating a psychic portrait and emotional memory of the shadow events which occur within an architectural space.

The most desolate and striking images were from Vahram Aghasyan’s Ghost City series, first exhibited in the artist’s native Armenia, and most prominently in the 2007 Istanbul Biennale. The symmetry of the vacant concrete shells, the Soviet skeletal beginnings of a ghetto to house Armenians displaced by an earthquake, contrasts strongly with their own reflections in the bleak water below. The stark buildings are easily rendered abandoned monolithic islands by nature, and their brutalist construction is eerily familiar to an audience in a Canadian prairie city.

Image credit: Vahram Aghasyan, "Ghost City", 2005-2007, c-print, 100 x 130cm each

I’ve been a fan of French artist Cyprien Gaillard’s recent site-specific exhibition in the Netherlands, Dunepark, an excavation project on one of Holland’s most prized beach environments, unearthing a colossal bunker below the surface of the earth, considering negative space literally as a medium of the public realm. Yet his work in McCabe’s exhibition focuses sharply on dark matter. Gaillard’s video diptych Pruitt-Igoe Falls presents first the veil of water from Niagara Falls, and then the implosion of a St. Louis building tower in as equal volumes of form, illuminated against the night sky. The pairing and equation of these two segments is what makes the work evocative; it’s dissociative symmetry made me declare a love for video art again: the entropic moment of water and building falling as particles, each in opposition, is suspended for eternity through the artwork.

The exhibition was tightly curated, both visually and its selection of works, and unlike most theme-based exhibitions, the artworks did not serve as redundant evidence to a thesis but had compact chronological syllogism. It was obvious that McCabe had ruminated on each work for years, where the summary of their presentation serves only as an index to an unresolved conversation, the conclusion of which felt dominantly like a warning. Things never stay the same.

It leads you to imagine the city. Architects do not design decay. The carefully rendered streetscapes, engineered structures, and civic flow have transparent layers of figures and shrubbery laid on top, and geographically correct effects of seasonal lighting and shadow. But they forget to add the garbage. The sand piles and dirt left by street-cleaning equipment in the spring. The terrible signage and advertising littering facades, and the indifference of the cumulative millions of vehicles and individuals that inhabit the public spaces of a city repetitively, until its materiality physically decays, until freak ice storms and tornadoes, or even war, will cut swaths through carefully planned street grids. And the future developers, engineers, and architects who lay in wait, to tear everything down and build again. Architects do not design collapse.

The heavy dystopic tone to the exhibition is an unmistakable yet a simplistic deduction. Utopias are individual. Histories are personal. As an artist within a plethora of artists, an individual among many, whose voice will live beyond the physicality of their body, the physicality of their city? Whose perception, whose construction will be preserved when entire civilizations collapse? In this McCabe is clear: the past is only relevant to the present. 

Bio: Kristy Trinier is the Public Art Director of the Edmonton Arts Council. She has a Master’s degree in Public Art from the Dutch Art Institute (ArtEZ Hogeschool voor de Kunsten) and a Bachelor’s degree in Visual Art from the University of Victoria. She has a background in arts administration and has exhibited her artwork across Canada, The Netherlands, Norway, China, and Germany. 

Audio Interview with Laura St. Pierre, November 25, 2010

Image credit: Laura St. Pierre "Urban Vernacular" series
As a series of makeshift architectural sculptures constructed and photographed in Northern Alberta, Urban Vernacular is Laura St. Pierre's latest series of works addressing the excess of our consumer culture. While not immediately viewed as environmental, the works nonetheless speak to an imagined relationship with our environment through our discarded waste, and attempts to reconcile what appears to be a future, yet sublime existence.

Urban Vernaculars is on view in The RBC New Works Gallery,  AGA through to February 13, 2011.
This interview was conducted on October 30, 2010.

Prairie Artsters: The Black Rider . . . in Camrose*

The infamous operatic theatre production of The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets first premiered in Hamburg's Thalia Theatre in the spring of 1990. As a creation and collaboration between three of the 20th century's genre-benders—Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and William S Burroughs—The Black Rider takes up the fable of selling your soul to the devil for what price, and complicates the peasant folklore with twists of subconscious desire as seen through the filter of German Expressionism.

Under Edmonton's own November Theatre, the show made its Canadian and American premieres and toured from St John's to New York, finally ending its sold-out run at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre just a few years back. The production is highly complicated as it involves not just one, but three creative minds at play in terms of executing its musical score, a deceivingly simple story line and a deeply rooted nihilism within every direction. Musical icons from Marianne Faithful and Mary Margaret O'Hara to Richard Strange have been involved in past productions, and Waits' album of the same name remains one of his most elusively magical albums in an already magically elusive discography.

