The Road to Tepeyac: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

There’s a superficial minimalism to The Road to Tepeyac that’s refuted as soon as you get near to the many ‘people’ in the gallery. The multitude of figures all face away from us, and though not life-sized, have a strength in numbers that’s augmented by the vivid colours and absorbing, engrossing details in Alinka Echeverria‘s images. Despite being ‘faceless’, each exists as a person with a specific identity, and in this manner are very authentic: its not hard to imagine their stories and backgrounds, what has perhaps brought them onto the road to Tepeyac.

There’s a laborious quality to these pilgrims: they carry the Virgin of Guadalupe with them, and it weighs some of them down, and drives them to their knees (perhaps literally, with the sheer physical burden, or with the affliction, the strain, of their ‘belief.’ More on that, in a moment). The gallery installation positions you, the viewer, in the middle of the ‘u’ of the congregation moving outwards and away. Not only are their faces unseen but oftentimes their bodies are nearly fully obscured by their painting or sculpture, shawl or other covering physically representing their ‘faith.’ Some are only visible with their bare feet, or the bottom of their shoes as they kneel towards an unseen destination, on the road to ‘see her and be seen by her’ (to quote one of the pilgrims Echeverria spoke with) at Tepeyac.

The double level of the figures (as installed in the VISA) and the ’empty’ backgrounds both privilege the figures (on my initial visit I spent a great deal of time on the intense details and exploring the various, yet similar in many instances, belongings of the wayfarers or believers) yet conversely unite them as a group. Further formal factors are ‘repeated’ in the manner in which the virgin appears sometimes as a massive painting, with hands below it gripping furiously, or a small shiny sculpture, or a towel or shawl or jacket, more utilitarian in its presentation. Some carry the same ‘icons’, brand new, others obviously worn by generations of reverential hands. Two ‘pilgrims’ carry an image of the virgin comforting Karol Wojtyła, another has balloons attached to their ‘lady’, and sometimes small images of other religious icons or family photographs are interspersed around the ‘iconic’ green robed Virgin of Guadalupe.

The accompanying statement: The Road to Tepeyac consists of over 100 images of devout Mexican pilgrims carrying their personal image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the anniversary of her apparition in 1531. The work provides kaleidoscopic re-presentations of the sacred image and deconstructs the relationship between an invisible presence and its materialized expression.

At her talk, Echeverria offered human depth to The Road: if the works seem to enfold you, this may be due to the inclusiveness of Echeverria’s process where she sucessfully transcended a staid ‘documentary’ approach, and interacted with the ‘pilgrims.’ That Echeverria was among, not separate, manifests in her eye and in her choices and thus in the gallery, transferring that community sense to those who ‘visit’ The Road.

There is history that you can surmise, but allow me to proffer the following.

Tepeyac, also know as the Hill of Tepeyac, is “[a]ccording to the Catholic tradition,…where Saint Juan Diego met the Virgin of Guadalupe in December 1531, and received the iconic image of the Lady of Guadalupe. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe located there is one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world. Spanish colonists erected a Catholic chapel at the site, Our Lady of Guadalupe, [often called] “the place of many miracles.” (Díaz Del Castillo). Its likely you’re familiar with Lourdes, or in a Canadian context, perhaps (like myself when much younger) you’ve visited the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Québec City.

As well, a film titled Tepeyac (1917) uses the backdrop of WWI as a fable of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s ‘intervention’, in the ‘rescue’ of the fiancé (Carlos) of the devoted heroine (Pilar Cotta as Lupita Flores). The reunited couple go to The Basilica on the 12th of December – the primary pilgrimage dates being 11 / 12 December – and undoubtedly are married under the ‘watchful’ eyes of the Virgin. As the lost were found, so does the sometimes dirty, sometimes indigent, caravan of those seeking hope and better things that Echeverria presents us pursue peace and shelter and safety, both literally and in wider, deeper ways.

We live in an age where immigrants and the poor are declared evil and dangerous in a manner that, if not unequalled in history, is unequally monstrous in vitriol, from Fox ‘News’ to social media. May I channel Lou Reed? “Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says / Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death and get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard.”

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But let us go then, you and I, outside the gallery, for a moment.

