Avery Mikolič- O’Rourke’s aesthetic of image and time.
It will come as no surprise that I don’t always behave in the prescribed manner in gallery spaces (perhaps this is because, at an early age, I absorbed Atwood’s idea about how galleries are such serious, dour spaces that seem too sanitary, like someone’s gone around spraying air freshener to eliminate the smell of blood..and I’m not referencing Istvan Kantor, if that means anything to you).
At the last In The Soil Fest (2018) Rhizomes may have been the most successful I’ve experienced in exploiting the physical space to benefit the art / artists. One of these was an installation by Avery Mikolič- O’Rourke intended to explore “the mediating effect of personal documentation on the experience of memory and self-identity”, evocatively titled This Here Proves: We Are Fiction Non-Fiction. Ushered into a more comfortably domestic scene than others in Silver Spire, I found myself in a small kitchen space with several people, amid numerous small televisions, and, to my discovery, a camera that was filming and showing us “in real time” on another monitor, in the space. The video loops weren’t immediately accessible or interpolated as “art” by the several women in the space with me, and they began to talk among themselves about everything BUT the art. I decided to watch the videos, but also watch them interacting, or choosing not to interact, with the videos. It was also a fascinating experiment in how none of us thought to open the door and leave the cramped space (okay, I did, but I was being #artcriticvoyeur), and we waited for Avery to return to “let us out.”
The descriptor regarding Fiction Non-Fiction: this “is the most recent iteration of an ongoing series of video installations that mine personal and family home-video as a way to explore the complex and labyrinthine concepts of memory and identity, as filtered through- and effected by- our attempts to capture and record our lives…This project aims to provide viewers with a new perspective on the genre of home-video as well as their own practices of self-documentation and presentation. Through the sharing of parallel familial histories, as seen captured on film- a simultaneous mix of both the candid and performed- viewers are invited to engage with these unfiltered memories, to look into these lives and reflect on their own histories. The work questions, in a confrontational albeit roundabout way, the function of memory in an age of photographic and video documentation, the role of this documentation in the performance and construction of identity, and asks: how has the camera changed your life?”
This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered Mikolič- O’Rourke’s work (a recent performance by Fourth Way, at Warehouse, was enjoyable aurally but with the masks worn by himself and his bandmates it transgressed into Georges Franju Eyes Without A Face territory, fascinatingly horrifying…and I’ve joked in the past that another endeavour, Senegal AstroTurf, may have given me audio rug-burn, ahem). An artist who can be described as multimedia – or interdisciplinary, as both terms are appropriately vague and inclusive – Avery “has…since 2012 [been] producing work that combines performance with documentary [and] the artist is interested in exploring the many perspectives within singular moments, the relationship between memory and documentation, and the complex beauty of the banal.”
I sat down to chat with him this past month, though it seemed a bit funny, as Mikolič- O’Rourke and I have had many conversations, encompassing the frustratingly ahistorical nature of much cultural production / consumption, how artworks work – or don’t – from one media format to another, and he has, on occasion, soothed your intrepid #artcriticfromhell with the assurance that what we were about to experience is “neither performance, nor art.”
When I asked him, as a point of beginning, to describe his work briefly, perhaps with less an eye to detail than language designed to intrigue, he spoke of how he’s often examining the detritus and minutia of daily culture, both as it pertains to “pop culture” but also within our surroundings (average daily life acknowledging his demographic and how who we are is often defined by these things). We revisited his piece in ITS, but also another work – TMBS_remix003/511 – that shared aesthetics / formal concerns, and even some of his painted works, such as Refuge Triptych or Smoke Break.
In his practice, he often follows the concept, the idea, and that defines what medium is employed to fully realize the artwork. And, some pieces may stretch over several media before completion. TMBS_remix003/511 is a series of image transfers in a large wall work that originated as a small video clip, exported at 24 frames / second, then arranged digitally in a grid format. The “stills” are sized out and printed on standard sheets, in a monochromatic frame by frame rendering. This “silly, random” video shot behind the bus terminal shows a simple plastic bag blowing, floating in the wind. In some ways this was so cliched and uninteresting, but also quite stunning aesthetically (an amusing contradiction, “documenting” the irrelevant that becomes a rare unexpected moment of beauty and amusement to be examined, to be broken down into segments and “fractured” – not in a pejorative sense but more-so in terms of examining it second by second, “breaking it open” to try and understand why the scene entices and attracts).
