REVIEWS: A Project Room series
curated by Tom Folland and Natalie Olanick
Mass Media: Art and Culture
Reviews is a series of four exhibitions which re—situate some of the last 20 years in the Toronto art scene. Reviewing not only individual works but also the critical context in which the work was produced, this series attempts to expand upon ideas of local art history. This third exhibition in the series investigates the movement of artists that sought to subject the apparatus of mass media itself to critical scrutiny. Through the five artists work, the co—curators review the initial stages of "identity art"; sites of feminist writing on art and culture, theories of race and representation and burgeoning queer theory where representation of the body as an increasingly fragile and volatile social site, became a predominant figure in media oriented art.
brochure essay by Tom Folland:
The growing influence of media—photography, film, video, print—upon art in the mid to late eighties and early nineties in Toronto saw artists turn to a critical examination of media representation. If artists in the seventies wanted to create, for the most part, a community based, alternative network of media art and information that set itself apart from mainstream culture, the artists included in this exhibition, the third in the Project Room series, were part of a movement of artists that sought to subject the apparatus of mass media itself to critical scrutiny. With the wealth of feminist writing on art and culture, theories of race and representation and rapidly burgeoning queer theory, it was the representation of the body as an increasingly fragile and volatile social site that became a predominant figure in media oriented art.
Paradoxically, as a newer generation of activists began to break down interracial barriers, as everyone began to speak of "post—feminism," and as same sex relations gained a foothill in civil rights, things were getting worse. An alarmingly large number of people lost to AIDS was met with a marked public indifference; institutionalized violence against women found succinct and tragic expression in the Montreal Massacre; race relations reached its apogee in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. The current backlash against identity politics is amnesiac—edly rooted in these events. As social constructionist theories of subjectivity mounted a final attack upon essentialist and humanist theories of subjectivity, artists began to unravel some of the complicities between governing relations of power and representation as it pertained to the social body. Stephen Andrew's Media Event...Just Like Magic, part of his Facsimile series, portrays a person with AIDS on stage addressing a battery of reporters in an ironic reference to the media spectacle of AIDS. The title's allusion to Magic Johnson, whose pubic announcement of his HIV status supposedly "normalized" the disease for many people, is sharply contrasted to the anonymity of the central figure in Andrews' tableau. Constructed of graphite, wax and oil, and modified from a newspaper photograph, the work resists technological specularization at the same time as it appropriates and comments upon it. Media Event's material construction speaks of impermanence, forgetfulness and loss at the same time as it commemorates the millions of media anonymous people with AIDS whose social identity has precluded their sympathetic address in mass culture.
For a 1990 exhibition, "Access Now," at the Ontario College of Art, which was to celebrate the inauguration of OCA's newly implemented disability policy, Susan Kealey submitted a self portrait accompanied by a small Braille text. The self portrait is an out—of—focus cibachrome photograph heat—pressed onto canvas while the text, in Braille, is a quote from Audre Lorde about difference. Literally inaccessible for most, Portrait materially duplicated the conditions of Kealey's impaired eyesight as well as critically commented upon the inaccessibility of the exhibition itself: at the time of the exhibition in the OCA atrium, which wanted to raise awareness around disability issues, the space was not equipped for wheelchair access.
Both Helen Lee's and David Findlay's works, Sally's Beauty Spot and Gender, Lace and Glass, respectively, address interracial relationships. Sally's Beauty Spot is a fast edited short film in which a young Asian woman obsesses over a mole on her breast, repeatedly scrubbing it or attempting to hide it. Inter-cut with scenes from the 1960 Hollywood movie The World of Suzie Wong, and off screen voices, Lee's narrative juxtapositioning of a more contemporary musing about differing standards of beauty—moles signify differently in eastern cultures than in western ones—with the rather brutal and ideologically charged story of a white male artist and his Chinese model/girlfriend explores the social and political context of sexual relationships across race.
Findlay's Gender, Lace and Glass portrays a fantasy about self and other in which Findlay, as subject and narrator of the video, speaks of his desire for, and to be, the woman who is the object of his desire. Like Sally's Beauty Spot, Gender, Lace & Glass insists upon understanding desire in historical context, situating it not within transcendent universals about love—as The World of Suzie Wong only half—heartedly pretends to—but within the complicated reality of the historical relations of race.
Finally, Janice Gurney's Plots and Themes, a painting and photographic installation, arranges image and object fragments: a black and white oil—on—acrylic painting of a pile of lumber, a photostat (from Antonioni's film L'Aventura) of a torn garment ambiguously located on someone's body, a cibachrome image of a torn street poster with text and mismatched pieces of frames. Gurney locates the body within a media saturated barrage of images and spaces, defined more by rupture than coherence. Whereas much of her other work has placed identity within the context of memory or as a question of authorship, here it is within a more chaotic locale and suggests the impossibility of the surety of identity in contemporary culture.
All of the work in this exhibition is, of course, united under the portmanteau of identity art. The final collapse of the modernist paradigm in postmodern aesthetics settled itself not so much in displacing the primacy of institutions of art—although it is, to be sure, an assumption of this kind of art practice—but in the now seemingly irresolvable conundrum of identity politics and the discursive terrain of its still contested meanings and representations.