The Virgin of Guadalupe (Virgen de Guadalupe) isn’t a neutral image, nor any allusion or direct reference to Catholicism, these days. Perhaps you heard (and were offended, or edified) by the recent joke (comedians often have told harsh truths) about how supporting alleged pedophile R. Kelly in his music is no worse – arguably quantitatively ‘less evil’ – than being a Roman Catholic. We’re amidst ongoing, unending, it seems, revelations of serial child rape and those whom aid and abet, by ‘sins’ of commission or omission.

When I see many of these ‘worshippers’ I think of the disingenuous – wilful distraction of a – promise of ‘seek justice in the next world, not this one’: an opiate crisis of a different, but perhaps more insidious, kind. I disagree with much of Marx, but his assertion of religion as the opium of the masses has been, is being, will be, proven repeatedly – as it is in this show.

Its necessary to remember Diderot‘s assertion that we’ll “never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” (I enjoy thinking of how during the French Revolution – a few years prior to Diderot’s death, that Louis XVI, who was so sure he was divinely appointed, and pampered Catholic elite cabal whom were his enablers and beneficiaries and so sure, so sure, they were divinely unassailable, still saw their heads separated from their necks with little fuss or bother. Perhaps this was bloody as it was overdue justice. Did someone mention México’s own Marcial Macial or Cardinal Pell, or Law, or McCarrick or – well, we could be here all day. You take my implication).

‘Abuse of power comes as no surprise’ (Holzer) and neither is how many are eager to prostrate themselves. Echeverria evokes Alejandro Cartagena’s exhibition A Presidential Guide to Selfies, which also exposed devotion and artifice, undeserved deference given to another shoddy Mussolini, if you will. In this respect, I think of that fine comedian / satirist Mark Twain and his clarion warning that “religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.”

So, I imagine anyone engaged in the moral gymnastics that strain and stress like a victim of Stockholm syndrome (if they’re not just ignorantly bleating to their delusional ends, like Boxer in Animal Farm) must, in their heart of hearts, feel the weight of guilt (appropriate for once, in terms of Catholicism). When I saw some of the penitents – sorry, pilgrims – almost buried under their icons, straining with them, I wondered how long they could go on. Would they pray for help, and what would they do when no one answered?

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One pilgrim is hidden nearly fully by their blue framed Guadalupe, with such thin frail legs I presume it must be a child or youngster; another kneels so far forward that he seems to have fallen under his overwhelming ‘burden’ of devotion; another devotee kneels – the position of elbows and arms makes me sure he clasps his hands in prayer – and the statue he carries seems excessively penitential suffering; so many others, in the stressed nature of clothing and what they carry, pale even more against the vivid flowers, garlands and other garnishments of what might be faith, might be fraud, or might simply be human frailty, reaching for better, for more.

Echeverria has captured their humanity both expertly but empathetically: in this way, as you stand in the gallery enfolded by the people, you’re among them, and are standing with them, either hopeful or battling hopelessness, on The Road to Tepeyac.

All images are from online sources, especially from Echeverria’s own site, or were shot by myself. This exhibition is on display at the VISA Gallery at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Peforming Arts in downtown St. Catharines. I’d like to acknowledge the research and conversation with Cree Amber Tylee that were intrinsic to this article.

I’ll be your mirror: Alejandro Cartagena’s Presidential Selfies

Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind. (Doris Lessing, foreword, The Golden Notebook)

I always thought people were essentially bright. Distracted, sure, and weak, and beaten, but never stupid. (Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan)

Oh my god. I have become television. (Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan)

Within a capitalist consumer society, the cult of personality has the power to subsume ideas, to make the person, the personality into the product and not the work itself. (bell hooks)

I’m compelled to mildly disagree with hooks. Its not solely to be found in a “capitalist consumer society.” I have faith that the evil we do is not confined to one political system, one format, one space (the inappropriate, black gales of laughter I enjoyed, then stifled, then burst loose again, watching The Death of Stalin testify to this).

As you enter the VISA Gallery space at the Marilyn I. Walker the monochromatic starkness will strike you first. All four gallery walls, and the alcove by the entrance, have large black and white photographs, that could be the same image, and any observer will begin to see similarities among them. There’s the smiling, yet interchangeable, nameless, people – or acolytes, crowding about the phone / camera and the man, either of which could be said to the be main subject of this exhibition. There’s the upraised arms of either Enrique Peña Nieto or those “saluting” him as they take their “own” pictures. The specific photographs are uniform in size, but are installed in a cinematic manner, so that each of the walls has a “filmstrip” of multiple images (sometimes seven, sometimes five). The same smiling man appears in them all (I am reminded – as I am, too often, lately, with various political situations, of Gary Callahan, whose true name was The Smiler, from Transmetropolitan. If Peña Nieto is Callahan, then Trump, if we continue to reference Ellis’ series, is surely his predecessor in the Presidential office, whose appellate was The Beast).