The rows of the “same image” offer minute changes that are difficult to see (revealing everything in the end strips it of movement and is – again – contradictory), and despite the “fracturing” of the video into components more is concealed than revealed. By dissecting this memory into a visual autopsy, Avery is trying to determine why this is interesting to him. Returning to the work in Rhizomes, which was a series of unmediated, unedited video that is almost like a photo album that we examine later, searching for why we took that unimpressive, banal shot, these pieces were “intuitive shooting, intuitive responses, intuitive exploration of the video.”
Some of the footage in Fiction Non-Fiction was his own, some from his parents though he commented that there was a randomness in both “sources.” In some ways this filtered into the interactions in the smaller space in Rhizomes, where there was “repeat value” of the scenes looping, and also what Avery called a “choose your own adventure” quality (if you’re familiar with that youth book series) in how viewers might consume or construct the works. Alternately, a memory can also be said to change every time you access it (consider Susan Sontag’s idea that with photographs, we’ve externalized memory, made our memories “dependant” on an object outside ourselves. How does video “play” into that? If you’ve happened to see some of artist Sandy Middleton‘s photo collage works, where found photos are stitched together, based upon similarity of pose or scene, what does that say about an image – an object – we associate with “truth”? Returning to video, how many court cases – whether the infamous O.J. Simpson one, or many others – had what seemed “clear” video documentation, yet resulted in verdicts opposite what seemed to be “captured”?)
There’s something disconcertingly but undeniably erratic and perfunctory about the images, whether moving or still, or in the translation (with the suggestion that some things may not survive the process, or are changed, radically, in the steps) from one to the other. To come back to the musical performances that are also an intrinsic part of Mikolič- O’Rourke’s practice, and the aforementioned masks that are the latest example of performative gestures by different groups he’s collaborated with, I want to cite Jacques Attali’s theories of music. Essentially, Attali postulates that performances are unique, and more “true”, than a recording, which is codified, set, and dead: live performances shift with the musician and the audience, and exist more so in memory, in a personal “examination” of the event. That primacy, that privileging of a moment, no matter how facile and fleeting, is seen in both the fleeting ephemera of TMBS_remix003/511 but also in the oddly personal moments of Fiction Non-Fiction.
There’s a totemic, intensely referential nature of the image(s) employed by Avery, but there’s also an implicit degradation of the same image(s) as it / they are transferred into different forms: not so much factual as imaginative retelling.
The ideas that intersect in his work can also be seen in past installations, such as his work in Invasive Species (installed in the MIWSFP) or Site-Seer or Time and Space, both which were interventions in the STC downtown. Some of his video production work can be seen in Sweet T’ar or Last Night I Slept in My Car (you can find both on youtube, that space which has forever shifted video art, artists and consumption) to give you a further idea of his aesthetic and attitude. From there, you can see a few more things he’s done and is doing online, and engage further with Mikolič- O’Rourke’s unique, yet also strangely banal, aesthetic.
All images are courtesy of the artist and In The Soil, and are (in order of appearance) This Here Proves We Are Fiction Non Fiction (installation detail), TMBS_remix003/511, Refuge Triptych and 09_31_17.
At the last In The Soil (2018), Silver Spire United Church was the main site for Rhizomes, a variety of installations / performances / interventions by a diversity of artists. This not only was a very mindful and effective adaptation of the spaces within the church / centre by respective artists, but even while being guided to one installation or another, the lovely interior of the church was, in itself, an enchanting environment. One of the artists whose work was installed in the Silver Spire was Tammy Jane Lepp: her piece fe·cund was arguably the most seductive work in Rhizomes. This was something that insinuated you on several sensual levels (while talking to Tammy, in front of the work, I often “unzipped” the “casing” it was in, to put my face forward and breathe it in, for example).
