Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Out today: Q&A on Universal Code

Though fall tends to be a killer time in the Canadian art world—with the Toronto International Art Fair, several Nuit Blanche-styled festivals and major exhibition openings all lined up in a row—there's still room once in a while for a big, sweaty summer blockbuster.

To that end, for the last few years the Power Plant in Toronto has been lining up some pretty interesting group shows with broad, wide-ranging appeal. Show popularity is further boosted by the fact that admission to the gallery for the last few summers has been free (thank you Jackman Foundation) and that they do fun artist-playlist events on the lakeshore on the weekends.

So last year, curator Helena Reckitt put together the well-received "Not Quite How I Remember It". And this year, gallery director Gregory Burke has taken the reins for "Universal Code," a group show (originally conceived as a biennial) that addresses the mega-mega-mega themes: life, the universe, and everything, um, basically. Like any good blockbuster, it's also got some marquee artists: Gabriel Orozco, Thomas Hirschhorn (with the Dancing Philosophy piece I loved in Madrid), Trevor Paglen, Josiah McElheny and the like.

Last week, I met with Burke to discuss the origins of the show from his perspective. Today the National Post published a condensed version of our exchange with some nice pics to boot. Here's an excerpt, focusing on what could be one of the main problems with Burke's premise:

Q Some might say that we experience life very differently based on our sex, race, culture and class. Can a work of art ever really be universal, and speak the same to everyone across these differences?

A I don't think there's a yes or no answer. Most artists now accept that we come to anything with a set of cultural ideas. Henrik Hakasson's film of monarch butterflies in this show is very mesmerizing and moving, and doesn't seem to have any cultural baggage. But the framework of art is itself a kind of baggage. I think we humans encounter the world through systems, and all those systems are inherited. There's a danger in thinking there could be a system outside of that that is "pure" and somehow universal.

It's a tension in the show that remains unresolved, this showdown between the specific and the universal. But I'd say the show's definitely still worth a look, especially for Tania Mouraud's video installation, Keith Tyson's compelling reformed bronze block and Henrik Håkasson's film (I heard it had tech problems, but when I saw it it looked fine.)

Images from top - Cerith Wyn Evans's Harmonia Mundi, 2009 (still from a fireworks event at the Power Plant earlier in June); Henrik Hakansson's Monarch - The Eternal, 2008 (film still); Keith Tyson's The Block 2001-2002 First two images courtesy of the Power Plant; last one from

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