After many months of research—spent either slack-jawed in awe or infuriated over catalogue essays, image captions and formulaic exhibition reviews—and writing and editing, my first effort at unpacking Richard Mosse’s photographic work in the Democratic Republic of Congo is now out in the latest issue of Prefix Photo. Spoiler alert: the images are pink.
In many ways, this feels like only the beginning of an analysis on the role of colour, racial difference and visual pleasure in Mosse’s work, which I could easily write about for another several thousand words (and probably several thousand more on the politics of sexual violence that are (un-)represented in the work, along Ariella Azoulay’s provocative question about whether anyone has ever seen a photograph of a rape). But I am incredibly grateful to Jayne Wilkinson and the rest of the Prefix team for allowing me to try some of these ideas out in public:
In The Nine Eyes of Google Street View(2008–), Jon Rafman employs a new approach to the strategy of artistic appropriation, extracting screenshots from Google Street View’s vast online archive to create singular photographs that range from the lyrical to the abject. Selected from the larger collection of images that comprise his ever-expanding project, the images in this volume illuminate in multiple dimensions our mutually constitutive relationship with images and testify to the importance ofNine Eyes in an increasingly codified, image-saturated world.
Rafman’s photographs appear alongside essays on the work by editor Kate Steinmann, Joanne McNeil, Sohrab Mohebbi, and Gabrielle Moser, as well as a text by the artist himself, written in collaboration with Sandra Rafman.
I spent a month in Los Angeles this summer, and though I was technically on vacation, managed to see a number of shows in the city, most of which meditated in some way on poetry: or, at the very least, the role of language in meaning-making. While many of them left me feeling alienated or even antagonistic in their approach to the gallery space as an academic gesture, I did find myself drawn to the works of the (mostly Canadian) roster on view as part of Jesse McKee’s exhibition, “Stopping the Sun in its Course” at Francois Ghebaly Gallery. My review ended up part meta-review of LA curators’ current fascination with poetry, part attempt at narrating what I think McKee is trying to make happen in his gathering together of these disparate works.
I’ve been working on an essay about Richard Mosse’s The Enclave (2013) for the past few months, reading every review, interview and essay I can get my hands on. And, in a way I have never before experienced when researching a contemporary artwork, there is an unrelenting consistency in both the format that the texts about this work take, and in what they say. To the extent that I can’t help but think of them as a set of rules for “How to write a review of Richard Mosse’s The Enclave.” They are:
– Open with an account of your first experience viewing this work. Describe the multiple screens and narratives, the lack of dialogue, make only casual mention of the exquisitely composed soundtrack, but under no circumstances should you provide an account of the narrative arc of the film.
– Do tell your reader how seduced, entranced or otherwise incapacitated you were by this viewing experience, and the minutes or hours that were lost to it.
– Describe the appearance of the colour pink in as much detail as possible. Use at least three of the following descriptors: lurid, vivid, neon, surreal, psychedelic, bubble-gum, fantastical, sensuous, candy-coloured, feminine, seductive, alluring, stylized, theatrical, fantastical, troubling.
– Mention with some vagueness how difficult it is to understand or represent the conflict happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, citing the 5.4 million people that have died of war-related causes in the eastern Congo since 1998. Do not provide any further statistics on the political situation there, or try to summarize some of the main parties at play.
– Insert a one-sentence explanation of what Kodak Aerochrome film is.
– Narrate your general sense of discomfort with the work’s use of beauty to depict a situation of violence. A Sontag quote may or may not be useful here.
– Do not make mention of any historical precedents to this work, especially within photography. Generalized claims that war photography and photojournalism are typically black and white and do not aim to be immersive, emotional or theatrical are permitted, though entirely inaccurate.
– Under no circumstances should you discuss race (unless it is to make a facile comment about feeling uneasy about a white photographer making images in the Democratic Republic of Congo).
– Make an unconvincing conclusion about the work asking us to look closer at a difficult, invisible, or unrepresentable situation of violence.