This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered Lepps‘ work: at the previous In The Soil (2017), she, Joanne Ring, Kelsey Cheslock and Lisa Renee McKenzie had collaborated on an immersive installation in the side event space at Mahtay. Alternately seductive and playful while also somewhat corporeal and unsettling, Sojourn of Spectaculous Wunderkle Things had fluorescent components, found and hand made elements, and yet allowed for performers during ITS to take the stage and respond and modify the space with their own music / audio contributions. Personally, despite your intrepid #artcriticfromhell’s being “full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; at times, indeed, almost ridiculous— almost, at times, the Fool” (whoops, sorry, a bit of Prufrock there), I must also confess to being a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos (more so what others have done with it than Lovecraft himself). Thus, this installation appealed to me both in a positive recreation / reinterpretation of an immersive ecological space (I may or may not have been napping in one of the “alcoves” as ITS 2017 was intense) but also had an edge. This manifested at night, where the unearthly glow of the works fully “came to life” (reanimated, ahem, you might say).
Now, this was four artists (McKenzie’s work in ITS 2018 was something I hope you had the chance to encounter, as well), and collaboration is a compromise and a conversation (I have been known to say I only collaborate well when I’m in charge, ahem). However, when sitting cross legged inside the “greenhouse” of clear plastic and vinyl, filled with a variety of earthy elements that seemed to more so fill the confined space with scent than a physical occupation, this sense of evocation of emotion and concept returned to me.
Lepp’s sculpture, installations and wearable artworks have an organic quality that’s an essential aspect of her creative process. She employs an intuitive approach to her imaginative and eerie works, preferring to allow pieces to evolve, collaboratively with the materials themselves, rather than having a defined plan as to the final outcome. Her works are emotionally evocative, and this originates in her process, which is often raw and unchallenged by any “finished” agenda. This experiential, responsive methodology manifests in pieces (like fe·cund), that are more sensual than didactic, more about the physicality of the piece, and the corporeal nature of its creation. A poet as well as an artist, Lepp’s own words encapsulate the experience of her visual work: transformation, birth and rebirth, growth, metamorphosis and an abundance – perhaps an excess – of sensual cues.
A multidisciplinary artist and teacher based in St. Catharines, ON, Tammy Jane Lepp has exhibited extensively in the Niagara region since her graduation from the Art Centre of Central Technical School (Toronto).
One of the reasons I enjoy very much doing these ongoing artist features is that it facilitates my interest in what many artists are doing (this echoes in my hosting the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversation. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is nosy, always wanting to know what artists are making / creating). I’ve spoken with Lepp on numerous occasions (in fact, at ITS 2018, we may, ahem, have held up the line at Rhizome and I was so excited and enamoured of fe·cund that we had an animated conversation about it, with (the aforementioned) many delays of me unzipping the “greenhouse” and breathing deeply and with great satisfaction.
but they had their being once and left a place to stand on. – Al Purdy, Roblin’s Mills
Its fitting that the first exhibition to open, and the first event of Celebration of Nations, was Awakening of the Spirit in the VISA Gallery, curated by Samuel Thomas. This became clear at the last event I attended (the curatorial talk on the Sunday following the Thursday opening reception), when Samuel spoke of his selections for this show. He began with the works of Daphne Odjig; one of her pieces (In Touch With Her Spirit) was also the main media image for the show, and (a testament to the quality of her work) seemed to become a defacto visual signifier for the several days worth of events that comprised Celebration.
Its also appropriate as Odjig’s activism (and artwork) opened doors – sometimes forcing them open, sometimes knocking them down – for many Indigenous visual artists, and by extension, many people. Awakening the Spirit, to paraphrase Thomas, was built around three images specifically, as the basis for whats in the gallery. The first of these was Odjig’s aforementioned Spirit, then Norval Morrisseau’s Virgin Mary and then Carl Beam’s Apache Spirit Dancer (he also commented that the overall title of the exhibition takes its impetus from the spiritual focus of the three “foundation” works). This isn’t to say these are the only notable pieces, whether talking about aesthetic quality or historical relevance: Joshim Kakegamic, Roy Thomas, Leland Bell, Simon Brascoupe, Bruce King and Christi Belcourt round out the wall works, and Vince Bomberry and Carl Simeon have sculptural works here, as well. Its a strong, quality exhibition, with the possibility of connections and challenges between many of the images and objects on display.