So when I learned that The Black Rider was going to be put up for a one-week run using students from the Augustana University in Camrose, Alberta, I thought, "Really?"

Directed and produced by Augustana's sessional theatre instructor, Kristine Nutting—who has successfully demonstrated through past productions an avid interest in pushing the boundaries through stylizing the macabre—The Black Rider ran all of last week in a small converted church to a crowd of mostly locals.

Camrose in its present state is a town holding just under 17 000 people. The centre is surrounded by farmland and dark highways. With a crowd of supportive friends and parental guardians, a cast and crew of 25 young theatre students put on a hell of a show last Friday night. Led by Augustana alumni and current U of A student Nathan Huisman, these inexperienced artists from rural Alberta delivered an astoundingly professional show in less than eight weeks.

Due to the strictest licensing rights agreements, attaining the rights to put on The Black Rider is no easy feat. Robert Wilson does not give out the rights to his play very often. But Nutting appealed to Wilson's own rural roots, his childhood of growing up as an outcast queer with a speech impediment in Waco, Texas, who, according to the director's notes, "found solace or at least some semblance that something else existed beyond his homophobic town with the weird piano teacher ... the town eccentric [who] exposed Robert to art, music and everything that would save him ... ."

This production of The Black Rider will not tour. Perhaps a couple hundred people saw it and no recorded document will exist of it. With a full band led by Curtis Ross and choreography by Kathy Ochoa, this show was a lot of work to put on, and that in itself was the sole reason it was put on: to go through the motions and process of staging a ridiculously complex show with almost no resources out in the middle of nowhere.

Throughout the show, I knew I was watching something special; I knew I was watching raw talent inexplicably throwing itself head first into experimental material with the confidence and ability to own the work. The energy of the production reminded me that anything is possible anywhere, anytime, so long as you go for it.

The director's notes conclude, "I explained to Mr Wilson that just because an artist is limited by geography does not mean that they must be limited in their artistic palette. Although we are not the chosen few who are born to New York or anywhere fabulous that perhaps the spirit of the eccentric piano teacher could live on via the legacy of his work."

Continuing on some 40 years after Wilson left Texas to become one of the most respected theatre artists in the world, the spirit of the eccentric theatre teacher lives on in rural Alberta.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Akimblog: Are Curators Unprofessional?*

Haunted by the specter of Harald Szeemann and the all too brief history of curating contemporary art, the Banff International Curatorial Intensive Conference with the provocative title Are Curators Unprofessional? recently brought together a roster of influential voices for an assembly of perspectives and dialogues on the state of curating in the 21st Century . . .
*First published through Akimbo. Click through to read the review in its entirety.

Image: Ann Demeester and Teresa Gleadowe (and cactus). Photo credit: Kim Williams, 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Edward Burtynsky, OIL, AGA, until Jan 2, 2011

Photographing across the world from Shanghai to Azerbaijan to the industrial sites all over Canada and the United States, Edward Burtynsky has been large-format documenting the physical impact and patterning of heavy metal industry for close to 30 years. Grouped together for an exhibition that traces the life cycle of oil, from extraction to car culture to the landfills and abandoned extraction sites since the late 1990s, Oil takes an even wider angle on the developments of the energy sector of the last 10 years.

A Burtynsky photograph is immediately recognizable. Technically perfect and vast, they are emotionally reserved and boldly confronting representations of beautified intrusions against nature. Always, a Burtynsky is distanced, removed, startling and cold.
Image credit: Edward Burtynsky Suburbs #3, with quarry
North Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 2007

There is a gasp in blurring what is supposed to be horrific with what is supposed to be beautiful.
The bright orange and red sulfuric lines come together and make a pattern, visible only on this type of scale, and they are truly visual wonders of our contemporary culture. And in looking at this content that tie together issues of witnessing, access, beauty and an unstoppable industry, I am left wondering: what is the point of this exhibition?

The photographs are technical marvels, and Oil's accompanying book of the same name fittingly won the 2010 And/or Book Awards as the series reads as an ultimate coffee table book, filled with gorgeous photographs on a topical subject matter. But like most coffee table books, they leave hardly an impression.

At first glance, the scope of each photograph carries the weight of wonder. But wonder evaporates into a search for something deeper, and after five years of what seems like the same show over and over again, I am still unsure as to what the artist is trying to say, if he's trying to say anything at all. The pipes and cars and life of each photograph are pristine to the point of abstraction. The scenes cease to inspire thoughts of any depth about the issue of oil beyond consumption.

