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Montreal
Tammer El-Sheikh
In Search of Expo 67 at the Musee d'art contemporain de Montreal
July 04, 2017

One of the nineteen artists included in the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal’s In Search of Expo 67 measures the distance between that year and the present in breaths. David K. Ross’s video As Sovereign As Love is “an exhale” following the “gasp of awe inhaled fifty years ago by so many visitors” to Montreal. In it a camera-mounted drone traces the former route of a mini-rail built to tour visitors around Parc Jean Drapeau. Set to excerpts from the Antoine de Saint-Exupery text that inspired Expo’s Man and his World subtitle, the video moves us over public sculptures, through mise en abyme waterfalls beside the Quebec and French pavilions, and along the Pont de la Concorde toward (and straight into) the iconic Buckminster Fuller Dome – in reverse! This last view captures the video’s “backwards looking imperative” and sets a nostalgic tone for the rest of this timely group exhibition. In the same room, Cheryl Sim’s three-channel video installation Un Jour, One Day shows the artist in a modified Expo 67 hostess outfit singing a version of the event’s theme song. Nostalgia for Montreal’s swinging sixties is toned down by more personal, second-hand memories as she leafs ponderously through a scrapbook of her parents’ honeymoon at Expo.



Cheryl Sims, Un Jour, One Day, 2017, three-channel video

The artists in this exhibition position themselves between official and personal memory, between the utopianism of Expo 67 and a critical recollection of it now. The enormity of the event and its impact is signaled in a scene spread across all three of Sim’s screens showing the artist dwarfed by Alexander Calder’s public sculpture Trois disques (L’Homme). The role and labour of women in Expo, as several of the artists in the exhibition suggest, is overlooked all too often in celebratory narratives of its vaunted modernism.

The Indigenous artists in the exhibition search Expo’s pavilions for ideological and personal significance. Inuk artist Geronimo Inutiq’s multimedia installation runs together archival images of the Canadian pavilion’s interior design elements in a room that feels like a space-aged fun house. The work recasts an armchair ethnographer’s journey through Canada’s Indigenous heritage as psychedelic space travel or a video game binge. Krista Belle Stewart of the Okanagan Nation takes a mediated look at a rare image of the "Indians of Canada” pavilion. The vinyl windowpane installation repeats an image of the artist’s mother Serpahine recovered from an NFB documentary about the pavilion. Freezing Seraphine and the pavilion in a pink and black backlit Warholian grid, the piece is both personally charged and arresting for viewers.

In 1967 Canada was working out its settler-colonial relationship with First People, often badly, and welcoming waves of immigrants from post-colonies around the world. Pierre Trudeau articulated the country’s official policy of multiculturalism and in 1969 Jean Chretien issued a widely criticized “White Paper” proposing a massive scaling back of Indigenous rights to encourage “full participation of Indians in Canadian society.”

Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn’s archival film-montage 1967: A People Kind of Place examines the awkward pairing of these visions of Canadian “hospitality.” The work takes a satirical look at the grand opening in 1967 of the world’s first UFO landing pad in St. Paul, Alberta. We see a TV comedy clip in which an immigration officer explains to an off-screen alien that the country has no quota for “green people.” Text superimposed on a picture of the Buckminster Fuller Dome reads “science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” And an excerpt from a political speech on the need to distinguish between multiculturalism as mere state policy and as a more “radical vision” of cultural difference and contact shifts the tone of the work from sci-fi satire to manifesto. One is reminded of the inhospitable views of Parc Jean Drapeau in Ross’s video. In a parallel universe, his drone might well have landed in St. Paul.



Althea Thauberger, The Tree is in its Leaves, 2017, two-channel video

While Ross opens the exhibition with an “exhale” fifty years after the awestruck gasps of Expo 67, Althea Thauberger closes it with more deep breaths. Her two-channel video installation The Tree is in its Leaves begins with the sound of little breaths, attributable to archivists in quiet study and poets about to issue forth first words. For this project, Thauberger and a group of young poets interpret the life and work of the NFB Still Photography Division’s executive producer Lorraine Monk through an archival study of Monk’s social documentary project for Expo’s Canadian pavilion called The People Tree. In period-specific office-wear Thauberger-as-Monk holds photographs of women and people of colour over her head, with closed eyes as if to feel instead of just look at them. They are shown at work and play, in lab coats hunched over beakers and microscopes, or at podiums giving speeches to enraptured audiences. Deepening her historical sympathy and critique across the fifty-year gap Thauberger interacts with the images, reaching into and mimicking them. A hand slowly moves across the frame of a photo to tap a schoolgirl on the shoulder, releasing her from the tedium of an unimportant lesson. Other lessons are more pressing. We see the same pale hand come to rest on a picture of a rather glorious Afro. In loaded moments like this Thauberger’s project returns us to the key distinction in Hoang Nguyen’s work between a mere state policy of multiculturalism and a more radical vision of encounters with difference. Poet Kama La Makerel bids us to adopt this vision with a few hotly whispered lines. The work tells stories “of pain, of heartbreak, of transporting (oneself)… of grabbing at ankles with long fingers and refusing to let go… of colonization and bleeding eyes.” As the credits role, we are returned once again to deep breaths.


Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal: http://macm.org/en/
In Search of Expo 67 continues until October 9.


Tammer El-Sheikh is a writer and teacher based in Montreal. His art criticism has appeared in Parachute, Canadian Art, ETC and C Magazine.

 

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