Author: Melvin Parker

Kevin (ei-ichi) deForest, Ho Tam (exhibition)

The exhibition space, a darkened room, immediately presents the approach to the work, the approach to visibility, as a practical task. Gallery lighting flashed on abruptly: my movement had triggered a controlling device. The lighting is now somehow an aspect or a dimension of the work, having become an explicit feature rather than a convention. Again, darkness, and a chance to notice strange glowing ellipses on each wall. More movements produced more lighting, enough to discover the device, its manner of operation and the movements required to manipulate it. A certain stability was established and I felt able to begin a more typical viewing of K = Infinity, an installation by Kevin (ei-ichi) deForest.

It is a complicated and engaging space deForest has created using such oddball things as obsolete record turntables, paintings and a large pink “doll.” There are two turntables, each with an old vinyl LP sitting ready for play. The label of one LP identifies a recording of a composition by Erik Satie, while the other is titled “Horny Remixes,” and it may be their respective irreverence which ties them into this installation. The “doll” or toy is a spherical body (or head) about waist high for me, pink, plasticene covered, with two eyeballs that demarcate a facial aspect. However, only one of the eyeballs has a pupil while the other remains white. Perhaps even more interesting, the “face” of the doll is a TV shaped concavity. The eyes sit staring out of this screen, returning my gaze.

The turntables, wires and doll occupy the space in a practical sense, that is, they direct how I move around the space. Most importantly, they disrupt any easy access to the paintings on the walls. I am tempted to write “paintings” because these seem either less or more than “real” paintings. They are however definitely in the place of paintings and are made more or less typically but for having rounded corners like the TV doll’s face. Perhaps these paintings are a little like television sets. Looking obliquely at the vinyl LPs resting on their turntables, each LP is visually an ellipse unless one stands directly above the turntable and this ellipse shape is picked up in the paintings. Placed on an obliquely receding grid, the ellipses in the paintings resemble a pond with lily pads, but also the ellipses representing the vehicles popularly called “flying saucers” or “UFOS,” and also, the patterns of light and other decorative devices used in disco bars. And continuing the decor scheme, these paintings gather light and glow in the dark: phosphorescent, this glow is reminiscent of Ushio Shinohara’s fluorescent paintings of the mid-1960s. And, after all, Shinohara did, in good Warholian fashion, propose that imitation is something ultimate in our age.

The dystopic Minimalism of deForest’s paintings adapts aspects of Systems Art of the 1960s, especially the kitsch dimension of Victor Vasarely and Tadaaka Kuwayama, both of whom were in Lawrence Alloway’s “Systematic Painting” show at the Guggenheim. deForest’s paintings are peculiarly persistent, lingering in my memory long after the exhibition. The imagery is oddly familiar, having a sense of deja vu, unplaceable except for its adoption of imagery found in media, imagery that in its original context, perhaps 1950s science fiction, was quite simply boring. deForest’s play with the familiar is as an excess which turns the banal, paradoxically, into a remarkable perception of the uncanny.

Paintings that glow in the dark belong to kitsch as does the pink “sculpture” which sits on the floor, and deForest uses kitsch as he does the darkness to play with the distancing which is often part of our interactions with artworks. It also disrupts the stereotype of Japanese art as being fragile, restrained and formalist. Insofar as deForest’s work is concerned with issues, it is involved with the ongoing dialogue between traditional and contemporary styles – and between international and Japanese identities. However, there is a dimension to the work that renders it irreducible to issues or debate, and this dimension resides in the complexities of resistant subjectivity which we encounter here as the experience of otherness and difference. These are the factors of hybridity in deForest’s disruptive and amusing challenge to the stereotype of Japanese identity.

Paint My Photo’s exhibition of family portrait painting also functions in the installation mode, composed as it is of multi-panel groupings. A long line of portraits, the work Matinee Idols joins images of young Asian men to corporate logos based on male first names such as Calvin, Tim, Bud, Vidal and so on. Each is on a separate panel, paired, image on one and logo on another, image above, logo below. The portrait panels are shiny enamel on board, painted in “graphic illustration” style. Each image presents a “pose,” a stereotyped or frozen likeness of a type. The stereotype, a plate from which copies are made, functions as an original in the sense of role model in relation to behaviour and attitudes. Here, the relationships formed by the work include the situation of commodities in the marketplace, of globalization with respect to production and the marketing of the “homeless” or nomadic commodity as a source of “original” identities which can be adopted cross-culturally.

