Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I'm Not Okay, You're Not Okay: Humanity Lookin' Dismal (yet Compelling) at Current U of T Shows

Mon dieu! Homo sapiens doesn't come off well in a couple of University of Toronto shows this season. Still, I kinda liked them. I discuss this conflicted effect in my latest reviews for the National Post, which came out on Saturday. An excerpt:

1. Models for Taking Part at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery
7 Hart House Circle, to Dec. 11
Humanity doesn’t come off well in Models for Taking Part. This is especially the case when considering two of the exhibition’s major works: Artur Zmijewski’s Democracies and Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty. Zmijewski documents protests and other mass events such as state funerals, sports rallies and war reenactments — mostly in his home country of Poland, but also in France, Germany, Israel and Palestine. Arrayed over several screens in a single room, Zmijewski’s videos are overwhelming, whether sonically (as reenactment gunshots ring out alongside requiem orchestrations), visually (as burning buildings lit by the Black Bloc meet “Feminazi” signs at an anti-abortion protest and national flags, well, everywhere), or psychologically (as each group’s attempt at “outreach” only seems to entrench disparate positions in its actors and bystanders). As a whole, Democracies — a work labelled, supposedly, for one of the greatest inventions of humankind — makes prospects for peace and understanding seem grim. This effect is deepened in Martens’ feature film, which traces a Congo journey exposing layers of injustice in a) global economies; b) global media; c) global aid organizations; and d) global art-making. No one, the artist included, seems to escape the film’s cynical gaze. Heartbreaking moments, like the deaths of malnourished children, take place very nearly onscreen, while stomach-turning scenes — like Martens suggesting that the Congolese should just learn to “enjoy poverty” because it makes the rest of the world feel noble — provide little relief. Nonetheless, both these works remain strangely compelling for their no-holds-barred approach to our species’ fascistic, hooliganistic and narcissistic tendencies. It’s also worth noting that the ethical implications of these works could be up for discussion at a special curator talk Oct. 11, at 6 p.m., and a panel on Oct. 12, at 6 p.m.

For details on Mark Boulos at the Coach House Institute and (the considerably more gentle) Angela Grauerholz show @ UTAC, read on at the National Post's Posted Toronto blog.

Also just FYI, this is the last At the Galleries column the Post will be running. As of October 15, they're overhauling their Toronto section, with the column eliminated as a result. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to do the column over the past three years or so, as I understand it's a privilege to have that kind of mass-media platform. But I'm also glad that individual art shows may have the opportunity to get longer or more in-depth treatments in future, and that a greater range of critical voices will be represented.

(Still from Artur Zmijewski's Democracies via the Barnicke Gallery)

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