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Montreal
Tammer El-Sheikh
Performing Lives at OPTICA
March 07, 2018

After a conference in Paris this winter I headed to the Louvre to see the paintings by Delacroix, Gros, and Gericault that I’d only ever read about. Determined to make the most of my free day in the city, I stopped off at the Notre Dame Cathedral before the museum opened. On my way out, I passed through a throng of tourists to the nearby Pont des arts. A small pack of police officers surrounded a teenaged girl at the end of the bridge, lightly gripping their big guns. Unprovoked, one of them lurched forward with a Taser and plunged it into the girl’s side. She fell to the ground, writhing and sobbing as the officer released her from the charge. A passerby assured me that this was the only way to deal effectively with the Roma and “other” pickpockets in the area. Afterwards at the Louvre, Delacroix’s Turks, Gros’s Egyptians, and Gericault’s Mauritanians – racialized goons, menaces, and victims from the canon of French history painting, looked suddenly, and heartbreakingly, contemporary.



Bertille Bak, Transports à dos d’hommes, 2012, video (photo: Paul Litherland)

Performing Lives, curator Zoë Chan’s international program of videos now showing at OPTICA, remind me of the enormous range of possibilities for representing marginalized communities that lies between the sensationalism of French Orientalist painters and the insensitive reporting of that passerby on the “Roma problem” in Paris. Between the poles of making-things-up and pinning-things-down, the artists in this exhibition explore performance as a means of conveying the struggles of disadvantaged groups, as well as their strength, irreverent humour, and creativity.

France’s Roma are the protagonists in Bertille Bak’s video Transports a dos d’hommes. Bak’s camera moves sympathetically through a railway-side Roma camp to document moments of ecstatic joy in the community’s spontaneous performances. A young dancer beside a pop-up trailer tears into grass underfoot with dazzlingly fast steps, tapping out an even faster beat on his torso. The tempo is slowed as Bak settles into a trailer-cum-recording studio for an accordion jam session. The musicians plug into amps and a fully operational Paris Metro map which adds a compliment of lights, dings, and announcements to their recording. As the sun sets, a less benign sign of French ingenuity appears on the horizon. A train comes to a stop beside the camp, not to pick up passengers but to scan for obstacles. Its headlights move in their sockets back and forth across the tracks with an eerie mix of engineered concern and robotic indifference. In another especially powerful scene, industrious Roma kids are shown sorting and weighing chopped padlocks bearing lovers’ inscriptions after gathering them from Parisian bridges just like Pont des arts. We, in turn, are left to imaginatively track a change of state from token of romantic commitment to scrap metal for sale.



Yoshua Okón, Pulpo, 2011, video (photo: Paul Litherland)

Other works in the program are more scripted or choreographed, but no less compelling. Yoshua Okon’s Pulpo features Mayan migrants performing military crawls and various techniques of dissimulation in a Los Angeles Home Depot parking lot. The work alludes to the Guatemalan Civil War in which they fought, but it also recalls performance-interventions like William Pope L.’s Crawl or, closer to home, Rebecca Belmore’s Vigil. In all three of these pieces, the aloofness of passers-by is telling. Okon’s audience at OPTICA is cleverly implicated in the installation, but also encouraged to watch. Upside-down Home Depot bucket-seats are fitted with thin foam cushions for our (limited) viewing comfort. In the exhibition’s remaining works, we’re kept in our seats by pop-culture references that suggest poignant parallels between, for example, residential school children and the dancing zombies of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video (in Lisa Jackson’s Savage), and Asian-Canadian women and the all-white male misfits of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (in May Truong’s The Outsiders).

These performances, and the lives that give rise to them, are set in strange places – in dark city parks, alongside train tracks, in parking lots and residential schools. Helen Reed’s Twin Twin Peaks, featuring re-performances of scenes from the TV show scripted and played by fans, highlights the entire exhibition’s uncanny tone. Like the anonymous locale of David Lynch’s series, the spaces of Performing Lives are liminal ones, odd and inhabitable only through the videos’ part-fictions, but also a lot like the ones we take for granted in more routine performances of our day-to-day lives.


Performing Lives continues until March 17.
OPTICA: http://www.optica.ca/index_en.php
The gallery is accessible.


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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