A second series of portrait panels extends across another wall. Again male Asians, again stock images. Men, young to middleaged, white shirts and ties, eyeglasses, and painted using the strategy of the readymade in relation to portrait commissions, as in Matinee Idols. In this series however, the painted surface is dull, matte, where Matinee Idols was absolutely shiny. This is as it should be if the point is to push the stereotype that businessmen apparently prefer anonymity (the better to “operate”) whereas movie stars require shine and sparkle.

A third series, this time not portraits but close-ups of male genitalia, focuses on the feel of hype; here the logos and brand names of various familiar products: Royale, Glad, Excel, Extra, Equal. Each logo is alone on a panel and the panels are interspersed in a grid format with the genitalia images.

The long rows of portraits present the problem of “the lookalike,” which is the issue of positionality. Here we are asked to consider our own positionality, the positionality of the gallery audience (predominantly white) in relation to that of the portrait series but also to ponder the artist’s own questioning of his position vis-a-vis his role within the prevailing art system. That is, is “Ho Tam” with the portraits, or with the viewers, or both, and what assumptions have been made by the artist regarding the positionality of his viewers? Working within the context of cultural identity and race issues Ho Tam diligently and critically poses these questions. As is often the case, the self-conscious pursuit of artistic authority tends to undermine the possibility of any encounter with new forms of subjectivity and this might be a requirement of an art dealing with issues of difference as does this exhibition of paintings.

The Life of Animals

Each of the three volumes comprising The Life of Animals plays off the format of the field guide to examine different aspects of human/animal interaction. Trevor Gould, in Montreal Zoo, resurrects the civic plan to build a complex of zoological habitats across the metropolitan landscape, transforming community greenspace into wildlife habitats. While the city’s dream remains unrealized, Gould’s text and watercolours of flora and fauna from around the world locates the plan’s idealism in the less than innocent realities of colonialism and touristic capitalism. Bill Burns’ How to Help Animals Escape from Degraded Habitats, while ostensibly configured as a survival handbook for endangered species, slyly questions the motives of would-be caregivers as much as it castigates the actions of ecosystem destroyers. The third volume, Mark Vatnsdal’s Animal Handbook, literalizes the theme of “handling” as a form of interspecies contact. A series of images outline a pictography of iconic gestures – hands that hold, present, carry, feed, clamp and care for a number of different animals – with highly ambiguous overtones: Are the hands safeguarding the animals or serving them up for consumption? Are they protecting or imperiling the creatures?

The message of this bookwork collaboration is thus triply articulated: human intentions in regard to animals are deeply conflicted. Even in acts of apparent kindness, defense or altruism lurk the shadows of hubris, self-aggrandizement and the will to power. It is not only, as the saying goes, that animals mirror human interests; animals are continually subject to, and the unwilling product of, humanity’s presumption that it is external and superior to the natural world.

Vancouver monument

A controversy raged in the press since the announcement in 1992 that a group of women at North Vancouver’s Capilano College were organizing a Vancouver monument dedicated to the fourteen women murdered at L’Ecole Polytechnique. Over a hundred news items were generated before the piece was even installed. The bulk of the fuss seemed directly connected to the proposed inscription:

The fourteen women named here were murdered December 6, 1989, University of Montreal. We, their sisters and brothers, remember and work for a better world. In memory and in grief for all the women murdered by men. For women of all countries, all classes, all ages, all colours.

A Reform MP, several journalists, and numerous letters to newspapers all took umbrage specifically with the words “women murdered by men.”

More than this one aspect, people also debated the favourite topics related to public art: funding, process, location, and the appropriate role of such objects. The Reform MP publicized his move to block a tiny staffing grant while letters fumed that public money should not be spent on art for “special interest groups” such as feminists. Articles evaluated the selection of a site, the civic allowance of the inscription, and the women-only rule for the submissions and the jury. Framing the whole event, the existence of this furor was explained and celebrated because it happened in the name of public art.

