Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Big Picture – 01

As if the Middle East isn’t complicated enough, along comes an extensive new two-part exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University and Prefix Institute by Lebanese artist Walid Raad and his fictional collective The Atlas Group – an exhibition that intentionally blurs the already watery boundaries between history and fiction, propaganda and fact, by mixing archival photographs and other “real” materials from the Lebanese civil war with convincingly sincere (and often poetic) artist-made notebooks, films, and documents. Historians beware.
The point of all this is-it-true? game playing, curator Philip Monk writes, is to expose “the false binary of fiction and non-fiction”.

Even if all of the work comes out of Raad’s Beirut studio, the show is worth seeing as a display of an imagination run riot.

Raad offers not only beautiful drawings of seemingly not beautiful things, such as a crater left by a car bomb, and horrific photos of street carnage left by the1975-1991 war (or are they all staged?), but also the thoughts of the supposed witnesses - such as the imaginary Lebanese historian Dr. Fakhouri, whose documentation of the war years through films and diaries (or, to be more precise, Raad’s documentation – still with me?) are rife with a kind of delirious anxiety; or the perhaps fake texts and images collected by one Yussef Nassar, “the Lebanese army’s most senior explosives and ammunitions expert”, who offers such ghoulishly funny observations on the vagaries of car bombing as “the only part that remains intact after a car bomb explodes is the engine … During the Lebanese war, photographers competed to be the first to find and photograph the engines”.

Sorting through the layers of unreality in these exhibits at times distracts the viewer from the horrifying nature of the material, which is exactly the point. As media outlets on all sides reduce violence in the Middle East to a series of interchangeable, possibly real, possibly doctored images (is it really Bin Laden’s voice on the tape? are the prison abuse photos digitalized?), we are literally losing sight of the very real death count.

By manufacturing an entire body of questionable documentation, Walid Raad’s project may be more prophetic than playful, showing us the future of journalism.


On a cheerier note – and after the Raad shows, a documentary on PCBs seems cheery – a small gem from the city-wide SuperDanish project is on view at Parkdale’s humble Gallery 1313. While the Power Plant is offering Bruce Mau’s noisy, text heavy take on Danish culture (funny how everything Bruce Mau touches turns out looking like a show by, well, Bruce Mau), Gallery 1313, with about 1% of the Power Plant’s resources, gave me far more insight into what life is like in Denmark today.

The centre piece of 1313’s contribution is a lovely installation of blooming water lilies sprouting from plain white cooking oil tubs, by the young Copenhagen artist Nikolaj Recke.
Young Danes, I’m told, have a hankering for an unbridled, unkempt natural world that is the opposite of Denmark’s post-industrial, foetus-to-ashes welfare state. Recke, a bit of a romantic, has been known to engage in Fight Club-like activities, such as smashing himself against walls, in order to break out of the safe bubble his society provides.

His water lily project is, thankfully, a much quieter experience. The lilies sit in their tubs, reaching gracefully for the warm grow light that hovers above them. Sitting with the trapped lilies is a bit like visiting a Japanese garden, where artifice and nature combine to create a kind of harmonious tension. Part of me couldn’t help but wonder if Canada’s reputation as a marijuana growers’ paradise is a subtext here – who else uses grow lights and planter tubs?

Accompanying Recke’s flower garden are two videos by the Filipino-Danish artist Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen – another young artist trying to find Denmark’s wild heart.
Her hilarious and unabashedly loving video “O Bother Mike” follows her family through a series of workout routines choreographed by her bossy brother Mike, a fitness trainer. While Rasmussen’s befuddled mother huffs and puffs on the Stairmaster, serious gym regulars grunt and grimace through their daily routines like solemn monks at prayer – all to the delightful sounds of Rasmussen singing a self-composed pop song that warns that a fit body is useless “without love in your heart”.

Rasmussen’s longer video, “Get Your Motor Running”, follows two Danish biker clubs (who knew the polite Danes had raunchy biker clubs?) – one male-run and the other all female - as they indulge in bike-nerd chat, tearing up lawns, “dancing” to heavy metal, smacking each other around and getting hopelessly drunk.

The ladies are clearly having more fun, waiting for the men to pass out so they can get kinky, and Rasmussen documents all of their worst behaviour – obviously taking great pleasure in showing us a foolish, immature side of Denmark we never see in austere chair designs and rigorous social policy. This is the Denmark I want to visit.

And don’t forget to pop into Gallery 1313’s members’ gallery, where Toronto artist Rupen, who is not Danish but is still very clever, is showing a series of wall-mounted sculptures based on 45 RPM record spindles (those plastic bits used to hold the record on the turntable … oh, ask your parents). As pristine and carefully crafted as any Danish vase or candle holder, these beautiful, party-coloured works will fulfill any expectations you might have had that the actual Danish works on display would be cool and sleek.


Being a drag queen in my spare time, I’ve learned a lot about the power of costume – and plan to learn more at “The Stage Represented”, a three day conference on theatre visuals at the University of Toronto wherein, according to co-organizer Clarissa Hurley, “everything from theatre images on Greek vases to costumes in silent films” will be scrutinized.

I’m personally looking forward to Hurley’s talk on the early zanni (prankster) representations and the uomo selvaggio (wild man) tradition in classical Italian theatre, but I’m a sucker for Italian guys.

The Atlas Group and Walid Raad @ Art Gallery of York University until November 14 and Prefix Institute until November 27.

SuperDanish @ Gallery 1313 until October 31.

The Stage Represented @University of Toronto, October 21-23.