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WINNIPEG, Manitoba — On a Thursday night in August, a crowd of people inside an empty gallery in Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art peered through the windows at a red, eight-foot Om symbol that was being secured to a flatbed truck and readied to traverse the city. Titled “Nobody pray for me, the road to hell is paved with good intentions (Mapping Identity: The Challenges of Immigrant Culture),” by Winnipeg-based artist Divya Mehra, the Om sign is one of several sculptures and performances (all from 2017) located around Winnipeg for Plug In’s summer exhibition, Stages: Drawing the Curtain; it touches on many of the themes that run through the show: absurdity; confrontation; identity politics; and the denaturalization of public space.
Stages, a public art project featuring nine artists from Canada, Europe and Central America, is the concept of its curator Jenifer Papararo, who is also Executive Director of Plug In. Formerly a curator at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver, Papararo has spent the past three years at Plug In cultivating a rigorous exhibition program and bringing both the museum and the city out from under the shadow of Winnipeg’s most famous art-exports, filmmaker Guy Maddin and the ’90s art collective, the Royal Art Lodge. With Stages she re-imagines the city as “a performative site of fluctuating and active meaning” and “a character in each of the artworks.”
Once a leading railway hub for North American trade — called the “Chicago of the North” because of its parallel architecture and development at the turn of the 20th century — Winnipeg began an economic decline with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. The economic downturn continued throughout the 20th century, with the advent of suburban indoor malls drawing business away from the downtown area. The combination of geographic isolation and economic decline resulted in a landscape of abandoned and renegade spaces, many of which host the works in Stages.
One of them is the Hudson’s Bay Company building, a former luxury department store on Winnipeg’s downtown thoroughfare Portage Avenue, now partially vacant and serving as the site for two audio pieces, The Invention and Conclusion of the Eye by Norwegian artist Toril Johannessen and Potato Gardens Band by Vancouver-based Krista Belle Stewart.
Johannessen’s 40-minute audio drama (also broadcast on local radio each Sunday of the show’s duration) narrates the eye’s evolution in nature through an extended meditation by a software designer called Mx. The paradox of the piece — an audio recording about sight — draws attention to the act of perception and the immediate environment: scientific eye diagrams folded into origami fortune tellers are piled inconspicuously on a table; light changes from warm to cool almost imperceptibly throughout the play; daisies mentioned in passing are arranged in a vase; signs for prosthetic limbs hang nearby. Although minor bits of scenery were added or arranged by the artist, the vast space on the building’s fourth floor remained largely untouched, with Kafka-esque details such as a lone desk and chair in a back room emerging as the absurd in reality.
Krista Belle Stewart’s installation, Potato Gardens Band, which features a digitized wax-cylinder recording of music by her great-grandmother, Terese Kaimetko, recorded by anthropologist James Alexander Teit, might have been better served in a gallery or museum setting. A member of the Upper Nicola Band of the Okanagan Nation, Stewart investigates narrative and interpretation, particularly in relation to indigenous histories. Her installation of spotlights and smoke near a row of mirrored columns creates a sense of being transported in time, which suits the recording’s ghostly quality, but the dimly lit basement feels too haunted on its own. Although the manipulated visual effects, in combination with the gloom of the basement, detract from an otherwise entrancing recording, the subterranean space evokes the economic and social marginalization of — and the long history of brutality and violence against — the city’s large indigenous population.
Issues of identity, otherness and discrimination are equally complicated in Mehra’s “Nobody pray for me” and in works by Toronto-based artist Abbas Akhavan.
Mehra – the only Winnipeg native in Stages who lives in the city and a first-generation Indian Canadian — uses humor less to diffuse conflict than to ambush the viewer. In a 2013 Hyperallergic interview, she explains, “I’m hoping [viewers] see the work and think: ‘Hahaha that’s so funny!’ and then something like the thought ‘OMFG WHAT AM I LAUGHING AT’ happens.”
