Thursday, December 17, 2009

Glenn Ligon, Illingworth-Kerr Gallery, September to December, 2009

(image source:

During a residency at Alberta College of Art & Design in 2007, New York artist Glenn Ligon filmed his version of the last scene in Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 silent film ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. After the film was developed, the footage returned damaged and the results led to the ghostly film ‘Death of Tom’. This looped film was featured in Ligon’s recent exhibition at the Illingworth-Kerr Gallery alongside ‘Untitled (Minnesota Massacre)’, a series of 19th century painted panels the artist discovered in storage at the Glenbow museum.

Based upon stage versions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s original story ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, Edwin S. Porter’s silent film introduced early 20th century film-viewing audiences to one of the first narrative depictions of race relations in film. During a recent artist talk, Ligon showed documentation of the making of ‘Death of Tom’, wherein Ligon and other actors restaged the scene of Tom’s death and the visitation of 'little Eva' as an angel. He called the completed film’s damaged footage both a “failure of representation”, and an “excavation”. The resulting film, screened within a small black box of a theater, is of eerie, abstract beauty. White shapes upon a black screen seem to shiver, breathe, and struggle to define themselves. Jason Moran’s accompanying music plays to this struggle. Shapes crackle like static, are pulled like wool, and pulse skittishly as Moran’s errant themes become melancholic, pick up hopefully, and stumble as the screen flickers and becomes blank. Moran plays to each damaged scene, each chord pulled gently by slight suggestions of tone or mood. The obscured actors have morphed into tiny threads of light, their human presence visible as streaks of coherent film, shifting and stretching like the shadows of shoes glimpsed from beneath a door.

As the film continues to loop, each time introduced by fragments of the original titles, Moran’s score adapts different versions of itself, its mood shifting palpably. The music seems to age, loosen, lighten, and become heavier, placing itself within and upon the film as an accompanying, then central character. Moran is known for improvising compositions from the phonetic and melodic textures of looped recordings of songs and conversations; a hypnotic structure which brings to mind Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ performed by the Kronos Quartet. The role of Moran’s music in Ligon’s film is both a narrator and activator of versions, possibilities, adaptations, and conversations about the film.

The first notes of Moran’s score as it accompanies the fragments of the film’s title instantly evokes “silent film”, a style within a period of film’s history instantly linked to narratives of oppression which, as writer Jon Davies observes, have “tainted the entire American narrative cinema, whether explicitly or implicitly”. What becomes apparent is that Ligon’s film subtly demonstrates how this history retains its presence through mere suggestion of the silent film refrain.

Leaving the black box structure, a slide projector automatically flips through snippets of text collected and arranged by Ligon. The texts evoke another theatrical version of history. Its dramatic tones describe “The Great Tableau”, “The Great Moral Exhibition of the Age!”, and various “Life Like View”s of violence, its tastefully withheld details “left to the imagination”. The slides, emphasized by the sounds of Moran’s music coming from the tiny theater, are projected upon a high white wall where a makeshift set of stairs allow viewers to see what is on the other side: several large paintings propped or fastened to wooden supports, which depict naïvely-rendered and stagey scenes of conflict between Native and white figures. These figures are all set against outdoor village or landscape scenes which evoke a style in between the sideshow backdrop and the outsider artist’s intimate, fleshy tones.

The placement of the stairs and small size of the platform from which to view these works forces the viewer to strain to try and see much of the paintings’ details, and each new angle cleverly obscures other paintings from clear view. This need for a better viewing angle, particularly as these paintings are both oddly beautiful and grotesque in their glimpsed violent acts (one of the paintings shows a child nailed upside-down to the outside of a house), implicates the viewer in the act of shameless gaping. This is fitting, as these paintings, collected by the Glenbow in the 1960s, are fragments of a 19th century traveling panorama used to display and entertain crowds with a dramatically heightened view of the 1862 Sioux / Dakota uprising against white settlers in Minnesota. In his artist talk, Ligon relayed that the Glenbow felt the panels were “difficult to deal with”, keeping them stored and out of view of the public for the majority of their stay at the museum since their acquisition.

