There are some exhibitions where one work is enough to saturate the entire experience. The Power Plant has one such example on display right now and I could have watched it all afternoon when I dropped in on the weekend and still left happy (only to return another day to absorb what remains). Jonathas de Andrade's film/video O peixe (The Fish) allows for the gradual access that is essential for all great art. Too often contemporary work requires advance knowledge to even begin to get it. This precondition is a holdover from Conceptualism when the art was in the explanation. It goes without saying that meaning requires context and additional information can be necessary for a full reading, but if the art is restricted right out of the gate to an exclusive audience of insiders, then it only preaches to the choir.
Jonathas de Andrade, still from O peixe (The Fish), 2016, 16mm/video
O peixe is immediately legible to a variety of audiences. Kids, tourists, the curious, and wizened art critics all sat watching the video unfold last Sunday afternoon. The repeated narrative of fishermen searching for and catching their prey set up a familiar situation that took an unexpected turn as each fish was cradled and caressed until it died. The combination of tenderness and tragedy could be understood by anyone who had ever caught a fish, crushed an ant, put down a pet, or watched a loved one passed away. Each one of us is complicit in the destruction of others despite the frequency with which it occurs and however much it kills us to do so (and it doesn’t bother many of us at all). Those gasping fish are memento mori, links in the food chain, symbols of environmental devastation, and victims of consumption. Those empathetic piscators are indigenous cyphers, colonized subjects, and murderous humans. The fascination with which we watch living things expire is full of conflicted emotion in the same way we want to both look and turn away from a car accident. All these reactions were contained within the frame of this one work and the images of mortality stuck with me for days afterward. I couldn’t shake them out of my head.
In comparison, de Andrade’s other work – documents of projects that engaged Brazilian communities with history, power, and identity – felt labourious. The danger in presenting one work that is so elegant is that it makes everything else seem clumsy. A similar misgiving is elicited with Maria Hupfield’s exhibition across the hall because her primary practice is performance and the works on display are normally activated as props. Presenting durational work in a gallery after the event is always a challenge and video recordings are a practical but not always ideal substitute. A consideration of the sculptural quality of her felt constructions will have to wait for another day when I’m not so entranced with dying fish.
As for the upstairs installation by Kapwani Kiwanga, it illustrates some ideas about power and architecture (specifically interior design) but doesn’t go much farther than that. The video hidden around the corner delves into more detail, but after what de Andrade accomplished with such simplicity, I’m resistant to her heavier hand.
Sarah Peebles, Leafcutter bee with nest underneath potter wasp nest inside Pollination Wunder Station at the Tree Museum, Ontario (photo: Robert Cruickshank)
Elsewhere at Harbourfront Centre there is a fun exhibition of imaginative work clothes from thirty-nine designers (including Vivienne Westwood and Issey Miyake) and a vitrine display of artworks that includes the means of their own making. The revelations in the latter serve to demystify the process of artists working with everything from bees (Sarah Peebles) to electric circuits (Robert Cruickshank) to duct tape (Susan Campbell). In doing so, rather than reduce the wonder elicited by the work, another angle of approach is presented to enhance the viewer’s experience.
The Power Plant: http://thepowerplant.org/
Jonathas de Andrade: On Fishes, Horses and Man continues until May 14.
Kapwani Kiwanga: A wall is just a wall continues until May 14.
Maria Hupfield: The One Who Keeps on Giving continues until May 14.
Harbourfront Centre Visual Arts: http://www.harbourfrontcentre.com/visualarts/
Workaday continues until April 23.
Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.
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