I am so very glad the deal between the National Gallery of Canada and the AGA has been renewed. Some truly inspired and inspiring shows have opened here in Edmonton and the latest, Misled by Nature: Contemporary Art and the Baroque, is another. Sadly, I’m sure a few visitors to the Third Floor will be scratching and shaking their heads and walking out with thoughts of money wasted by crazy artists. Forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing. But I hope most will take some time to examine the pieces carefully, to look back and forth, from side to side, and to return again and again to consider each piece on its own and in relation to the others in the show.
Now, to the works and my responses …
One can enter the gallery from either end. I have done both on separate visits and I think the show works best if begun from the West entrance. Here one is confronted by . . .
Yinka Shonibare’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews Without their Heads, a spectacular, happy, dark, very baroque re-imagining of Gainsborough’s mid-18th Century painting, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. Where Gainsborough’s painting has a dark and brooding sky, Shonibare has a blank wall shining through the absence of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews’ heads. Where Gainsborough’s couple is pasty of hue, the bits of Shonibare’s couple’s skin visible at the neck and hands, is a rich African brown. Where Gainsborough’s figures are dressed rather drably, Shonibare dresses the couple up in vividly coloured and patterned batik fabrics. This batik craft, now usually seen as distinctly African, is actually a Dutch invention, naturalized to Africa during colonial times.
The result of all these contrasts is an ambiguous and unresolved comment on European colonialism both from the view point of both the colonizer and the colonized.
For a moment, walk past Bharti Kher’s triptych (the most conventionally formatted piece in the show) and turn the corner into the dim universe of Sarah Sze’s 360 (Portable Planetarium). 360 is not in any ordinary sense either portable or a planetarium. One is naturally drawn to an opening in the central sphere which is itself defined by bent wood, string, photographs, various found objects and voids. Two old-fashioned overhead projectors create a twinkling starfield on the walls surrounding you. You stand at the point where the orb, a representation of Planet Earth as we have made her, is being rent and shattered.
Look more closely: to your left, a charred mechanic’s dolly, a burnt wad of paper hanging from a blackened rope, a charcoaled hamster cage. Charred wood. Photos of forest fires connected by strings to unlit matches in cut-down styrofoam coffee cups. As your gaze moves to your right around the interior of the globe, the photos turn green and oceanic, moss-covered stones and finally, an unburned was of paper and a pristine hamster cage exactly balance the destruction on the other side.
Is 360 a vision of what we’ve done? of our doom? Is the burning of the planet frozen in art as it is not in reality? Is that ladder at the top a hint that we have the tools to turn things 360 degrees? Why is it so far out of reach? And the mechanic’s dolly is already burned. Is there hope in the fact that far more than half of the orb is still unharmed?
And were we stand observing we span the tear in the Earth’s fabric. If we could only extend our arms and hold, and pull the sides together. That at least is within reach.
Bharti Kher’s Nothing Marks the Perimeter, Just a Hollow Sound Echoes, as I mentioned, has the most conventional format in the show: a triptych which at first glance could be a painted pointillist aerial-view landscape. But that’s not paint making the points. Those are thousands and thousands of inexpensive commercially mass-produced bindis, the variously sized and shaped dots originally symbolic of meditation and wisdom in orthodox Hinduism which have in modern times become a secular fashion acsessory in parts of India. These ready-made objects in Kher’s hands again become multi-valent. Nothing Marks the Perimeter has remarkable depth for what is in fact a two dimensional abstraction with a very limited set of colours. At times a starscape of black holes and exploding stars set against a very dense region of the galaxy, at times a tiger skin, at times that initial aerial-view, now with a series of tire-tracks cutting across the crystalline soil . . . The inexpensive secular has, through elaborate repetition, become sacralized again.
For this show Tricia Middleton was commissioned to create Embracing Oblivion and Ruin is the Only Way to Live Now, a truly, if bizzarely baroque wax church/house set in a frozen forest of wax-covered shrubs on a checkerboard floor between dull metalic walls. The piece is constructed from materials cannibalized/recycled from her previous works and, most particularly, from wax. Huge amounts of wax. The atmosphere of the gallery seems palpably combustible with wax fumes. It’s somewhat heartening that there is a fire sensor on the ceiling directly above this mass of wax coated wood.
Embracing Oblivion is decay and recycling and ruin made manifest. I don’t expect the piece will leave the Gallery intact, and that is, I think, the essential point. Embracing Oblivion is a very slow performance piece of which we are only allowed to see the middle. The beginning, hidden from us but obvious, was the construction of all those wax sheets and the assembly of the parts and the end, also hidden from us but implicit in the ephemerality of the materials, will be the final destruction of the work, likely to be remade into some new piece.
After Bruno Taut (Negative Capability) by Lee Bul, at first glance a slightly tattered chandelier, is a city-ship afloat in a night sky over a quick-silver sea. In fact, it is a world of cities, arcologies of costume jewellery. What at first seem random drapings, are in fact carefully arranged curving curtains defining volumes. Walk around the glittering artifact. A Crystal Galleon, a Ghostly Galleon, a landscape of tiny skyscrapers floating in the sky, a city in flight. Layer upon layer. But, decay comes even here to this celestial diamond: a few strands have come loose and trail in the quick-silver.
The final piece (in the itinerary I’m suggesting) is David Altmejd’s The Holes, a very ambitious piece with remarkable detail. In a nutshell, we are witness to the decay of the corpses of two Ice Giants or trolls. I heard the suggestion of a Sasquatch and my initial thought was a Yeti. The disarticulated bodies lie in a winter landscape, internal organs strewn about, pulled through holes in the body cavities. I am reminded of a number of partially dismembered animals I’ve come across in winter landscapes, trails made by scavengers radiating from the gradually disappearing corpses. On each side of the plinth there is a square cavity, a shadow box of sorts. One contains a single branch. The other contains a crystal. Various eggs are also embedded in plinth. Artist’s hands tumble out of a Giant’s skull while a crystal stair climbs up a right leg to the knee. At the feet there is a decompositional vortex leading to a black hole. Branches, crystals, snails, organs swirled and descending into the singularity. The Ice Giants will be, like Wordsworth’s Lucy,
Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
The works in Misled by Nature are marvellously unified by ideas of decay, rebirth and transformation. We don’t know if the globe will be saved from fire. We see the crystal city-ship beginning to crumble; Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, despite their decapitation – or perhaps because of it – have been transformed into something joyously beautiful; the sacred Hindu symbol is secularized and sacralized again; we are sure the wax cathedral will be smashed and rebuilt; and, while it’s clear the Ice Giant is headed for the all-erasing black hole, Stephen Hawking has showed us (those who have paid attention) that even black holes evaporate, gradually radiating their energy back out to the universe.
All is elaborate, Baroque and strangely beautiful decay and transformation. Sublime.
Stop by the Gift Shop either before or after viewing the show (or between visits). The background information in the Catalogue for Misled by Nature by brilliant curators Catherine Crowston, Josée Drouin-Brisebois, and Jonathan Shaughnessy is more than worth the cost of the book.
Misled by Nature continues at the Art Gallery of Alberta until January 6, 2013. It will later appear at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (with something slightly different by Tricia Middleton, I suspect) from June 21 to August 18, 2013.