Both ‘Death of Tom’ and ‘Untitled (Minnesota Massacre)’ explore the residual power of distorted, damaged representation, creating entirely new stories out of already-obscured historical texts, and playing with our continued susceptibility to dramatizations of those texts. Ligon’s collaboration with Jason Moran explores this sense of innate history through a much more direct positioning of the artist against and within the text, leading to an installation which continually manifests, as Ligon suggests: “its own structures and desires".

*Review by Kim Neudorf

Works cited:

Coburn, Tyler. Glenn Ligon: I Am… Art Review (London, England) no. 29 (January/February 2009) p. 56-65

Davies, Jon. Glenn Ligon’s Death of Tom. Xtra September 2008. 5 December 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

Exhibition: One on One Project. Photography By Ted Kerr, Curatorial Statement by QC Gu

AIDS ripped apart the sexual psyches of a whole generation of queer men. It ripped apart mine, and I was a baby still when the death counts began to grow. Shrouded in silence, thousands of queer men went to the grave afraid, clothed, and hidden.

I was in my teenage years when the memories started to come. In the lamp-lit glow of my bedroom, stories from the darkness weaved their way into my life. Books, movies and photographs all pointed in one direction – the gay man was first and foremost a diseased man. That would mean, of course, that I was a diseased man.

Sex and AIDS became synonymous, and as hard as I tried to separate them, the chains seemed impossible. Fear wrapped its heavy hand around me and I carried the burden of AIDS upon my shoulders.

AIDS ripped us apart. Collectively, we can stitch ourselves together again. I think it’s time that I stitched myself together again.

In Ted Kerr’s Polaroids, the men are strong and vulnerable; they are timid and powerful. They appear to us clothed yet naked. They are fantasies rooted in reality. These photos show men finally embracing their bodies and standing in true sexual empowerment.

In the words of Eric Rofes, “For many gay men, the [HIV] epidemic has mutilated our identities, profoundly warped sexuality and intimate relations, and reaffirmed subconscious linkages between homosexuality and contagion.” Kerr’s photographs offer a departure from this AIDS devastated psyche; they present the possibility of safety, intimacy and strength in the midst of a world where HIV and AIDS continue to be a reality.

AIDS is not over, but we don’t need to be afraid anymore. Instead we should be standing naked and queer before the world shouting “This is my body. Witness me!”

It’s time to stand strong in our sexualities. It’s time to make love again courageously through the night. Let us heal our wounds and love our scars. Let us embrace ourselves and each other.

It is with great honor and pride that we present to you the One on One Project by Edmonton photographer, writer and artist, Ted Kerr.

QC Gu is HIV Edmonton's Gay Men’s Community Education Program Planner

Exhibited in Edmonton at Play Nightclub on November 29, 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jason Carter, Nanabozho: The Tail of Giving, Catalyst Theatre, until December 20, 2009

Growing up in Edmonton, Jason Carter didn't feel exposed to very much of his Aboriginal spirituality. In his search to reconnect to his heritage, he found Nanabozho, the trickster rabbit, in the unlikely form of soapstone.

A few days before the opening of his most recent exhibition, Nanabozho: The Tail of Giving, Carter shared, "I started carving soapstone in 2003 after I had mentioned offhandedly to my sister that I would love to try soapstone carving, and at Christmas, I got a piece of soapstone, which I left in the closet for a while. But as I continued looking to connect with my spirituality, I was looking for a flat piece of stone to smudge with and carry around with me, I ended up cutting off a piece of this soapstone, which turned into a tiny eagle's wing, and that's when I really started playing with it."

Image credit: Jason Carter, 2009

Beginning with the nontraditional tools of a wrench and a screwdriver, Carter began carving his first pieces of free form and animal forms. With a friend and mentor in St. Albert-based Doug Smart, Carter has gone on to have two solo exhibitions in the past year, been picked up by Bearclaw Gallery and selected as one of six Aboriginal artists to represent Alberta at the upcoming Olympics in Vancouver.

"I started carving soapstone because I was searching for my Aboriginal spirituality," he continues. "In that, in trying to get height out of the stone, I found Nanbozho, the trickster rabbit. In Cree, Mi'kmaq and Ojibway, they all use the rabbit as their trickster character, something used by the elders to traditionally teach children about morality and their surroundings, and in my research, I was inspired by these stories."

