Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review: The Works Art and Design Festival 2010*

Taking the sojourn through downtown Edmonton on opening day, I walked through the 25th edition of The Works Art & Design Festival with little to no expectations. It's been quite a number of years since The Works has offered something of note and intrigue, appearing to grow stale in its mandate of being a summer festival that brings visual art to the downtown public. While the majority of works remain entirely missable if you are not seeking them out, The Works—to nobody's greater surprise than mine—was not an entirely frustrating experience this year.

One reason I may have cringed less was a noticeable increase in artists as curators, from Calgary-based Natali Rodrigues' highlighting of contemporary glass work at the Hotel MacDonald, Shane Golby's selections of works addressing trees in the lower level of the AGA and Lynn Malin's "Earthscapes" exhibition at ArtsHab. Offering small bites of cohesion through an otherwise ramble of works, events and tents, the smaller, curated shows within the overall festival appear to be working; if the festival itself is not going to be curating such exercises, then it should be a place to facilitate them.

A major notable recurrence with this year's Earth theme was new media, with three stellar works by Olivia Kachman, Bob Lysay and Agnieszka Matejko, and Sandra Vida.

Image credit: Still form Olivia Kachman's "Out of the Red, Into the Blue" 2009

Just north of the Square, Kachman takes over a large section of the big tent by filling it with flat screens, log stumps, and piles of fragrant wood chips. Darkened into a cavelike setting, Kachman, who is also one of several artists featured in this year's Square line-up with strong ties to Grande Prairie (the other two being Laura St Pierre and Tina Martel), presents "Out of the Blue and into the Red," a multiperspective installation on the impact the oil and gas industry has on Northern Alberta. Situating perspectives of close to 200 different voices in the round, or around the fire, Kachman immerses her audience immediately into a group dialogue where we are invited to take a seat in nature, or what's left of it, and be mindful of what is actually happening right now to the earth.

Also shedding light on the humanity of industrialization, Vida presents her latest, "Threads" in the Centennial Room down in the lower level of the Stanley A. Milner Library. Continually evolving her practice as an incredibly active and vital media artist in Calgary for decades, Vida goes beyond her video and sound realms to incorporate elements of soft sculpture with projection to convey a story of both personal and contemporary labour politics. Never comprising the historical narrative in favour of the more personable, Vida rather quite successfully intertwines the two through a methodical rhythm of both image and sound.

Deviating from the theme, but perhaps one of the strongest works this year, Lysay and Matejko's video art installation "The Space Between You and Me" addresses young adults with Tourette Syndrome. Matejko, who often creates works exploring the sublime, facilitates the expressions of the youth into a multifaceted hall of mixed realities and mirrors. Situated in The Enterprise gallery space, the work as a whole attempts to convey a sense of honesty between the expressions and its formal counterparts, fracturing clarity and complicating the ways in which we communicate with and understand one another.

My consistent dismay of The Works has been a growing concern about its irrelevance as a festival and destination to artists and art audiences and its alienation of art as something that has to be watered down for a general public. While the festival is still doing far too much and spreading itself far too thin, this is the first time in a long time where I left having seen a number of thoughtful works, or at least a handful of works that countered the questionables and the mundane, which is all anyone can ever hope for when they go "see" art.

*First published on Vue Weekly

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