But before I engage with the exhibition more, as, despite the apparent simplicity of images and installation, each time I’ve visited I’ve found another layer, another issue, is unwrapped, like the skin of an onion (and perhaps equally tear inducing), here are the words from the press release: Hosted in the VISA Gallery and Student Exhibition Space, Presidential Guide to Selfies asks people to question the motives behind Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s vast collection of publicly shared selfies.

Cartagena has curated a selection of these selfies (currently posted to President’s Official website) as a means to examine whether these images are being shared to show the Mexican President’s engagement with the people of his country, or whether it is merely an exercise in vanity as he ‘poses with his fans.’
Cartagena has also created an accompanying photo book for this exhibition in which he details the events surrounding each selfie.

[Amy] Friend [one of the finest instructors and photo based artists at Brock University, I would add] noted that in an age of cell phones and social media, and with Canada’s own Justin Trudeau often affectionately and critically called ‘Prime Minister Selfie,’ the exhibition’s exploration of politics, social media connectivity and celebrity culture is exceptionally timely.

More “official” words: The deliberate use of merchandising strategies in presidential campaigns and governmental communications have in the past decade sought out ways to close the gap between the people and their candidates or government officials. The epitome of such strategies can be found in one section of the official website of the Mexican president, entitled: “My picture with the President.” Now, 6 years into his presidency, it seems clear that the only thing president Enrique Peña Nieto has been interested in all along was looking his best with his fans.

In the history of religious painting, there’s the theme of the donor – the person(s) who paid for the altarpiece or diptych, of the crucifixion or the angel announcing to Mary her ‘delicate condition’ or the image of god on his throne, attendant by various saints, supplicants or his son – being presented on the edge of the composition, kneeling in devotion, in the divine presence, but not intruding, just luxuriating in the scene. There’s an element of that, here, a basking in a presence that graces the unwashed, unworthy masses, and look how grateful they are…wallowing and revelling in the Presidential presence.

A Presidential Guide To Selfies is part of a much larger project, specifically a book and some online components, so what’s in the VISA Gallery at the MIWSFPA is a fraction of a larger endeavour by Cartagena: a satellite, if you will. In that respect, the work exists differently here in St. Catharines than in Mèxico, and is influenced, perhaps even redefined by ‘here’– as this place permeates it – and I know my sense of ‘here’ is shifted by Cartagena’s work, as well.

I’ve commented before that in #mySTC synchronicity has defined many interactions and has led to an awareness of certain veins – like a spiderweb – connecting seemingly incidental and benign facts. In engaging with Alejandro Cartagena’s exhibition A Presidential Guide To Selfies, several streams of thought have been informing my interpretation, my reaction, to this show, on what I must admit is a somewhat visceral level. When I first visited I was almost belligerent in my distaste for the work: but when I experience such a response to an exhibition or other cultural phenomena, I consider it my responsibility to further explore (perhaps like picking a scab) why such a gut reaction was evoked.

I must, since we’ll be wading into the effluvia of politicians – the Petrowski that you try to avoid stepping in, on the sidewalk even – mention Nietzsche’s admonition about gazing into the abyss and how that does not leave you unsullied. When this show opened, the civic election was underway, and there’s been a heightened level of pundit jabber and posturing about next year’s federal election. Adding insult to injury, we also now, in Ontario, are funding Doug Ford’s government propaganda pretending to be news. I can hear Bruce Cockburn so reasonably requesting that “the world retain in memory that might tongues tell mighty lies.”

A recent spot on Global News – or CTV, forgive me, I lack the will to split hairs among the mainstream media mimic morons – that I failed to avoid refers to Trudeau as our “celebrity” PM, and also mentions that bigoted nonentity Scheer who so often guffaws, à la Howdy Doody, about “PM Selfie.”

Returning to Niagara, this recent civic election has offered some interesting optics too. I’ve walked by a billboard of deposed Regional Czar – oh, sorry, I mean, Chair – Alan Caslin that declares Niagara has too many politicians, and I wonder about the self regard and arrogance that didn’t anticipate that many voters would respond by turfing his malfesant ass out of office.

