Although difficult to generalize, a common theme ties together the exhibitions currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) and the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU). “At the Far Edge of Words” and “Imaginary Homelands” engage on some level, with the complex reflections of the artists cultural identity in relation to their exchanges with western culture, concepts of otherness, and navigating the hybrid spaces between while defining ‘home’. Rather than allowing these notions to become static, absolute, or restrictive, the artists invoke politics, humour, and nostalgia as a means to mediate their competing definitions of identity.
Perhaps the most political of the exhibitions, Jamelie Hassan’s retrospective “At the Far Edge of Words” traverses almost forty years of the artist’s practice. The title of the exhibition is an excerpt from poet laureate Mahmoud Darwish’s piece, “I am from there.” While researching the poem, I found a great quote from the poet, that really seems to speak to one of the main underlying themes of Hassan’s work, or at least the one I took the most away from; that of coming to terms with her identity as both being Canadian born, and of Lebanese descent. The quote is as follows, “I am from there. I am from here. I am not there and I am not here. I have two names, which meet and part, and I have two languages. I forget which of them I dream in.” –not to be read as a direct comparison, but the quote reverberates with the ongoing complex relationship she tends to investigate with regards to her competing identities, never seeming to feel wholly satisfied with the preconceived definitions of either, often forced by society to choose.
Highlights of the show included her neon work tied into manuscript pages from the Quran such as “Ů” (pronounced ‘noon’), “Dar’a”, “Manuscript Page” and the installation, “Slippers of Disobedience” commenting on the disconnect between her first language (English), and her parents language, Arabic. Similarly, the photographic prints of the manuscripts these neon Quran symbols are superimposed on are all well worn and used, fragile and delicate, perhaps further alluding to the fragile relationship between these two cultures.
Another piece that stood out was “Souvenir of Lebanon Made in Canada,” originally commissioned for the show “Home/land Security” in 2009. Made from Canadian cedar, the piece mimics traditional hand carved souvenirs from fallen cedar trees in Lebanon. The intricate images depict the cedar itself, the national symbol of Lebanon, but at first glance could also be likened to the graphic portraits of jack pines popularized by the group of 7.
At the AGYU, the artists in Imaginary Homelands similarly interpret the Canadian landscape as icon. Mateo Lopez (recently selected by William Kentridge as his protégé through the Rolex Arts Initiative) found his inspiration on a recent trip to San Andres (Columbia) through houses constructed of imported Canadian wood. Inspired by this iconography in addition to seminal Canadian artists, Lopez invokes his interest in process and architectural theory with “Casa Desorientada/ Disoriented House”, a proposition/ machete of a floating structure, made to coexist in Canada’s multitude of waterways. For me, the installation, and its inspiration, such as a log driving down the Saint Lawrence River, brings to mind another sort of idealized conceptualization of Canadiana—The Log Drivers Waltz. The proposed wooden structure, is modular, as echoed through the excessive amount of process drawings, some abstracted, and some quite formal; all incredibly detailed and reminiscent of the formalist qualities in his work.
Maria Isabel Rueda’s “Experiments in Long Distance influence,” an ethereal video shot behind Niagara Falls on her cell phone before being transferred to 16mm film, romanticizes this landmark, removing it from any distinct moment in time or space. Conversely, “Remote Vision” a video of the no longer extant, but iconic, Puerto Columbia Pier, creates a similarly ethereal environment, heightened by the sublime repetition of its architecture and delicately swaying mossy sea-grass as it stretches towards the edge of the frame. This delicacy and serenity is contrasted by the juxtaposition of the sound of violently crashing waves and howling wind, signaling the demise of this once great feat of engineering, trade artery, and point of first contact for many immigrants to Columbia after the Second World War.
Angelica Teuta’s installation, “The Language of Birds” creates an immersive environment in the gallery using old overhead projectors, cut up pieces of acetate, and kinetic mechanisms to create a moving landscape, in addition to a large wave-like platform from which to contemplate the space. The monumental projection’s saturated imagery is a hybrid of both the forested landscapes in Columbia as well as Canada. Accompanied by a soundtrack of human interpretations of bird songs, the soundscape nods to Tueta’s experience as an ESL student here, and the poetic way she encountered the multiplicity of languages surrounding her on the streets of Toronto. (To get a feeling of how the installation functions, and the intricacy of her work, refer to this clip of the installation, “Decoración para espacios claustrofóbicos” )
Miler Lagos also chooses to engage with the Canadian landscape; perhaps the most identifiable, but also most mythicized – that of the Arctic. The majority of the installation is an aerial view shot from the bottom of a small aircraft. Weaving in and out of clouds, the resultant ground imagery is hyper-real; reminiscent of the satellite imagery we see from google earth, but likewise, eerily still and suspiciously flat; it almost feels as if the viewer is still imagining this landscape, or perhaps is denied, especially through the lens of the gallery, the connection they look to obtain. When contextualizing this in relation to some of Lagos’ other work, I get the impression that he is challenging the romanticized view Canadians have of the north and how closely we relate it to how we try to aesthetically conceptualize our identity as such. We are so far removed from this in the urban/colonized setting we actually inhabit; yet this is an identity we hold on to.
In the end, what had the most resonance in both exhibitions, and is perhaps most apt considering the multi-cultural milieu of Toronto, was how the artists navigated the balance between their personal and cultural identities, referencing the intangible space in between where they come from and how their experiences and understanding of such have affected how they contextualize and aestheticize the present.
Jamelie Hassan, At the Far Edge of Words continues to October 14 at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 952 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario.
Imaginary Homelands, featuring the work of Carlos Bonil, Nicolás Consuegra, Miler Lagos, Mateo López, Mateo Rivano, María Isabel Rueda, Daniel Santiago, Angélica Teuta, and Icaro Zorbar continues at the Art Gallery of York University until December 2, 2012. Accolade East Building, 4700 Keele Street Toronto.