Within many fables, it is Nanabozho's trickery that leads to and explains why the beaver has a flat tail, or why the grizzly bear has a hump on its back.

Working as a live camera operator for City TV, Carter combined creative forces with his coworker and TV personality Bridget Ryan for a run of cabaret storytelling and art exhibition at the Catalyst Theatre for most of December.

"I see a streaming narrative throughout the pieces that are interconnected," says Carter, who trained in graphic design and hasn't taken any formal art training since high school. "We were trying to tie the two shows together through storytelling, as both shows are tied to stories. I've only ever seen one cabaret, so I'm not sure what to expect, but there are 18 new songs all interconnected through story and within context they all tell a story through song."

Carving primarily in soapstone, as well as chlorite and wonderstone, the exhibition features 13 paintings and 13 sculptures. Although soapstone is not exactly a popular art medium outside of most Northern Canadian communities, Carter seems committed to the art form.

"The history of soapstones includes smaller pendants as they would be more mobile," says Carter, whose pieces weigh roughly 15 – 25 pounds each. "There's quite a few carvers up north, but not too many in the south, or urban cities. It's a very messy medium, I have to wear a full suit and wear a masked ventilator as soapstone dust is bad for the lungs, and I kick up a lot when I'm carving. It's hard for anyone to get into. It's really messy and expensive, but I really like doing it."

*First published in Vue Weekly

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Lee Henderson, when you have not been there, your heart is full of longing (redux), Harcourt House Gallery until December 18, 2009

Investigating the arbitrary boundaries surrounding authenticity, specifically in relation to the practice of Buddhism, Lee Henderson's photo-based exhibition, when you have not been there, your heart is full of longing poses notions of permanence and impermanence for viewers to deliberate.

Raised atheist, Henderson developed an interest in Taoism in high school, then the swordsmanship of Kendo, eventually even teaching Tai Chi, but does not consider himself a practicing Buddhist.

"Being Buddhist or not comes up a lot, but I'm more interested in troubling that idea. When people ask me and I answer, 'Yes,' these works and research are permitted, but if I answer 'No,' then it's problematic," Henderson explains, who was in town for last week's opening and artist talk.

"My most honest answer is that 'I don't know.' I like what [performance artist] Laurie Anderson says, that she's a 'Committed Beginner of Buddhism.'"
Committed to researching the boundaries between thought and culture, but suspicious of dogma, Henderson has been negotiating this cultural baggage that includes a former teacher telling him flat out that he'll never understand Buddhism because he's not Asian.

"Where are those boundaries?" Henderson asks, as concepts of authenticity are challenged in an increasingly globalized world where thoughts transfer fluidly and instantaneously.

Image credit: Lee Henderson, "Transmission 11 of Budai" 2008

Having exhibited this show at the Chicago Art Fair in 2008 and again at the Art Gallery of Regina in 2009, Henderson constructs paired perspectives hinged on notions of containment and infection. In the majority of works entitled "The Impact of Hyphenation in Wasps," a single wasp (playing off the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant acronym) is surgically pinned to a Buddha figure with an acupuncture needle. Blown up to a poster size, or more specifically, an arrivals/departure screen size, these WASP prints are paired with a series of "Transmission" works, of Buddha figurines wrapped in a yellow condom, a visual and physical barrier that Henderson also describes as "protective of its insemination from spreading/protecting of the wasps." Playing off notions of acceptance or rejection, Henderson presents the wasp and the kitschy buddha figurine as two symbols engaging in shared notions.

Receiving his BFA from ACAD and his MFA from the University of Regina with a specialization in Intermedia, Henderson has been building on a body of work that fixates on the Buddha symbol as the center of his ongoing investigation in impermanence and metaphysicality. The exhibition as a whole stands visually polished, but there is something lacking as an entry point in basing its foundation on such static symbols of authenticity, despite his artistic intention to problematize such concepts.

While these works are identified somewhat as self-portraits, Henderson remains elusive as to which components in the image he relates with, as he does not identify with Buddhism, but he also does not identify with being a WASP. Being able to straddle both worlds without committing to either, there are certainly intriguing questions to be asked from an artistic point of view, but the exhibition as a whole feels swallowed in a theoretical framework that has not realized itself in praxis.

*First published in Vue Weekly