I recently had the pleasure of writing an exhibition essay to accompany a new body of work by the Montreal-based artist Hajra Waheed, currently on view at Montreal’s Darling Foundry. “Asylum in the Sea” is a suite of 24 new paintings and collages that depict the moment at which something is lost at sea, swallowed by the waves. Tiny, intimate works presented in a darkened room that evokes a meditative, almost submerged, atmosphere, Waheed’s new series continues to mine the deposits of loss and longing left behind by stories of migration: an ongoing theme in her bigger project, Sea Change. As I write in the essay for the show,
Asylum in the Sea is just one moment within a much larger story, part of an ongoing body of work titled Sea Change (2013–) that Waheed describes as “a visual novel” that will unfold over many years and hundreds of works. At the centre of this novel are its nine protagonists, all missing, presumed lost at sea in the course of migrating to a better life. Each chapter is devoted to a different character, with the visual and textual traces of each figure occupying one room of a gallery, turning the novel into an immersive visual diary.
These intricate, continuously unfurling accounts could be fictional, but they also seem too familiar and too specific to be fabricated. History, and colonial history in particular, with its stories of home, migration, loss and disappearance, is the departure point for Waheed’s work. Her narratives, she writes, “are deeply influenced by my many lived experiences traversing borders, or rather, living among them. So many of us who live along these lines (either by choice or force) do go missing or disappear at times, just to re-emerge later.”
Though I was asked to think about Waheed’s works in the context of colonial photography, I was immediately struck by how her practice works to interrupt photographic meaning, refusing to provide the viewer with any easy or complete narrative. The exhibition is a quiet and dense one that asks the viewer to spend time with it, as do many of her previous works (which are catalogued on her website as well).
I’m very pleased to once again be teaching the Collecting Contemporary Art course in OCAD U’s continuing studies program this spring, a class that explores the themes, questions and concerns that private, corporate and institutional collectors all face when building and maintaining a collection of contemporary art. I feel extraordinarily lucky to also be able to call on the expertise and wisdom of some fantastic colleagues as guest speakers in the course, including collectors and curators Jennifer Simaitis and Stefan Hancherow, Oakville Galleries director Matthew Hyland, art consultant Megan Kalaman, and visits to local galleries and artists’ studios.
This course always feels like a lot of fun, where I get to draw on contemporary fiction and popular nonfiction alongside recent issues in exhibiting and acquiring art to activate the themes each week:
By reading popular and fictional accounts of contemporary art in dialogue with recent non-fiction and journalism, students will be able to link developments in the local art scene to broader national and international trends in the art world. Each week will be themed around a different space in which contemporary art is produced, exhibited and collected, from the artist’s studio and private home, to the art fair, the artist-run centre and the public museum.
Upon the successful completion of this course, students will be able to:
Describe the key sites in which contemporary art is produced, exhibited and collected;
Identify major themes in collecting practices, across institutional, private and public collections;
Develop their ability to describe and analyze works of contemporary art;
Analyze the questions and themes that drive their own interest in contemporary art.
This is the second time I’ve taught this course at OCAD, and, as with all good teaching, I always learn more from my students and guest than I could possibly teach them. Usually, that learning comes in the form of thinking and re-thinking what it means to be contemporary. I’ve found Richard Meyer’s 2013 book, What was contemporary art?, pretty useful in considering what it is we mean, exactly, when we call art “contemporary.”
Writing for a new publication can be an exercise in humility, in the best ways. A reminder of your crutches and tendencies as a writer (including, for me, always including two nouns when one will do. This sentence is a case in point), but also a chance to hone your descriptive capacities. At least that was the case with writing a review of Jason de Haan’s “Free and Easy Wanderer” solo show at Clint Roenisch for this month’s issue of Art in America: a task that was both deeply satisfying, having long been an admirer of de Haan’s work, but also tricky in terms of trying to unpack the ways the artist plays with time in his practice. This is as close as I got (I hope) to articulating with words what I feel when I look at de Haan’s sculptures:
By using the fossils as filters through which the machines emit gas into the air, de Haan taps into the human desire to access the metaphysical powers of primordial matter. At the core of the installation is a question about where these natural and man-made objects belong in time; the work complicates the fossils’ status as artifacts of remote eras, while also making the modern appliances seem strangely old, like tools of archaic rituals.
I told a friend recently about an experimental short writing workshop I took with Ivan Coyote many years ago and how one of the most challenging things Ivan did was give each participant a different rule they had to follow for each week’s assignment. For me one week, it was that I could not write in the first person. For another classmate who was hysterically funny, it was the limitation that she could not tell any jokes. By spotting and then removing our shorthanded ways of getting from one point in the story to another, they forced us to try new things. Short of my self-imposed rule of not starting a sentence with the word “in” (borrowed from Charles Reeve), I have not been terribly disciplined in pinpointing and eliminating my writing crutches. Perhaps, with the inspiration of trying to write about de Haan’s work in mind, it can be one of my resolutions for the year ahead.
