Friday, February 24, 2012

Marina Abramovic Q&A at

Last week, I got to interview Marina Abramovic. I was pretty scared about doing this, mainly because she loomed so large as a figure in my mind; I've known about and admired her work since art school.

So one of those weird things that sometimes happens when preparing for an interview happened: I read a bunch of prior interviews, watched the related documentary that was bringing her to Toronto (Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present, recommended viewing), and then, feeling that all had really been said already about Abramovic and the origins of her practice in prior documentation, I asked her about a few small things that I wondered about in terms of her practice -- things I hadn't learned in other interviews I'd read or seen.

As a result, the interview is a bit of a strange one, and presumes knowledge of her past work and some current projects. It was published yesterday on, part of the org that brought Abramovic to town for the doc screening.

Here's an excerpt:

Leah Sandals: One point made over and over in this new documentary is that your work is very much about the importance of being in the present moment. So to start, I wanted to ask, How are you feeling right now? What’s on your mind at the moment?

Marina Abramović: Yesterday, I finally got the master plan from Rem Koolhaas for the Abramović Institute in Hudson, New York. That’s on my mind. And this is really the future: I’m trying to create something called the Abramović Method, where we are going to teach students how to condition themselves for long-duration performances.

The institute and the method will also educate audiences on how to look at long-duration performance—including giving them special chairs to sleep in inside the piece, so they can have that timeless sense of never leaving the space. You wake up, and the piece is still going on. This has never been done before.

LS: I understand that a major cause for you right now—one related to you founding the Abramović Institute—is the preservation of performance art. How do you reconcile your desire to preserve this art form with your contention that performance art must be based in an experience in the present moment?

MA: Well, we still always have to be aware of the past. Historically, you have to know where performance has come from. So we will create the library, a very big archive where the public and students can go and study.

We’re also going to commission long-duration performance work. My dream is to commission David Lynch to make something 360 hours long, and do the same with other artists who may not have considered the form.

I’m doing all this because performance is a serious business, and everyone is taking it very lightly. Especially when you are in America, you can say performance is so many different things: performance of a car, performance of a football game, or stand-up comedy, or entertainment. Basically, it’s always connected to entertainment. I’m fed up with receiving emails like, “Oh, a gallery is opening, can you do a little performance for the opening?” This kind of attitude has to be changed, and this is why this institute is being created.

LS: In the film and elsewhere, you make that point repeatedly—that performance art is disregarded or misunderstood by art institutions. How can this still actually be the case when the fact is that museums have collected and exhibited your work for many years, as well as the work of other performance artists?

MA: But I’m not saying exactly this. I’m not saying this is not changed now; I’m saying it took 40 years to change it! It’s only recently that I made work in the Guggenheim and other museums. Since I started in the 1970s, I really wanted to place performance as a mainstream art, and I can say right now that it is mainstream art. Definitely the MoMA show contributed to this.

But it’s not just that I’m changing [the way performance is seen]. It’s very funny how performance comes and goes, and how every time there is economic crisis in the world, performance just pops up, because it’s so cheap. And performance is something that has enormous transformative power. This is what I’m fighting for.

You can read on for the rest -- including what Abramovic would be if she wasn't an artist -- at

And take note the documentary is screening again at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sunday Feb 26th in the late afternoon. Worth a watch, especially if you're a fan of hers.

(Image: Production still from the documentary Marina Abramović The Artist is Present Courtesy Show of Force / photo David Smoler via

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Shelley Adler Q&A out in National Post

Shelley Adler is a Toronto painter who has a nice assortment of works up right now at Nicholas Metivier Gallery. I thought I was going in for the canvases (like Molly, above) but I found I also really loved her smaller works on paper, which I hadn't seen before.

In any case, I got to chat with Shelley about her work, which has generally focused on the face and the figure, a few weeks ago. The resulting condensed Q&A was published in yesterday's National Post. An excerpt:

Q What’s the difference between a portrait and a painting, in your view?

A Well, a portrait is a rendition of a person’s face. And a painting is about light, colour, texture, scale: all the abstract or formal qualities. When I look at a painting, I actually see the abstract qualities of it first. I don’t even see what it is—what the subject matter is. When I walk through museums with people, they will say, “Oh, look what this artist has painted!” and I will say, “What? What? What have they painted? Look at how it’s done!” And in my work, I try find the middle ground between portraiture and painting.

Q With the growth over the past 10 years of sites like Flickr and Facebook, it seems like there are a lot more images of faces floating around in the world. What do you think of that?

A I don’t actually think about it that much, to be perfectly honest. There are faces everywhere. Look at billboards, movies, ads in the newspaper—every time you turn around, the face is advertising something. I guess with Facebook, you have to find the image of yourself now, right? But that self-conscious image is not the kind of image that I’m interested in. I’m interested in faces that don’t have any of that self-consciousness. That’s why I use friends and family a lot, because they seem to not filter themselves for me.