Samuel Thomas joked that he didn’t want to present “something that looked like a yard sale” and he’s done a fine job here in what he’s shepherded into the gallery. Unsurprising, really, as he’s an artist and activist (and a past recipient of the OAC’s Aboriginal Arts Award) and his manner was one that echoed his words of wanting to share the vision of Suzanne Rochon – Burnett, and her collection.
There are several important intersecting narratives that converge in the gallery. I’ve said before that art history is a form of history, and the legacies of Odjig, Morrisseau and Beam are very much the notion of having been the shoulders upon which others stood and are still standing.
One of the last exhibitions I saw in Saskatchewan was at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. This was 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. and was an exploration of what’s colloquially called the “Indian Group of Seven.” (I might interject a line Thomas cited in his VISA talk, of Odjig asking why her work was described relative to Picasso, and why Picasso isn’t compared to her, as she was (is) more relevant her. This might be a bit of misspoken recollection, by Thomas – or me, hah – as Morrisseau, not Odjig, was often labelled the “Picasso of the North”, but the more relevant question of who / where is the arbiter of quality still stands).
The large room that is the VISA can be walked / read counter clockwise (this is how Thomas toured the works, and it’s an effective approach). The artists’ works aren’t interspersed, so it can be read like chapters, which helped Thomas to build the story around his choices.
Morrisseau and Odjig were also teachers (of Thomas and Bell, according to Samuel Thomas) and the creation and support of Indigenised institutions is ongoing and still important. Thomas spoke of the Manitoulin School (this could refer to formal groups or more organic ones within the Woodlands tradition) and these community centred initiatives are still promoting and preparing Indigenous artists (the current Brock Chancellor, Shirley Cheechoo, is a contemporary chapter in this with the Weengushk Film Institute).
There is a diversity of style: Simon Brascoupe’s works are more like petroglyphs, with the acrylic looking more like stains within stencils, and Bruce King’s works are more thickly and richly painted, with the acrylic juicy and gooey. Morrisseau and Odjig are more “flat” in the use of colour. Morrisseau is arguably the best known example of the Woodlands School, and immediately recognisable. (Another personal interjection, which I do less as a marker of subjectivity, but of the importance of these artists: one of the first artists I ever encountered as a boy, who made me want to be part of that world, was Morrisseau. His illustrations for Legends of my People, The Great Ojibway, introduced me to the strength and power of his work.)
The space is full, but not crammed. The bright colours and strong flowing lines of Odjig and Morrisseau compliment each other, with exceptions: four more earthy and sensual images by Odjig have more formally in common with Carl Beam’s works, diagonally across the room. Beam’s large paper works (sometimes silkscreen, sometimes emulsion and ink) are more restrained in tone and hue, but this gives power to his appropriated images, often political in nature (several of his works are scattered around the Marilyn I. Walker School, on display year round). Beam was well known for his desire to be known as an “Indian who makes Art”, not an “Indian Artist.” An important distinction, when many spaces (half a century ago, and yes, still now) employ tokenism or ghetto mentalities in labelling Indigenous artists (for example, a University Art Acquisitions committee member – at an anonymous place, in Saskatoon, ahem – once barked they had money for “real” artists and “other” money for “Indian artists”…and many artist run centres are just as segregated, though their lip service to “indigenisation” is as loud as it is hollow). At this moment, allow me to employ the soapbox I seem to have found myself standing upon to praise the PAC (Performing Arts Centre) as the locus point for Celebration of Nations. I’d add that it was announced that Annie Wilson is now in the employ of the PAC, and that should please anyone who knows her work with In the Soil.