Oh, politicians; I’d say they’re like that witch bullying the magic mirror into averring that yes, you are the fairest of them all, but I hate to insult the witch by association. Perhaps more Spider Jerusalem is required: “They say they like politicians but couldn’t eat a whole one.” Perhaps because they make you a bit sick to your stomach, I’d aver…

Some of Cartagena’s appropriated scenes are reminiscent of the frenzy around Pope John Paul II’s visit to Canada over two decades ago, or some of the same populist posturing we’ve seen from the current Pope, Francis: and now, as the Catholic cabal hurtles headlong towards canonizing JP II, more and more and even more evidence is emerging that no one, in the history of the world, has done more to aid and abet the rape of children than the former Karol Józef Wojtyla and that Francis’s hands, like all in that space, are filthy, oh so filthy. I assure you, ahem, that your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is surely not gloating at all as he quotes Jesus (Matthew 23:27, KJV) “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

Before my hyperbole gets further out of hand – if not already too late – lets examine further what Cartegana offers us, in the VISA space and his wider practice that is as grounded in politics and community as it is in a university gallery space.

Alejandro Cartagena was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic but lives and “works in Monterrey, Mexico. His projects employ landscape and portraiture as a means to examine social, urban and environmental issues. Cartagena’s work has been exhibited internationally in more than 50 group and individual exhibitions in spaces including the the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris and the CCCB in Barcelona, and his work is in the collections of several museums including the San Francisco MOMA, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Portland Museum of Art, The West Collection, the Coppel collection, the FEMSA collection, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the George Eastman House and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and among others.” You can read more, about the many things he’s done, here.

An impressive list of accomplishments, and one that lends weight to Selfies. Conversely, the record of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has included not just appropriate concern over the manufactured media persona (spending 2 billion over five years, on publicity, the most EVER spent by a Mexican President) that Cartagena samples for us, but much more horrifying actions. A smattering of shame: allegations of espionage against journalists (a report in the NY Times was even titled, “In Mexico it’s easy to kill a journalist”) to foster silence regarding reportage on the many allegations of corruption, and this has extended to civil rights activist whom have also been deemed “problems” for the Peña Nieto regime. There is also – unbelievably, it would seem, as we get distracted by images and forget facts, perhaps – how in “September 2014, 43 male college students were forcibly taken then disappeared in Guerrero. The forced mass disappearance of the students arguably became the biggest political and public security scandal Peña Nieto had faced during his administration. It led to nationwide protests, particularly in the state of Guerrero and Mexico City, and international condemnation.”

I am again reminded of The Smiler. When you visit A Presidential Guide to Selfies (or purchase the book) hold these – and go and search out more information about jovial and jocular and jaunty President Peña Nieto – and other abuses of power made by this seemingly happy, harmless facade of a man in mind.

Returning to Cartagena’s informative and lovely site: when I visited I also spent significant time with his other works, specifically Carpoolers, and this offers a tonic to Selfies.

The statement regarding that work indicates that Cartagena uses his lens – or as with Selfies, the lens of others – in examining his, and the wider, socio economic world. The statement for that work: Offering a different take on ‘carpooling’ Alejandro Cartagena continues his pointed investigation of the multiple and complex issues relating to unhampered suburban expansion. These images show how carpooling is practised by workers in México.

They are an acute observation to overgrowth issues in Mexico, where suburbs are being built in far away lands with no proper public transportation to the urban centers causing greater commutes and consumption of gas. Even though these workers are not conscious of the ecological impact they have by travelling this way as they are doing it to save time and money, they are a silent contributor to the preservation of our city and planet.

These are works that are disturbing immediately, with the obvious poverty and suffering of the ‘carpoolers’, and offer an interesting contrast to the euphoric – if somewhat vacuous – public in Selfies.

When Trump blundered into the American presidency, via the machinations (successful and failed) indicative of the corpulent yet cancerous American political system, I remember being fascinated by a political “leader” who could communicate directly with people, through Twitter. Put aside the execrable content for a moment, that the format is limited intellectually and can foster spiteful spittles of foolishness, and consider that there was no mediation, no barrier, between what “leader” and “followers.”