Lately, she has started to look at the male figure more. (There is a particularly humorous couple of these among those works on paper.)

The show, up until February 25, is recommended, and there's also an opportunity to hear Adler speak in person this weekend as she does a Q&A with Sarah Milroy February 18 at 2pm, too.

(Image: Shelley Adler's Molly, 2011, photo by Michael Cullen, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery)

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Finding Myth in (Supposedly) Mundane Places: Dorsey James profile up at Yonge Street Media

Whoa, did I ever get a lesson about myth when I visited Pickering artist and arts educator Dorsey James earlier this winter. This guy really has a mental store of ancient stories that he loves to convey--and also relate to contemporary life, whether in the suburbs or elsewhere.

I really appreciated Dorsey's enthusiasm for myth and his ability to convey it. This is even the case when it comes to some Grade 9 Family Studies students that I visited with on the same day at Dunbarton HIgh School. They were working on a symbolic representation of their families, carved in wood. Kids in the Facebook age getting excited about the historical meanings of pyramids and eagles and all-seeing eyes? Not something I'd have suspected.

I tried to convey some of these impressions in a profile of James that was posted on Yonge Street Media this week. Here's an excerpt:

Tell most people that you've found paradise in Pickering, and they'd likely look askance. But artist Dorsey James seems to have discovered it. And you just might feel the same way after visiting his light-filled studio.

Housed in a converted garage on a quiet street along Dunbarton Creek Ravine, the bright, white space is filled with well-used carving tools and fresh sawdust smells. African masks, sketches and inspirational quotes (like Henry Miller's "Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life") hang from the walls. Wooden sculptures in various states of development rest on workbenches, shelves and floors, while offcuts fuel the brass and iron stove, creating a cozy retreat from winter's cold—one that James' friendly black lab, Merlin, and golden-eyed cat, Boo, often avail themselves of as well.

"This is my Shangri-La," James says with a smile. "But be careful of Merlin—he might just lick you to death."

This is pure James: a mix of centuries-old mythical references and warm, down-to-earth presence. That characteristic combination threads through more than 30 years of his artworks, from a small in-studio sculpture that renders Greek gods Selene and Endymion in glowing blonde ash wood to a totem-pole-like public piece at Alex Robertson Park that depicts Demeter and Persephone etched out of flame-coloured cedar.

To find out more--including James' past as a US air force mechanic, and its relationship to his work--read on at Yonge Street Media.

(Image of Dorsey James in his studio by Voula Monoholias for Yonge Street Media)

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Review of Shary Boyle's Canadian Artist at the BMO Project Room

In January, Toronto artist Shary Boyle opened a new installation, Canadian Artist, at the BMO Project Room in Toronto.

The BMO Project Room is kind of a funny venue -- it's a small room located on the 68th floor of the BMO bank building on Bay Street in Toronto. It's cool in that it commissions new works from Canadian artists, and then, from what I understand, actually gives the work back to the artist at the end of a 10 or 11 month exhibition period. But it's also kind of weird in that it's only viewable by appointment. The staff, when I've contacted them, have always been pleasant and accommodating, but I bet the location and appointment thing does cut down on the usual art-world foot traffic.

In any case, I was excited to see Boyle's new work there. I wrote a little report on it (including a subsequent visit to Boyle's studio) that went up on the Canadian Art website today. An excerpt:

It all began with an invitation—a thick, heavy, gold-embossed missive that thudded into mailboxes last month advertising Shary Boyle’s installation Canadian Artist at the BMO Project Room in Toronto.

More than spelling out event details, it laid down a gauntlet—and maybe a gag or two.

“A really ostentatious invite that you can crack over your leg… When have you ever seen that in Canada?” asks Boyle over a cup of coffee in her Toronto studio. “And when have you ever seen something like that with the words ‘Canadian Artist’ on it?”

The answer, for this writer: never. Upon opening the invitation, I had laughed with surprise.

“It’s a joke,” Boyle says. “You look at the Serpentine or Gagosian or whatever—they always have those kinds of invitations. It’s about the status related to that cultural site.”

“The things that are made in our country don’t have that same status. They can be as important, interesting and skilled as anything happening in New York or Berlin or London, but … they aren’t lent that status. So I’m just putting forward a precedent.”

Boyle’s installation for Canadian Artist—also intended to be precedent setting—consists of an imaginary family tree (or, as she writes in an exhibition text, a “preposterous, yet semi-logical, system of ancestry”) for its titular character. It stretches back five generations, to approximately 1850. The ancestors’ faces, 44 in all, are presented as pale, unpainted chalkware reliefs edged discreetly with gold; only the artist’s porcelain visage is decorated with glazes. Straight, minimal lines of ribbon link the array in the space, while a related website ( provides background material on each ancestor.

Read on at Canadian Art for the rest.

And to book a viewing of the work for yourself, visit telephone (416) 643-2609
or send an e-mail request to

(Installation view of Shary Boyle's Canadian Artist by Toni Hafkenscheid and via Canadian Art)

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