Returning to VISA: Beam’s works are subtle, sometimes darkly dense and requiring a focused attention to parse the images, and other times they’re like decoding a puzzle, with his sampled images being presented in a manner that requires us to read them like a visual sentence. Albert in the Blue Zone, Chief, Spirit of the Eagle: all are strong pieces, and you can understand the curator’s desire to not mix & match the artists here, but allow their singular voices to speak. Beam builds on Joshim Kakegamic (also a printmaker, and one of the founders / facilitators of the Triple K Co – operative Press that helped disseminate Morrisseu’s images to so many places where so many of us encountered them) and then Thomas adds another voice to the story, and so on, and we go further in this visual history of Indigenous / Canadian Art.
Thomas ended with Christi Belcourt (as regards wall works) and this offers not so much a “conclusion” as an updating to contemporary dialogue, as Belcourt’s Untitled acts as a marker of her own ongoing advocacy. Untitled, though acrylic on canvas, has aspects of patterning that are also seen in the pieces by Roy Thomas, and Belcourt’s role as a Metis artist / activist is a good image to take with you as you visit NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) to see We Aspire: an exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara (but we’ll get there, in a moment).
As Odjig passed in 2016, this also offers a sense of continuity, and of a new generation acting on the example of the old…(the quote I began this piece with is an acknowledgement that many of the artists in Spirit have passed, and their artworks are a foundation for those of us who are here now).
But it’s worth noting that the politics that suffuse the room are not suffocating, nor do they act as justifications for poor work, as we see too often in contemporary Canadian “art.” When Thomas talked about Bruce King’s acrylic works, he directly stated that he enjoyed them greatly, and wished to share King’s fine paintings with others. The works are political, but also aesthetically engaging, and may – as I experienced – also remind viewers of the first time they saw an Odjig or Morrisseau, and were struck by its beauty.
The almost minimalist use of paint by Brascoupe (simple and sparse, more about symbols and edges that are very clean but then fade like dust, in 6 Roosters or Birds – Tree of Life) plays well off the glotty, textural surfaces of Bruce King. Two Crows or Sioux Country become abstracted and gooey as you stand in front of them, colour like paste and putty, but stepping back allows the scenes to coalesce and become small scenes that transcend their medium.
This show is a taste of what’s to come, curator Samuel Thomas promised, and in conversation he indicated that the breadth and depth of the Suzanne Rochon- Burnett Collection was almost intimidating. Many works needed to be framed for this show, and many were relocated from pride of place in living spaces where, to paraphrase Rochon -Burnett’s daughter, they eat breakfast or do day to day work “with” them. I won’t attempt to encapsulate Rochon – Burnett’s life and contributions to culture, as its done far better here. The quality of the work presented, and how Thomas indicated that each of these artists was a personal friend, and how their works and their larger historical roles also played out in Rochon – Burnett’s own life, offers an inspired intersection of art and life.
Conversely, it was a bit difficult to endure several of the speeches the night the exhibition opened (your intrepid #artcriticfromhell considered heckling them, but my mouth was often full of bison, ahem). Hearing the chair of Brock’s Board of Directors so heartily congratulate Brock on its support of cultural communities was galling hypocrisy, considering their incompetence / ignorance / arguably malevolence (edit as you like), with Martin Van Zon / Interkom and the AGN cabal, with Rodman Hall. At a wonderful symposium at the Mendel Art Gallery years ago, Dr. Len Findlay pointed out that universities are often willing and able manufacturers of alibis for the ideological state apparatus, as in governments and politicians; the latter, or variant nameless Brock administrators (like the ones who arbitrarily and anonymously cancelled the hiring of a new Rodman Director), are better at mimicking ethics, but still as poor (or uninterested) at actualizing them.
The statement: “Honouring the tradition of Métis dot art and bead work, We Aspire features work by four Métis visual artists living in Niagara. The custom of bead patterning was traditionally used by the Métis to adorn their clothes, equipment and animals.” Mixing the traditional with the contemporary, the words of Brian Kon are succinct: “The Métis were known as the ‘flower bead people’, my art is intended to honour the skills and artistry of my ancestors by using traditional and historic bead patterns as the inspiration for my work.”
