Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Big Picture 06

I like to think of myself as a generous person, at least in print, and to prove my liberality, I forced myself to peddle down to the Distillery District – a place I normally avoid with a fervour I have heretofore reserved for the Disney Store, anything starring Megan Follows, or CBC Radio One. I am simply too much a curmudgeon for any place as cute, tidy and relentlessly Caucasian as the Distillery District.

Since it opened in the spring of 2003, the Distillery District has made an admirable effort to portray itself, via everything from jazz concerts to balloon animal twist offs, as Toronto’s shiniest “family friendly” arts and culture destination. But those of us who like our arts scenes cut with something more potent than Christmas decorating lectures and brewery tours have yet to be convinced of the venue’s genuine cultural merits.

Of course, the renovated brewing houses are charming. Of course, the cobblestones are picturesque. But without a solid base of galleries showing challenging contemporary works, the district could quickly become little more than an upscale crafts and knick knacks depot. And now that Soulpepper Theatre has moved in, there’s the added danger of bumping into Albert Schwartz as he wanders the back alleys, skull-clutching his way through a Hamlet line run.

You’ve been warned.

Part of the problem is that, unlike other cultural districts in Toronto – Yorkville, West Queen West, the St. Lawrence Market zone, or the burgeoning Dundas/Ossington area – the Distillery District did not develop organically, was not grown in stages by artists, gallerists, and shopkeepers determined to remake a neighbourhood. Because, instead, the District was developed by big money (in co-operation with a few non-profit organizations) and simply declared a hot new destination, it feels more like a mall than a community.

What the District’s planners have failed to account for is, ironically, failure itself. A vital arts community grows via trial and error, in organic increments that are as full of busts as booms – none of which is in evidence in the District, where, rather oddly considering the location’s evident origins, everything seems as pristine and ahistorical as the condo towers that encircle the Victorian gates (a development dynamic that prompts a whole other discussion about class and culture, namely how the District appears to function as an arty playground for the rich … but don’t get me started).

Having groused this much, I’ll admit that I did find three visit-worthy exhibitions among the scented candles and dog parkas. All is not lost. Please visit these shows before some smart entrepreneur turns the galleries into Gap Kids outlets.


The Robert Birch Gallery, one of the first established galleries to take up residence in the District, is showing a pleasingly goofball set of sculptures by Quebecois artist Ginette Legare’ – an artist who has never seen a spoon or a hammer she couldn’t make sing.

Combining what the press release calls “experienced objects” - i.e. the stuff you keep in your kitchen junk drawer - with exquisitely formed metal and wood shapes, Legare’ has crafted works that sit contently on the fence between folk art, with its emphasis on resourcefulness, on seeing the resemblance between mundane objects and the natural world, and more conceptual, mid-century Modernist sculptural practices, which emphasize the innate mutability in all objects. Thus, a garden spade and a tape measure become a snake, and pencil tops are fitted with magnets to become thorns in a barbed wire crown or text in a letter.

If all this sounds a bit cloying, a bit too much like the giant hamburger at the AGO, remember that Quebec artists never really got over surrealism, so Legare’ comes by her mid-20th century leanings honestly. And the kids will love it! (as they say down at the DD).


Artcore, a new addition to the District, is a vast space that seems determined to mount big, noisy shows. More power to them. When I visited their latest group show, Moving Pictures, I found myself trailing behind a befuddled foursome of middle-aged suburbanites, complete with matching his-and-hers jackets, who couldn’t stop laughing, half in shock, at the art. Now, if Artcore can only make them cry.

Moving Pictures features a half dozen video works by a broad spectrum of international artists, among them our own Jubal Brown and that old reprobate Istvan Kantor.

Brown’s video, In Bloom, is easily the most compelling of the lot, as it is also the most overtly pleasurable. Filmed in a graveyard, the video plays focus games with the colourful floral tributes left behind by mourners, bringing the viewer deeper and deeper into the flowers until they disappear in washes of indistinct purples and whites.

If this sounds disrespectful of the grieving process, like a bit of Addams Family fun with other people’s heartache, let me assure you it is decidedly not – what Brown does is visually recreate the horrible feeling of disintegration experienced by mourners, not mock loss. Having experienced a family death in the last year, I understood Brown’s video as a kind of kinetic elegy, and was thankful I saw it.

Kantor’s video, Ideal Gift, is a rough cut document of his infamous National Gallery blood performance (the one he did without permission, and nearly did time for enacting). What is most interesting about this video now, ten plus years after the event, is how hysterical and violent everyone at the National Gallery, from security guards to visitors, became over Kantor’s little bio hazard. He should have taken the show on the road, with stops on Jerry Springer and Ricky Lake.

Say what you like about Kantor – and he has as many detractors, serious art critics and Conservative MPs alike – he knows how to push the public’s buttons. No mean feat in a country perpetually asleep at the cultural wheel.


A small show of photographs at the gallery/photolab/café/bookstore Pikto typifies the problems faced by the District. As interesting as Danish photographers’ Abbas and Henrik Saxgren’s photographs of Voodoo baptisms are (all anthropological sensitivity issues aside - way, way aside), it is difficult to actually assess, let alone enjoy the works while trying to ignore Pikto’s busy photo trade transactions, the customers browsing the magazine racks, or its burbling coffee machines. Pikto shows good work, but its indecisiveness over what sort of space it want to be is a microcosm of the District’s own mixed, and messy, message.
Somebody shut off the latte machine, please.

Ginette Legare’
Instrumentalities Robert Birch Gallery 55 Mill Street, Building 3
Until December 6

Moving Pictures
Artcore 55 Mill Street, Pure Spirits Building
Until December 22

Abbas & Henrik Saxgren
Voodoo (Water Rituals)
Pikto 55 Mill Street (corner of Trinity)
Until November 22