Adaptation at Franz Kaka, Toronto

By Terence Dick

What better way to start off the year than to review an exhibition inspired in part by new year’s resolutions. The title of this group show at Franz Kaka also references the film of the same name, which was inspired by the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, but adapts it by dramatizing the struggle to adapt it. If we go back to the source, it’s clear that all adaptations emerge from a struggle with an obstacle. The successful adaptations overcome the obstacle. All resolutions emerge from a struggle as well: the obstacle being the gap between the person you are and the person you want to be. By adapting to overcome that gap, the resolution is resolved. But everyone knows this is much easier said than done, so it’s not surprising that the works in this exhibition depict, in a wide variety of ways, the struggle more so than the resolution. Which makes sense because there are always obstacles, and there are always struggles, and there are always adaptations.

Graham Wiebe, How to Uncover Your SUBLIMINAL Influence…, 2023, spliced self-help books (photo: LF Documentation; courtesy: the artist and Franz Kaka, Toronto)

The two works that Graham Wiebe contributes fit this theme dead on. His cut and spliced self-help books line the edge of the floor to form a run-on sentence that evokes the never-ending supply of guides that promise to solve all our problems. And if one doesn’t work, there’s always another. The hunger for new and manageable solutions to existential angst will never be sated because the angst is a permanent condition (just ask Sartre). Wiebe’s psychedelic burnt snowflake poster hits the same ailment from a different angle using the elements and the enticement of non-rational gateways to take us where we need to go: away from our current selves.

A similar deep dive into the psyche comes through in Min-Jia’s surreal image of overlapping figures linked but at odds with each other and themselves in various aspects: blue/red, vertical/diagonal, bird/human, internal/external, etc. Like a dream waiting to be interpreted, the focal point of the painting slides in and out of focus as it travels from outstretched arms to ornate spine to elegant shoe to intestinal maze. Identities double and both subjects alternate between foreground and midground, leaving the viewer abuzz in a state of irresolution.

Zoe Koke, Feeding ground, 2023, oil on linen (photo: LF Documentation; courtesy: the artist, Smart Objects, Los Angeles, and Franz Kaka, Toronto)

Zoe Koke’s impressionistic paintings echo this state of flux, but draw attention to perception instead of object or subject. They unsettle the eyes by depicting light, colour, motion, and growth with the faintest of gestures, hovering on the precipice of abstraction to hint at how fragile a painting’s (or a person’s) composition could be. By playing on the far edge of forming an image – it’s there, but receding into the distance – Koke invites the viewer to relinquish certainty, safety, and identity, and embrace possibility even if it means risking meaninglessness.

Alice Gong Xiaowen, Slight malar flush, 2022, cast iron (photo: LF Documentation; courtesy: the artist and Franz Kaka, Toronto)

Adaptation’s final act is Alice Gong Xiaowen’s ironic (pun intended) casting of dough in metal to turn what is unstable into something permanent. They are the exhibition’s concluding monuments to change, but rather than place them on plinths, she forms them into mirror-sized ovals that hang vertically like portraits on the gallery’s back wall. They function like punctuation to end the exhibition’s sentence. Two periods to indicate a long pause before turning back to re-read the connections; two eyes staring the viewer down to further undermine the authority of the self.

Two works by the same artist remain. One is a floor assemblage combining more formless cast iron with a found support structure to cradle it. The other is the least slippery piece in the show: a circular stone held fast in a metal vice. It’s tiny compared to the other works, but it stands out as that which resists change. Is this immovable object an obstacle? Or is it the enduring part of ourselves that weathers every adaptation and remains despite every resolution? Those questions are at the heart of the struggle that got us here.

Adaptation continues until February 3.
Franz Kaka:
The gallery is not accessible.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is the editor of Akimblog.