NAC’s Dennis Tourbin space is a responsive one, often in (positive) flux, with many local artists using it as both an experimental arena, but it also, with its short exhibition spans and the excellent engagement with local artists and communities by NAC, offers immediate representations of Niagara.
There is a similarity of form in these works, but individual characteristics of the artists manifest here and there. The titles offer a personal touch: Brian Kon’s Grandmother’s Garden evokes a sense of family, with its not quite mirrored floral design; Amanda Pont-Shanks Rocks, delicately painted make you want to pick them up and hold them in your hand, and have a connection to those who held them before, and will hold them after; Sterling Kron’s After Batoche names a site – and a chapter – of Canadian history that, depending if you learned it in school or not, illustrates the contested histories of what was / what is / what might yet be Canada. Untitled, also by Kron is equally yet subtly political, as it offers a vibrant blue and white rendering of the Métis symbol that you may recognize from flags and other insignia of these peoples whom are too often ignored or forgotten when we talk about the Nations of Canada. Its the first work on the left gallery wall, and if you enter through that door, it will be what greets you as you begin looking at We Aspire. If you come from the other side, it will be the last work that you see as you leave NAC and step outside. Both of these are fitting for experiencing this show, and the history and ideas the artists encapsulate in their works.
But before you leave NAC, the back Showroom Gallery beckons you to visit the first programmed exhibition of Fall 2017 at the centre. You can read my preview of Where the Weather Happens, curated by Amy Malbeuf and Jessie Short, with works by Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault arranged around the large gallery space, here. The two shows on display at NAC are, to use that metaphor again, chapters: Weather is the result of the curators’ research into “the diversity and skill of Métis artists working across Canada…Through this exhibition, the artists’ works are placed in conversation with each other, exploring the human relationship with the natural world. Each artist explores these relationships as an individual informed by their worldview as a Métis person.”
Baerg and Nault “face” each other, with a sculptural work by Nault suspended in the middle of the space. Koebel has works at the “front” and “back” of the gallery. Similar to how Awakening the Spirit presented the individual works of the many artists there as “wholes”, Weather also allows Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin / Time Journey (acrylic on laser cut canvas) to occupy the entire left wall. There’s pieces both fat and slim, solid and shredded, to create a “landscape” of symbols that might be eclipses or planets, like celestial calendar markings on a white wall.
Nault’s Entangled Bodies (3) is directly behind you, in the middle of the space, as you face the middle “segment” of Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin (he employs the natural breaks in the wall to “frame” his work). Bodies(3) – like Entangled Bodies (2) and Entangled Bodies (4) – is comprised of a mixture of organic materials, including wood (bark or log, depending on the piece), wax or beeswax, human hair and rope, though the last seems more as part of the installation of these objects, which hang either freely in space or just out from the right hand wall. But the shadows cast front and back, when combined with the gentle swaying of the delicate exposed roots of Bodies (3) give the work a span beyond its physical self, with the silhouettes stretching out into the room. Though smaller in size, Entangled Bodies (4), with pale waxen fingers either emerging like blooms from the tree bark, may be the strongest of Nault’s contributions to Where the Weather Happens. In the accompanying text from Malbeuf and Short, this work is alluded to with Nault “not claiming the place she now lives but letting it claim her.”
Before I go much further, here’s more from the curatorial text: “The troposphere is a layer of the earth’s atmosphere in which human beings exist, connecting the land to the perceived sky. It is the place where nearly all of the weather on earth happens. The works of Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault activate the land and sky, and all that is within, through their intimate and delicate expression of deep connection to this space of energetic flux. Where The Weather Happens is an expression of the relationship and interactions between the land and sky as beings who live within this space.” (This hangs on the wall, in the gallery proper, ephemeral and soft, positioned so you might see it last, after walking in and among the art.)
The same language could be applied to the works of Norval Morrisseau or Daphne Odjig in Awakening The Spirit, and the often meditative yet ornate pieces in We Aspire. The materials in use by the three artists in Weather, however, are more demonstrative of the sentiments expressed, as with Koebel’s deer skin for her many drums that cover a wall in Awasisisoniyas: Family Allowance. Made from 2013 to 2017, they seem to await hands to retrieve them and begin to play them, to fully articulate them as they’re intended.