Image credit: Edward Burtynsky SOCAR Oil Fields #3
Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006
So while we all know oil is a major issue of the day, do these photographs of oil culture—many of them void of people, taken from gas guzzling helicopters—speak to anything beyond postcard witnessing? I am not confident in describing these images as even bearing witness, as they appear free of any morality-driven impetus which is a marker for witnessing as action. These photographs are clinical, and the world documented is hardly one that is recognizable as inhabited for anything beyond production and consumption.

It has taken Burtynsky years to identify with environmentalism, and one can understand his hesitation as his photographs do not necessarily share the same mandate, though readings can certainly apply.

The photographs in Oil are not chronologically placed, and so the suggestion of a life cycle of start to finish is only a visual narrative, as in fact, the latest photographs come from the extraction and refinement phase shot mostly here in Alberta.

There is a unrelenting persistence in Burtynsky's method that seeks over and over for that composition of such exquisite colour patterns and cinematic lighting that keeps him one of the most recognizable photographers. But more clearly than ever, it is the formal quality of a Burtynsky that rises to the top, and certainly not the subject matter that inspires additional thought or feeling.

As part of The Festival of Ideas, photographer Edward Burtynsky, Tim Flannery, best-selling author of The Weather Makers, and Tom Siddon, former Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, will be discussing how truths can be lost and lies perpetuated on both sides of the oil-versus-water debate.

Thu, Nov 18 (7 pm)
Oil and Water: Beyond Debate?
Citadel Theatre, Shoctor Theatre
(9828 - 101A Ave) $18 – $28

First published in Vue Weekly

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Audio Interview with Anthony Kiendl, on Saturday, Nov 6, 2010

On the grand re-opening of Plug In ICA, Anthony Kiendl, Executive Director and the 2009 Hnatyshyn recipient for curatorial excellent in the Visual Arts, , takes a short break in the stairwell to discuss a brief histry of Plug In and their new summer residency.


Designed by DPA + PSA + DIN Collective, the new building works in perfect harmony to the rest of the block, complimenting the outlines of is neighbor, the WAG, marking a new presence of art in downtown Winnipeg.

For more information on exhibitions, programming, and residencies, please visit Plug In ICA or head down to the intersection of Portage and Memorial.

My City's Still Breathing, Conference Report*

Filmmaker John Waters, Photo Credit: Leif Norman
In naming a civic arts conference My City’s Still Breathing, there’s an undeniable layer of self-criticism at play, but one that ultimately resonates with poignancy. The title comes directly out of a song from Winnipeg’s own John K. Samson of the Weakerthans, whose lyrics capture the pain and pride of living in Winnipeg and echo the indomitable will of those who choose to stay in this isolated prairie city . . .

*First published on Canadian Art Online. Click through to read the full report.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Winnipeg is more than just breathing*

Some may have forgotten already, but Edmonton was Canada's Cultural Capital in 2007. After some controversy in allocating the prize money into individual artist funds rather than supporting organizations for heritage or legacy projects, the year came and went with projects and speakers, and the only visible lasting affect has been a continuation with supporting a culturally diverse community arts program now under the Edmonton Arts Council's granting program.

The designation of a "Cultural Capital" means almost nothing, but it's clear it's all in the action of what you do with your time in the proverbial spotlight. It differs across the Prairies, of course. Wandering through towns like Red Deer and Moose Jaw, who have also been designated Cultural Capitals by Heritage Canada accordingly to population size, they had put up flags throughout their township that were left to billow years after the fact. These tattered and faded flags were the only physical emblems left from their designation, at least the only apparent signs that there was a sense of culture through the empty streets and boarded-up buildings. Looking back, the execution of how a city displays their cultural capital status has proved to be the most interesting aspect of this federal initiative.

For 2010, Winnipeg was declared a Cultural Capital of Canada. Long known for its fiercely independent arts scene, the city is now in the early stages of devising a cultural plan and developing its waterfront. Organizing a conference to discuss and extrapolate issues of arts and the city, The Winnipeg Art Council and principle organizer Mary Reid (whose day job is the Curator of Contemporary Art and Photography at the Winnipeg Art Gallery), programmed a phenomenally engaging lineup and poignantly titled the four-day symposium, "My City Is Still Breathing."

The line is pulled directly from a song by The Weakerthans called "Left and Leaving." The sentiment for someone coming from Edmonton resonated, as the urge to leave and the pull to stay are of constant contemplation. The main difference, however, was one of motivation.