Yet, we’ve seen this not only fail but become an embarrassment: in this same manner, the “presidential selfie” has potential, yet by its very nature resists any real content, or real application or utility. I was present at one of the events in St. Catharines where PM Trudeau visited, and though there was time for these brief interactions, they were more mob-like than anything, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Perhaps that’s not just the Sontagian dilemma of how photography invites projection, but also that in the essence these politicians – whether Nieto or even Trump – were empty and inviting us to fill them with whatever we liked, only to find that was a ploy, a con. To return to the idea put out by hooks, of the “product”, one must always – especially in politics, these mad days – practice caveat emptor / buyer beware. After all, there’s no warranty and though it might look good, as in the case of Peña Nieto’s record, it has been somewhat of a lemon. Or perhaps, as with the manufactured sales pitch (2 billion over five years), Peña Nieto can be said to be an impulse purchase that played upon disinformation and unethical salespeople, and now there is no returns policy in place, and still a large price to be paid.

If I return to the initial distaste and touch of anger I experienced when first visiting Cartagena’s work, the explanation may be found in the words of Neil Gaiman’s hustler, Wednesday: On the whole, I make my money from people who never know they’ve been taken, and who never complain, and who will frequently line up to be taken when I come back that way again.

A Presidential Guide to Selfies is on display in the VISA Gallery at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts until November 6th, 2018. The gallery hours are 1 – 5 PM, Tuesday through Saturday. The situation Alejandro Cartagena‘s work addresses, however, is ongoing, on our televisions and online, and in our regional, national and international discourse, as you read this. All images are courtesy the artist’s web site or media releases, or shot by the writer.


Obscured and overt, obvious and implied / Amber Lee Williams’ (un)hidden at the VISA

Amber Lee Williams’ exhibition (un)hidden incorporates several distinct bodies of work that intersect with each other, growing out of and into each other. That isn’t so much a pun as an acknowledgement of the personal and very physical narratives that define Williams’ practice, diverse in media (polaroid emulsion lifts on cotton rag paper to readymade yet enhanced mason jars) if interconnected in concept and content.

This convergence occurs literally in the VISA gallery. The music boxes along the one wall (gutted and mounted in tiny jutting “drawers”), audio both comforting and creepy, wafts out to join you as you move among the mason jars mounted on plinths (Preserves (Jar Installation)). These are unembellished metaphors of vessels, but also offer images at the bottom of these glasses that correspond to the images on two other gallery walls (Preserves (Jar Image Installation) or Change or Over the Shoulder).

Several of these prints (Upper Body Lower Body for example) blend abstraction and recognizable depictions that play off each other, in colour and form, and one final wall (if you walk clockwise around the space, beginning with the enticing music boxes) offers a large “contact” sheet. This acts as a visual “statement”, in tandem with Williams’ written one, but also as an indicator as to many of her ideas visually realized around you originated. To stand in front of these black and white images where Williams, with her daughter and partner, recreates “hidden mother” images that once proliferated in archival, or Victorian, photography, and then turn and move among the tiny shelves protruding from the wall, with music box “guts” you’re invited to wind (multiple chimings that overlap and layer, in and out of sync with each other), to stylized renderings of “motherhood” that are as illustrative as they are conceptual, is to see that Williams has offered a very autobiographical exhibition.Besides being a strong show aesthetically, there is a sense of her self, here, that is very much like a journal of memory and being.

Despite its title, (un)hidden is a very physical, corporeal show. The artworks grounded in a physical being. This – like the different artworks that overlap and enhance each other, employs the artist’s strong sense of identity (as seen in her past works, and that Williams is one of the hardest working, and most prolific artists in STC. Thus who she is, to me – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – is very much defined by the images she creates) as a base to explore different concepts of “mother”, seen or unseen, overt or simply implied.

If I consider a main “framework” (my recent engaging conversations with curator Emma German have me considering how we interact with art, how we expect to do so, or don’t expect to do so) its that Williams’ (un)hidden has a great deal of resonance, with connections only clearly seen / understood upon completion of the work, with instinct and intuition in process that informs the realization but is not overt or limiting in its construction. As someone who can, of course, not ever be a mother, nor has children or any desire in that area, I never felt that this exhibition didn’t offer me experiences that are engaging visually and conceptually.

One of my favourite authors, Salman Rushdie, in The Moor’s Last Sigh, gives voice to an artist who is also a mother (or vice versa) and one critic of that book described her (Aurora Zogoiby) as “too much of an artist to be a good mother.” With Williams, the opposite is true, though even that’s too simplistic a statement. The pieces in un(hidden) suggest a gradation of meaning where something is not so much visible as intimated, no so much missing as alluded to, and thus present and absent simultaneously. This is where the visual surpasses language. This multiplicity of Art is like a mason jar that suggest domesticity and careful nurturing and that, upon closer examination, offers an image “sunk” within it that elevates it to portraiture, both on a personal level of the artist’s experience, but also as a trope of mother / mothering / the complicated dynamic between being an artist and a mother.