It was a hectic weekend, when all of these shows opened (I’ve not mentioned any of the talks, seminars or performances, or even the screenings, to hold my focus and your attention), and although two of the three are only up for brief periods, it serves all three well to be experienced in tandem. Whether that’s done in the manner I’ve chosen here, which might be described as chronological as to when they opened, or chronological in terms of the histories they present (Spirit’s artists are older, and several are deceased, while the artists in We Aspire are much younger, and the curators / artists in Weather are between) is entirely flexible, and a point on which I have no preference or suggestion. I remember an exhibition of work by Micah Lexier and a show he curated of influences upon his practice, at the College Gallery. His work was upstairs, not quite directly above the pieces by people like Eric Cameron, alluding to a sense of growth and change that, while not overt, had a subtle power in understanding both shows.
Awakening of the Spirit (Select Works from the Suzanne Rochon – Burnett Collection) is on display until September 30th in the VISA Gallery at the MIWSFPA, and We Aspire: (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) can be seen at the Niagara Artist Centre (354 St. Paul, in downtown St. Catharines). That closes on the 22nd of September, but Where the Weather Happens will be on view until December of 2017.
There was a request to not photograph at events or in gallery spaces during Celebration of Nations, and the lack of images in this post reflects my respecting that. However, the Odjig image is from the PAC website, and in this article I attempted to have a wide variety of links regarding the artists. If you’re on FB, there is also an excellent panoramic view of the VISA space, with Awakening The Spirithere.
It’s been suggested that what truly makes Art in the public sphere successful are moments of unexpected joy. Perhaps when you’ve suddenly remembered, amidst Pendulum Pulse’s music and the entrancing Sojourn of Spectaculous Wunderkle Things, an installation that fills the entire community room at the Mahtay Cafe in downtown St. Catharines (with black light and jellyfish, squid like and Cthulhu – like beasts) that the Rheostatics have just started playing in the Festival Hub.
A mad rush ensues through back alleys, past white tents housing various performers and activities on James Street, but you pause as the first sounds of their opening song wafts across the downtown. The Rheostatics began one of the most anticipated events of In The Soil 2017 with Saskatchewan (“…the moon hung high… in the canopy of sky. Home, Caroline, home”). This wasn’t my premiere experience of In The Soil since I returned here (from Saskatchewan), but that’s a moment I’ll treasure. It joyously defined In The Soil 2017 for me.
At this (second for me) extravaganza, it became more like the joke one of the performers made onstage: spending twelve hours in the downtown, forget a change of clothes, crash at a friend’s downtown place, and lurch awake the next day to pinball from site to site, from theatre to art to music to installations to events that straddle such descriptions. My first day culminated in The Sex Appeal (“…this song goes out to all the millennials in the house. It’s called “eat ass & call me daddy….””) and Pizza Sharks. My ears haven’t yet recovered from the latter. The sheer volume that rolled out from the Merchant Ale House was physical, almost enough to stifle your heartbeat.
Saturday was a day of itineraries and schedules, initially devoted to theatre; Young Drunk Punk (Bruce McCulloch’s sometimes coarse, always cutting monologues) and lemontree creations MSM (men seeking men) specifically. MSM (dance theatre which sampled online chats of men seeking men) was graphic and salacious, not for the faint, but had moments of emotional honesty that bridged gender and orientation easily. It made me feel a bit old, but also reminded me how far we’ve come – oh, did I just make that pun? LOL. Well, “we all need someone we can cream on / and if you want to / you can cream on me…”
And more music. And Ceasars. Okay, it’s not “Art” but I must praise the bartenders for their excellent work in the Hub. My research was thorough. A lubricant to the enjoyment of In The Soil, for sure; or a sedative so you’re not too taken aback at the shambling Cloak of Cosmoss, as she silently, unhurriedly wandered the Hub all weekend…
Perhaps it should’ve been milk, as Katie Mazi’s Spent Cows of the 20th & 21st Century, which graced the window of Beechwood Donuts, was a slick porcelain white pile /herd of tiny cattle. Rose McCormick’s Children’s Toys for the Apocalypse (I repeatedly photographed floating backlit Barbie in that instalment of RHIZOMES in the MIWSFPA. As the world ends, #allwehaveisplay) and Lacie Williamson’s Garbage and the Beautiful Embrace both appealed. Garbage invited you to “write down whatever you wish to let go of, and toss it over the balcony. May your worries fall to rest while you rise above the garbage heap.”