The conference was less a networking conference than it was a mighty think tank, pulling in people from around the world who have basically improved some aspect of their city and or community through artistic initiatives from the community level to the policy level.

The thread throughout the conference could be quickly summarized by its opening guest speaker, John Waters, who without even taking off his coat gave a Vegas-style stand-up routine that ranged from a lot of things that can't be printed here to the recurring concept of celebrating everything that one hates about their city, or at least everything that tourist officials would try to hide about the city. Highlighting your city's difference from other cities is what keeps the place a place, and not some homogenous cookie-cutter echo of every other place in the world.

Winnipeg invested their Cultural Capital funds under the umbrella of This included artist-led projects and festivals, but also projects that don't have an immediate, quantifiable return value like educating through workshops and symposiums.

One of the resounding points I took away is that Winnipeggers have no desire to turn their city into a world's city, as it is truly a place for the locals. Winnipeg has no qualms about its status as a small to midsize Prairie city. Its artists fully recognize their isolation and aren't crippled by it. A three-hour modernist architecture tour was enthusiastically led with no signs of lamentation, reinforcing the notion that Winnipeggers embrace their city with a love that is not apologetic, but unconditional and blinding. It is also a city that has not gone through an onslaught of development and makeovers, losing a few buildings here and there, but retaining enough of its landmarks for its citizens to remember this place as their home.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Kristi Malakoff, Blazzamo, Latitude 53, until Nov 13*

Image credit: Kristi Malakoff, Polyhedra Series.
Running the length of the North wall in the main exhibition space of Latitude 53, Kristi Malakoff's "Swarm" explodes as a material intervention against the flatness of the gallery walls. Meticulously hand-placing 6000 colour-transparency butterflies of all different shapes and makes, the illusion of "Swarm" supersedes a simple colour arch or a heightened interest in lepidoptery; the sensation one gets when walking along "Swarm" is that of an erasure of the gallery boundaries, outlined by each butterfly frozen in mid-motion, lining door frames, baseboards, heat ducts and roof beams in its own line of motion.

As an artist with a very visible mathematics background, Nelson-based Malakoff time and time again impresses viewers with her astounding sense of detail. Her hand is visible in everything, from the adhesion and placement of each acrylic peg in "Moon Dog" to the surgical cuts made to foreign stamps to enliven them into narrative spectacles.

Her "Polyhedra Series" comes from a line of works she made using foreign currency, folding and re-valuing these pieces of paper money into a new value and purpose. There is also a conscious naiveté going on in taking currency from all corners of the world, from Bolivia to Zambia and folding them into exact symmetrical shapes that intersect and build new meanings together. There is a leveling of arbitrary values into equally arbitrary shapes and symbols, but one that engages in a completely new assemblage of meaning, free of exchange values and limits.

Some of her newer works in Blazzamo include the "Untitled (Fruit Loop Tower)" which stands at eight feet in height, a circular structure made entirely of glued fruit loops. One forgets how fragile cereal could be in looking at this construction, and while the design was inspired by the texture of Islamic architecture, its looming rainbow spiral could easily fit into all sorts of imaginations. One could only wish to walk all the way around the tower, which perhaps for logistical reasons, was sectioned off against a wall.

Image credit: Kristi Malakoff, Detail from Stardust
Anchoring the room against "Swarm" on the opposing wall is "Stardust," which renders the demolished Stardust sign off of the Las Vegas Strip hotel of the same name. Malakoff re-envisions the faded bright lights in colourful tissue paper and backlit, but to anyone familiar with the original iconic neon sign, the use of negative space is rather complicated. The majority of bright graphics have been mounted onto dozens of individually precut MDF to give space between each star, which are then individually attached to float off the wall. While the neon sign uses light and darkness to contrast each graphic, here the demarcation of graphic is weighed down by the material as object rather than subject.

Working on a similar piece during a recent Moscow residency that takes on a similar fascination with garish text in re-creating Russian graffiti using crepe paper, Malakoff there appears to have adhered each tissue directly to the wall, or to have at least achieved that illusion in its documentation. The difference, besides one being far more precious and time laborious in site specificity, is the illusion of the graphic subject being transferable between mediums, which is one of her most appealing traits as an artist who uses everyday objects and commands us to see them anew. Malakoff's greatest power as an artist is her ability to move us beyond the limitations of the gallery walls through her evocative transformations, blasting our spatial logic through a sense of retinal wonder and exactitude.

Artist talk on Saturday, November 13 at Latitude 53, 2 p.m.

*First published in Vue Weekly