My dear friend cheyanne turions, who has been thinking alongside me about the practices of looking and reading for quite some time, sent me photos of several pages of A Great Books Primer (1955) this holiday season, which offers 10 rules for running and participating in a reading group.
What I love about these rules are their clarity of language and direction, and their insistence that every reader (or viewer) is equipped with the critical and analytic tools to create meaning from any text (or image), so long as they pay close attention to it, and to the discussion of others with whom they are reading (or looking):
The Rules of the Game
1.Read each book well
Give it your full attention.
2. Have some questions ready
To pose to the group, not to its leader.
3. Talk about the book
You come to the group to talk about ideas. But about the ideas presented by the book—not just any ideas.
4. Speak your mind freely
State your opinions openly and be prepared to back them up with reason.
5. Be brief and to the point
If you find the talk is wandering, help to get it back on the track.
6. Don’t let the discussion get away from you
If you don’t understand what’s going on, say so. Ask for examples, illustrations, reasons until you do understand.
7. Disagree, by all means, but in a friendly way
Disagreement may bring out the contradictions in a position, or the complexity of the question.
8. Matters of fact can waste time
Assume the disputed fact for the sake of discussion. Of course, if the fact in question can be found by referring to the book you are discussing, you should do so. The book is the big fact which you all have in common.
9. Discuss the book, not what others say about it
Forsake outside authorities for the purposes of discussion. Not that they don’t know anything. They do. But your main purpose should be to develop your own thinking and ability to communicate. No “expert” intermediary can help you to think for yourself.
10. Discuss the author’s ideas, not her life and times
It is her thought that counts for your discussion, not the circumstances in which the author found herself. The major arguments, those which have meaning for us today, are understandable in the author’s own terms.
[excerpted and feminized. You know, like using feminine pronouns as the universal, and also like feminism made into a verb]
Through her work in No Reading After the Internet and my own attempts at adapting it into a looking group format, cheyanne and I have often discussed how to create an environment where this kind of looking and reading and talking can happen. We have drafted versions of a kind of “No” manifesto (along with the brilliant input of Kim Simon, Amy Lynn Kazymerchyk and Jacob Korczynski) that try to get at many of the same tenets and ideas. I suppose, like many of our experiments, there is the chance that there will be a disconnect between presenting these guidelines and the “real life” effects that can interrupt them when put into practice (group dynamics, unconscious processes, the eternal difficulties and discomforts of teaching and learning), but it has been a real inspiration for me, as I turn to thinking about a new calendar year, for pushing ahead with a kind of blind belief in the critical capacities of the reader/viewer, and the space of the gallery or artist-run centre in providing the environment for great (and sometimes difficult) discussions about books and images.
I have been trying to write about the work of my friend Aleesa Cohene for many years now: an artist who works with video as a medium in a way I have never seen before. I have been fascinated and entranced by her installations over the past few years, and have enjoyed seeing my students at OCAD be equally enthralled by her savvy use of film and television clips, alongside newly composed scores, to create new narratives around otherwise well-worn material.
As with any technically rigorous work, it was hard to resist the urge to explain how she makes her works as some sort of interpretive key to understanding them. Luckily, Cohene’s videos also produce highly affective experiences, which forced me to oscillate between describing how she creates them (largely through a list of self-imposed rules for finding and editing her source material), and the feelings they can create for the (this?) viewer.
I’m very grateful to Aleesa for her patience in answering questions about her process and work, and to Matthew Hyland, Oakville’s director and the curator of this solo exhibition, for continuing to champion the work of contemporary women artists in Canada.
The title of Karen Kraven’s first institutional solo exhibition, “Razzle Dazzle Sis Boom Bah,” signals the Montreal-based artist’s infectious enthusiasm for mimicry, subterfuge, and speculation across a new body of work comprising sculpture, photography, and ceramics. Like a modern-day incantation, the phrase begs to be spoken aloud, evoking the shimmering strands of cheerleaders’ pom-poms and the emphatic sounds of exploding fireworks.