I felt lighter – a placebo perhaps, but so what, I say, so what – scrawling “Saskatoon,” crumpling and jettisoning it away….
An interjection to my reminiscence: those of you familiar with my rants know that paying artists for their work is a significant issue. In The Soil deserves your support (as it marks a decade, next year) not solely for the quality and quantity of performers, but because Soil pays artist fees to every participating artist, as well as professional production fees, and the marketing around the fest is excellent and effective (the free booklets were indispensable to any festival goer). Too many festivals are exploitive: perhaps one of the major reasons that In The Soil is about to mark a decade – no small feat for a festival of this breadth – is due to it being respectful of participants and being not solely artist driven but by investing in the artists, making artists invest back in the festival.
Stepping off soapbox now: let us return, you and I, to RHIZOMES. Sandy Middleton’s Shadow Play was literally collaborative: stencils and objects and visitors become actors in the projections, with Middleton less a “director” than facilitator. Middleton will be posting images over the next while, so that Play – and In The Soil – has a continuing online component, after the hectic events. Blue, by Whetstone Productions, was described as “Clown meets the Blues by way of ’30s Berlin Cabaret with a detour through Las Vegas in this interactive solo musical all about love.” I attended against my better judgement (clowns!) but it was one of the best performances of In The Soil 2017: pathos and humour, and love songs that I have added to my playlist. #youlowdowndirtydogIstillloveyou #stabyouintheeyewithmyhighheel #ImallforlovebutIcantseethelight
I spent approximately six hours at the Merchant Saturday (not consecutively). The dulcet strains of Supernatural Buffalo to the raucous thunder of Strange Shakes were equally outstanding (I’d heard rave reviews about both, but not yet enjoyed them. The festival format, offering concise tastes of performers both local and beyond, has acted as a prompt for myself and others to experience more). Know performed for the first time at the Merch that evening, another fine teaser of an excellent local band: #willyoulovemealrightwillyoulovemealrightwillyoulovemealright.
The purple pink blue lights lent an ephemeral, eerie atmosphere; the lime green drum sat atop the hot orange shag carpet. Again, an In The Soil experience as visual as aural: loud in both senses.
Sunday I was nearly eaten by The Cardboard Land Creature (brought to life by the Summer Collective) in the interactive village at the Festival Hub.
But, after documenting for posterity, my escape was facilitated by one of the numerous industrious #inthesoilfest volunteers. This might have been foreshadowing for seeing The Ash – Mouth Man by the Stolen Theatre Collective; consumption was a recurring trope in that play. Ash was a story equal parts humourous and horrid (offstage hushed sibilant ghostly voices and balloons will never be the same, for me); it also played with audience interaction.
Further spatterings of music saw In The Soil to its conclusion, to the Dirty Cabaret VI that evening at the Odd Fellows Temple. But before that, Aaron Berger + The Blues Stars offered a medley of songs in the Hub, under a greying sky that would break into a downpour as I stood inside the parking garage on Garden Park & Carlisle, listening to Sound Sound, interspersed with the outdoor percussion of the falling sheets of rain.
Alternately abrasive in tone, then suddenly delicate and deliberate, Sound Sound embodied the energy and will that is a hallmark of In The Soil: coming together to create a larger whole, for the enjoyment of many, in unexpected ways in unexpected places.
In the Soil Arts Festival ran from April 28 – 30 in the downtown of St. Catharines. Next year will make the tenth incarnation of the festival. All images here are poorly shot by the writer, with the exception of several shots from Joel Smith and Liz Hayden, and the Shadow Play image, shot by Sandy Middleton.