Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Big Picture 36

When the press kit for the MOCCA’s Demons Stole My Soul: Rock and Roll Drums in Contemporary Art landed with a timpani smack on my doorstep, my first thought was that it must truly be summer, the silly season.

Big institutions tend to fill their summer schedules with easy to digest shows, often built around literal-to-the-point-of-dumb themes. Anyone remember the disastrously dim-witted Power Plant show The Hand from a few summers back? It featured a summer camp bus’s worth of art depicting, um, hands. Such shows, kid friendly (or tourist, same thing) and about as challenging to one’s interpretive skills as a novelty bbq apron, are the big gallery equivalent of summer blockbuster movies – easy on the eyes, even easier on the brain.

How refreshing, then, to find that Demons Stole My Soul, a show about drum kits and the artists who use them (who thinks these things up?), is actually far more meaty than it has any right to be - while still packing enough ADD-fuelled bangs and whoops to keep the toddlers from reaching for their PSPs.

The curatorial premise at work here ain’t exactly museum science: certain types of artists - the same ones, I suspect, who like to work with robots, jackhammers, and go-go dancers - are drawn to the rock and roll drum kit as both an icon of popular culture and as a really easy way to fill a gallery with an artillery’s worth of noisy fun. It’s hard to argue with that kind of pure, and puerile, enthusiasm. And if, like me, you spend way too many hours in hushed galleries trying to look overawed and suitably reverent, you’ll be grateful for the chance to rock out.

Having said that, Demons Stole My Soul is a real “boys and their toys” show. Call me essentialist, but banging on things for the sheer pleasure of making noise, or constructing elaborate gizmos that exist solely to make even more noise, is a boy culture practice as old as playing war or blowing up frogs. I’m not judging here, just observing. Take your visiting sister-in-law, the one who thinks Sarah McLachlan is the new Janis Joplin, straight to the Bata Shoe Museum.

Mothers with boyish children fond of science projects (such as “what happens when you fill a Barbie camper full of firecrackers?”), police whistles, and Monster Garage will instantly recognize the automated drum kits built by Jean-Pierre Gauthier and Mirko Sabatini. Motion sensor activated, the drums let out a cacophony of annoying beats, clangs, and thumps, aided by a hornet’s nest of wires, circuit panels, and other gadgetry I have no desire to learn anything about (I am sissy, hear me mewl).

Gauthier and Sabatini’s art is meant to try your patience, like a stationary version of an Istvan Kantor performance, but I question whether or not it needs to be so aggressively unattractive. Clotted with gear, the sculptures look like giant disembowelled laptops. The actual drums almost disappear underneath all the tacky Mad Max styling - which is too bad, since half the fun of an automaton is trying to figure out how it works.

Clearly, what Gauthier and Sabatini’s sculptures do is more important than how they look, but this aesthete’s heart can’t help pining for a few veils, a bit of mystery. Only Red Green thinks fuse boxes are beautiful.

Keeping with the theme of “irritainment”, Flo Mounier offers a 7 minute (but oh, how much longer it feels) video of a maniacal drum solo. As noisy as the endless reconstruction of College Street, this video is, like the automated drums, meant to trigger your inner pot banger, or harried school marm.

If you can get past the patter, however, you’ll notice that the video is saturated, indeed slathered in a gorgeous, pink-orange hue that’s as pleasing as a Georgian Bay sunset in August. The distorted look is an interesting choice, as it not only references psychedelic-era concert films, but also has the contradictory effect of obscuring the drummer’s movements.

Boorish percussion enthusiasts never shut up about the “tightness” of a drummer’s wrist movements or their favourite drummer’s pounding muscularity, as if discussing Olympic athletes. Mounier’s video plays with and against the cult of the macho drummer by documenting a stellar performance and then submerging the performance in a soupy bath of colour. If only Mounier provided earplugs.

My favourite work in Demons, however, is not really a drum kit at all. Prankster Walter Willems has built a standard drum kit, but replaced the drums with wheels of cheese (some real, some plastic). The fit is perfect, a classic surrealist juxtaposition of disparate materials that is both funny and dream-logical. What, after all, could be cheesier than a drum solo?


Note to Mayor Miller: it’s hot outside, really hot. Not all of us work in air conditioned offices. Open the damned pools!

Until that work order is filled, take a (gasping, panting) stroll down to YYZ Artists’ Outlet and submerge yourself in Andrew King and Angela Silver’s cooling video installation.

Back-projected onto a hanging garden of room-sized silvery screens, the video takes the viewer on a long, gentle car ride across a softly lit city nightscape. Being inside King and Silver’s video tunnel is like sitting on the passenger side of your best friend’s car, hanging your head out the window to catch the breeze.

A simple, sensual delight, the installation should be enjoyed slowly, like a chilled drink. Bring a sexy friend, a transistor radio, and pull over for a bit of necking.


Multimedia artist Natalie Wood poses an intriguing question in her latest project – is Mickey Mouse African American?

Think about it. His skin is black. He started his career in the South, on a river boat no less. He wears the same white gloves favoured by Jim Crow and minstrel singers. What more do you need, a DNA test? Well, here it is.

Wood’s project is part of an ongoing internet-based work called Kinlinks, which she describes as “a faux corporation that does genetic testing on popular western icons to find out whether they have black/African genes or ancestry.”

Inside the site, Wood conflates images of Mickey with images of Al Jolson in black face, vintage pictures of African-American kids (including a priceless picture of a small African-American girl whose hair has been teased into two pom-pom balls, resembling Mickey’s round ears), and vaudeville minstrel performers.

Wood’s fake “genetic scan” concludes that Mickey is “25% African” (and, I’d add, 100% gay – he’s the black Richard Simmons). The website also contains a hilarious gene test on the Medusa, matching images of the legendary snake-haired lady with pictures of white kids wearing the Vancouver passport (i.e. blond dreads).

I can’t wait to see what Kinlinks does with Stephen Harper’s Sammy Davis hairdo.

Demons Stole My Soul: Rock and Roll Drums in Contemporary Art
Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art
952 Queen Street West Until July 3

Andrew King & Angela Silver
YYZ Artists’ Outlet 401 Richmond St. West, Suite 140
Until July 9

Natalie Wood
Kink The Links
Indefinite run.