Saturday, April 02, 2005

The Big Picture 25

Every spring something happens in Toronto that no person without limitless patience, plenty of Tylenol and an MA in semiotics (that they do not regret getting) should endure – the annual Images Festival of film, video and that catch-all phrase for any piece of art generated by a keyboard, new media.

Like many local filmmakers, I have my issues with Images – largely because, like too many local filmmakers, Images consistently shows only occasional interest in my videos. The festival’s reputation among Toronto artists for outright snobbery, a slavish devotion to overcooked, pretentious nonsense - Images actually gives out an award every year for the most difficult to endure film, so at least they have a sense of humour about themselves - and an offensive “anybody but a Torontonian” programming is well deserved (but has greatly improved with the recent addition of executive director Petra Chevrier, a Toronto culture lifer and overall good time gal).

Having crabbed that much, I have to cave and admit that there are still many gems to be found amongst the head-scratchers – including a retrospective of the always amusing videos of Robert Lee, a new installation piece by video mesmerists Leslie Peters and Dara Gellman, and short films by those old reliables Wrik Mead and Steve Reinke.

And for those of you who want the Images experience but also, wisely, want to be able to walk away from the Images experience, there’s Off Screen, a huge collection of installation works scattered amongst twenty city galleries. To my mind, this is the best way to get a taste of the festival without investing cash or irretrievable time: if you like what you see in the galleries, go to a screening. Otherwise, you pays yer money and you takes yer chances.

Although all of Off Screen’s thirty plus works were not available for screening at press time (thank God), I did manage to sit through samples from a dozen projects and can handily recommend David Warne and Kevin Krivel’s goofy “New Creatures”, a dance/slapstick piece that looks like a Gap ad gone horribly right, and local legend bh Yael’s beautiful and chilling “The Fear Series (2-3-4)”, a peephole view of the violent landscapes of the Middle East that focuses lovingly on the gorgeous but gun wielding young men who perpetrate the crimes.

Avoid, however, the tiresome sea bound video “Contained Mobility” by Switzerland’s Ursula Biemann – unless you find voiceovers that contain phrases such as “he signifies the itinerant body” and “suspended in the post-humanist lapse” entertaining. This sort of bloated crap makes a critic’s job easy. It makes fun of itself.


Even more baffling than an Images screening is the controversy surrounding Iranian artist Mehdi Forouzandi’s multimedia project The Key To Heaven. As far as I can tell from reading various media accounts and visiting the show (where half the art was rather alarmingly covered over by the artist), Forouzandi’s display of Islamic liturgical camp caused so much dismay amongst the conservative elements of the city’s Muslim community that he decided not to show the bulk of the exhibition. The Key To Heaven was banned in Iran, and, according to sources, Forouzandi fears that any further uproar here will make his return to Iran even more difficult.

But many questions remain unanswered. For instance, the press release for the show states that the controversial articles not on display were found “in an unusual bazaar in Tehran”. Said articles include party hats with Arabic inscriptions, a Monopoly-style prayer game that leads the winner to everlasting glory, and snow globes containing miniatures of Islamic holy places. But if this kitsch was actually purchased in Iran and manufactured in Iran, how can it be offensive? Surely if the junk was sacrilegious, the mullahs would have gotten to it long before Forouzandi.

That leads me to wonder if Forouzandi made the stuff himself, and if the “unusual bazaar” is a conceptual hoax? If so, it’s a great idea. I love sacrilege (if I had a car, the first thing I’d do is put a bobble doll Jesus on the dashboard), and love even more artists who perpetrate it under dire circumstances. Of course, it’s easy for me to be brave.

Adding to the mystery is the question of what actual text is inscribed on the offending articles. Forouzandi’s statement claims that the party favours are decorated with verses from the holy Koran. Yet, when I asked his representative Fay Athari if the problem lied in Forouzandi’s use of the Koran, she repeatedly told me that the party hats et al did not contain Koranic texts. Huh? Again, if the Koran is not being quoted in the art, what’s the big blasphemous deal?

I have nothing but sympathy for Forouzandi’s plight. Apart from being a questioning artist, he’s also gay – a double whammy in theocratic Iran. But if one is going to make politically and liturgically charged art, and then make hay out of the fact that one has been censored for doing so, and then go to the extreme of censoring oneself … well, a bit of clarity over the content would help, not hinder, the artist’s cause.

I can’t champion Forouzandi’s efforts with anything more than a meek reminder that censorship of any sort is bad, because I don’t have enough information – one can’t even see the works. But I also don’t have a tribunal of religious zealots hanging over my head, nor can I imagine ever working under such conditions. The best I can do is wish Forouzandi the best, and remind fundamentalists of all stripes that Canada is a free country, so frig off.


Andy Fabo’s moving tribute to his deceased lover Michael Balser reminds us that part of remembrance is forgetting, that part of what we keep when we lose someone is the certain knowledge that we will not be able to keep all of our memories intact. Faces fade, the sound of a voice dilutes, dates and places blur.

Fabo conveys this bitter truth with a stark yet reflective collection of portraits of Balser, each rendered in intentionally watery watercolours and brutally faint pastels. Assembled in a loose progression (or regression, depending on the direction) from indistinct blob to recognizable head and shoulder, Fabo’s paintings of his lover’s face vibrate with the expected blacks and dirt browns that connote loss, but also with angry blood reds and hot pinks, with raging, rough pencil scratches and sudden flares of fire orange.

Memory may be fragile, Fabo demonstrates, but the truths you construct defy decay.

Images Festival: Off Screen
April 7 to 16
Multiple venues

Mehdi Forouzandi
The Key To Heaven
Arta Gallery 55 Mill Street, Building 9, Suite 102 (Distillery District)
Until April 7 (mullahs permitting)

Andy Fabo
Phantom Limb
SPIN Gallery 1100 Queen Street West
Until April 16th