Her statement is well written and expansive: I’ll offer a few excerpts.

“This body of work is in some ways a documentation of my experience as a mother, and an exploration of the individual and shared themes of motherhood in general. While the work was created from a personal point of view, I connect it to the timelessness of motherhood and the universal truth: we are all born.”

(un)hiddenis the culmination of a year-long independent study course (VISA 3F99) with Professor Amy Friend. I was pregnant when the project began, and gave birth to my second daughter at the end of January this year. My studio processes involved experimental photographic techniques with Polaroid emulsion lifts and lumen printing; while incorporating sculpture and installation as an integral part of the work. My intention for this work was to explore the idea of a “contemporary hidden mother”, with other themes of motherhood, relationships between family members, and the loss that we all face in the inevitable passing of time.”








This is an exhibition of imagery and elusiveness (in conversation, the idea of creating an image or object and trusting in the intuitive nature of the process while understanding that interlinking concepts will reveal themselves later was a recurring point). Like the mothers that are concealed, or only revealed by implication or a sudden glimpsed detail (whether the historical photographs that Williams displays, from her own collection or in the restaging of these in Hidden Mother Contact Sheet) this show offers obvious signifiers and understated ones.

Williams is also one of the artists who’ll be exhibiting in the 2018 In The Soil Arts Festival, with a new work that continues some of the ideas found (or to be found) in (un)hidden. Her Self Portrait as a Female Fountain will be installed at the corner of St. Paul and Bond Streets in the downtown, but as with all In The Soil events and exhibitors, check back at their site for the latest updates and any variations. Williams performed continuously through ITS last year, although she may have walked right by you without recognition, and she commented that ITS is a space where she likes to challenge herself and step outside her usual comfort zone of artmaking. Personally, I look forward to seeing how Bruce Nauman might be reconfigured through a female, maternal or perhaps simply contemporary lens. It might be a commentary on gender (performative or otherwise) but it also has some connection back to Williams’ Breastmilk on Baby’s Breath 1 and 2, from (un)hidden.

(un)hidden is on display until the end of April in the MIWSFPA, in the VISA Gallery. In The Soil Arts Festival will begin its tenth anniversary extravaganza on April 27th, 2018.

All images generously provided by, and copyright, of the artist.


Geography as metaphor : Vai e Vem

The VISA Gallery in the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts is a site that is all over the place, displaying exhibitions of various stripes, since its inception last Fall. Now, that may, in fact, sound like an insult, but considering that the exhibition currently on display (until May 28th) is titled Back and Forth, and is one of the more challenging explorations of place and distance as regards artmaking (whether the images and objects in the gallery themselves, or in the conversations that shaped them) I’ve encountered, it is a compliment. Or a challenge, at least.

And henceforth I will refer to the exhibition as Vai e Vem, as the statement from collaborator / writer / curator Nadja de Carvalho Lamas, from the University of Joinville Region (UNIVILLE), of Brazil, names it. I’ll cite further words of hers: “The challenge is in the relationship between the exhibited works within the exhibition space itself; when we attempt to comprehend the tense dialogue between the artworks as we encounter them together. The possible relationships are intriguing, provoking significant and unique aesthetic reflections.”

The artworks in the space are from four artists: Jefferson Kielwagen and Tirotti, from Brazil, and Ehryn Torrell and Duncan MacDonald, of Canada. Vai e Vem began as a conversation between Carvalho Lamas and MacDonald, from a 2014 residency in Uruguay where they met. As it progressed, MacDonald invited Torrell, from London, ON, and Carvalho Lamas invited the aforementioned two artists from her home city. “The relationship and exchanges between the artists…took place entirely online, as they did not know each other beforehand. The four artists share strong links with conceptual art [and] have established art practices, academic backgrounds and experience with university teaching and research.” A previous incarnation was at the Museu de Arte de Joinville in Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, in February of 2016.

That last bit may have caught your eye: Santa Catarina to St. Catharines. I’ll inject something else, from one of my favourite writers, in his usage of “backwards and forwards.” There is no point when now begins and then stops: all places are the same place, as we carry them all with us, and inside us, to “new” places.