Responses implied that the project was a success long before it was produced. After all, just the idea of creating such a monument resulted in the issue of male violence against women receiving bountiful press attention. However, the project committee repeatedly stated that their goal was to commemorate the fourteen women whose names are too easily forgotten and to create a place in Vancouver for contemplation and mourning of violence against women. In 1994 they selected Toronto silversmith Beth Alber’s project, Marker of Change, but had to wait until the full $300,000 budget was raised in order to produce the work. Officially unveiled December 6, 1997, Marker of Change proves its success by subverting the fuss and complaints.

Alber’s design is effective in its simplicity. She subtly alters the components of a traditional monument to work with both the specific subject of the fourteen massacred women and also with the larger notion of a site for collective grief. The piece consists of fourteen benches made of warm, pink, construction-grade, Quebec granite that are arranged within a three-hundred-foot circle. The benches are five-and-a-half feet long and bear the name of one of the students on its inner face. As well, the centre of the top face has a shallow, rough indentation which will fill with Vancouver’s copious rain. Each in a different language, the much discussed dedication appears on the outside face of seven of the benches (with the other seven left blank). A continuous ring of paving bricks, inscribed with dedications and contributors’ names, forms a second, outer circle.

Beyond the specific press controversy, Marker of Change has to respond to the interrogation of the whole notion of monuments. Opponents argued that it was inappropriate for a feminist project to replicate the traditional, permanent monument form. Another line of attack claims that the money for the monument would be better spent on direct aid services because public art is meaningless in today’s society. Supposedly, people ignore this kind of work and therefore it does not affect public consciousness. Yet, if this is true, then why is the project the focus of a virulent, five-year-long debate? One answer lies with looking at the goals for the monument that went unaddressed in the media furor. As Marita Sturken argues in Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (1997), memory establishes life’s continuity, it gives meaning to the present and provides the very core of identity. Different than either personal memory or history, it is cultural memory and cultural identity which is marked through public memorials.

While there has been a justified critique of the “general on a horse” style of public monuments, the stakes shift when the public work memorializes a group or identity absent from such works. The women’s monument committee repeatedly pointed out that a driving force behind the project was their effort to redress the virtual non-existence of public monuments in Vancouver that directly relate to women. Instead of a single sculpture plopped into a park, the arrangement of the fourteen granite benches creates the potential for a gathering place. The circular plan evokes a feminist style of meeting as well as rituals for healing and the indentations for rain water symbolize vessels to collect tears. Alber designed the dimensions and horizontal orientation of the benches to reference the fallen bodies, yet the size and arrangement of the works also invites visitors to sit and to look around at the rest of the site.

Art of dialogism in its diversity

[T]he language and world of prayer, the language and world of song, the language and world of labor and everyday life [emerge] from a state of peaceful and moribund equilibrium and [reveal] the speech diversity in each.

I can see in this piece an illustration of the art of dialogism in its diversity, not only because of the obvious analogy of the angel looking at its own reflection and having an internal dialogue with herself, but because she is also disseminating the idea of identity as a shared condition where the self is never whole.

Slippers of Disobedience, composed of a colour photograph, neon, ceramic slippers and wooden bookstands, further emphasizes Hassan’s deconstructive space and the possibility of learning disobedience, a theme the inspiration of which began with the act of her own child’s disobedience and the reference to the manuscript (from the earlier installation The Copyist) that has become a key reference in the three works. The mother and child’s disembodied presence are suggested here by two sets of slippers (one small, the other larger) and two bookstands. The neon represents the flame of a candle held by the reader while trying to decipher, in dim light, the contents of the text, leaving the mark of smoke on the pages of the manuscript.

Simultaneity pervades Hassan’s work, whether she becomes answerable to Boutros, or dissolves herself into the intimacy of the copyist. Whether she thinks of art as a form of departure, or as a bridge between epochs and cultures. Her work makes known the responsibility inherent in carving one’s own space and mapping one’s own geography, and contributes indeed to the notion of artist as cultural agent and active participant of political art practice. A practice where the concepts of pluralism, dialectics and synthesis, are always problematized at each step of the process, and where the meaning of boundaries becomes the open-ended and unfinalizable circumstance of a polyphonic world where multiple voices have their homecoming.