There are several works that will immediately engage you. One is Tirotti’s projection on an inviting, relaxing chair, whose dark brown perfectly highlights the blue white of the “pages” of the “book”, turning by themselves with great speed, endlessly repetitively. This video installation, Un Permanecer / A Remaining is situated in a corner, like one reading removed from the larger social bustle. There is a ghostly quality to Un Permanecer: an absence defines the work, though the actions continues…

Back and ForthTS3

Jefferson Kielwagon’s Péralo no céa / Pearl in the Sky is a work that further explores the notion of place and displace, and the images in the gallery are perhaps documentation, perhaps just a snap of a moment. The title card describes the work as an “intervention”, which is perhaps the best way to describe it. More of the descriptor, for the six images on the wall, that are somewhat bland and uninviting: “Three pearls were sent to the sky. Each pearl was tied to a helium balloon. The balloons were then released one at a time.”

I imagine someone completely unaware of the larger project, the art or the artist, finding this pearl on the ground, far from where it was set aloft. Let’s be romantic: imagine a person seeing it descend and holding out their hand, like awaiting manna from heaven, from an unknown and unknowable donor….

MacDonald’s Piano Burn appears twice for us: being consumed by flames on a large video monitor, for nearly an hour, all vivid and sexy in its destructive beauty. There’s a smaller photograph to the side, like a dead thing in a field. My previous conversations with MacDonald about his work focused on the strictures and structures placed upon music – its performance, the commodity of it – by economic forces and assumptions of consumerism. Watching this piano burn I can’t help but feel that the bulkiness of the instrument, the intimidating manner in which children are trained to “play” (the wrong word, surely, as its not fun), like an act of recitation and “education”  that suffocates any joy of music, is being reduced to ash in a field, to blow away and be done.

Back and ForthTS5

That aspect of temporality, of something “past” is present in many of the works here.

I once commented that Amy Friend’s work played upon how “time stands still in travel.” Most of the artists in Vai e Vem are more about a “flattening”, but not in that hideous neo liberal way that discards meaning: instead, meanings and ideas and experiences are allowed to translate to other sites – from Santa Catarina to St. Catharines, from Brazil to Canada, from nation to nation, country to country, with all the respective “national imaginaries” that both sites encompass: from  Simón Bolívar to Queen Elizabeth, and respective societal fragments that we inaccurately weld together and self servingly (with laziness, perhaps) call “history.”

Tirotti’s Outras Visitas / Other Visits is dated 2016. I only mention the date for this work, instead of the others, as it illustrates its immediacy, as with its video monitor and digital prints its a mish mash of “here” and “there”, Santa Catarina and St. Catharines (but this is here, for me, but there for him, and thus the inevitable mutability of place), a Back and Forth / Vai e Vem, if you will. Outras Visitas with its Google images infers immediacy and reality. My unfinished schooling in religion did introduce me to Boethius, who postulated that God does all things simultaneously, and everything is happening, has happened, will happen in one Divine moment that we simply are unable to understand, with our limited notion of time and place…..

Kielwagen’s Troca de Entidades / Entity Swap (another “intervention”) also approaches this blending in a religious manner: a plastic figurine representing Exú Marabô “an entity worshipped in Brazilian Umbanda” was placed by Kielwagen in a Vodou temple (for Papa-da Alphonze) in Haiti. An image on the wall documents this: another image shows how Kielwagen then placed Dambala, from Haitian Vodou, in a Candomblé temple (Mãe Jacilia D’Oshum) in Joinville. Voodoo, it should be noted, is the only religion to ever absorb Christianity, and not the usual Imperial reversal.

I’ve not mentioned Torrell’s works. They’re literally and conceptually the most static, in this space. The back wall of the gallery is filled with her scrappy works, more colour than form, flat and repetitive, acrylic and collaged rough shapes. That could mean pieces like Easy Glamour, Filters and Screens or Wood Pulp are blandly inappropriate to this exhibition: or it could mean they act as a ground, a heavy base (ironic, as a favourite piece is titled Flotsam), to pull us back in when we forget where “we are.” An anchor point to the absent actions of MacDonald, Tirotti and Kielwagen, that only visit the gallery in passing, after the fact.

Vai e Vem / Back and Forth is an uncanny, challenging show. Visit it. Follow the artists online, as they may exist more “there” than in a gallery space. Consider the gallery space as just a portal, an incomplete encounter, or a temporal opportunity. Art, after all, is all in our heads.