With “Nobody pray for me,” the Om symbol (which accompanies objects of worship in Hinduism, but is not a primary object, like the Christian cross) morphs into a seductive glowing, cherry-red logo that evokes the symbol’s appropriation by an affluent (and largely white) wellness culture in North America and its deviation from religious to “lifestyle” associations; as it is driven around the city on the flatbed truck, it seems as if it’s on an endless search for a destination somewhere between nightclub and yoga studio. The route, which was the one that Mehra took as a child on her way to Catholic school, travels north to a largely South Asian community and south to her childhood home in a predominantly white suburb, mapping a topography of otherness — her own as an artist, woman, and person of color, and that of the city’s non-white population.
For Variations on a Monument, Abbas Akhavan organized a series of performances showcasing Winnipeg’s drag scene. Set on a fountain plinth at a public park overlooking the Assiniboine River, the performances merge queer and drag subcultures with an Iranian tradition of transforming fountains into makeshift stages. The intersection of “public” and “private” suggested by the relocation of club acts to an open park is echoed in the scheduling of the performances at sunset. The plinth, on which a monument originally stood, anoints the drag queen as a living monument to marginalization, the return of normative society’s repressed.
With “Ashes Under the Hill/Let Our Hands Grow to Hold What We Love,” Vancouver-based artist Ron Tran addresses the return of a different kind of repression. Tran, whose practice addresses issues of consumerism and waste, installed collaged cutouts of Canadian products from the first half of the 20th century at The Forks, a riverside park. The piece was inspired by Westview Park, a public space in Winnipeg’s suburbs converted from a landfill in 1960 and still unofficially called “Garbage Hill.” The artist chose The Forks, a bustling tourist destination, based on its high volume of consumption and waste. While the level of activity obstructed the cutouts at times, which emerge from manicured bushes, the area — lined with restaurants, shops, and a large marketplace — contributes to Tran’s commentary; it bespeaks the irony of “resolving” a landfill problem, as the case with “Garbage Hill,” with businesses that beget more waste.
Erica Eyres, whose drawings, videos, and sculptures traffic in absurdity, hyperbolizes the strange and singular with “Head,” a giant, clown-like inflatable head affixed to the roof of a shuttered Mini Mart slated for demolition. An amateurish mural depicting bike riders and a woman in funereal dress adorns the side of the building. Eyres, a Winnipeg native based in Glasgow, Scotland, relates “Head” to the inflatable figures used to advertise store openings, but, she told me, her grinning, greenish-gray “decapitated head [instead] commemorates the closure of a business and the death of a building.” Too awkward to be frightening, the piece invokes an uncanny sense of unease, all the weirder in the way it invades the tranquility of a restaurant patio next door.
For his part, Costa Rican artist Federico Herrero produces a dizzying redefinition of space by painting the floor of a gray underground tunnel connecting municipal buildings in dazzling yellows, blues, and greens layered with abstract, organic shapes. Herrero’s “Landscape” at once enlivens the tunnel with colors characteristic of Central and South American art and architecture (underscoring, by extension, the differences between Central and South American culture and that of North America) and stimulates diverse reactions among visitors (a corridor in bright yellow,was one such trigger — it might invigorate some visitors, but it felt disorienting and claustrophobic to me).
Among the works that I caught during my tour of Stages, Kara Hamilton’s “Curtain Wall” and Pablo Bronstein’s Peony Unfurling at Various Speeds in Shopping Mall engage the most directly with the notion of the stage.
“Curtain Wall” is a large rectangular “wall” carved from local Tyndall limestone, located in a park next to a walking trail alongside the Assiniboine River. Hamilton, in her artist’s statement for Stages, cites Jennifer Krasinski’s one-line play Curtain from Prop Tragedies (2010) as a partial inspiration for the piece: “When in doubt, she wrote, blame the window for the view.” The settling evokes an abandoned amphitheater; two large, close-set, eye-shaped holes or “windows” in the wall create a dynamic in which passers-by look both at and through the piece, while the wall simultaneously blocks a full view of the river and with its eyeholes, looks back at the viewer.
A kind of counterpart to The Invention and Conclusion of the Eye, Toril Johannessen’s audio drama of optics, the streamlined simplicity of the piece belies its complex dialogue with seeing, being seen, and what is unseen — Tyndall stone constitutes most of Winnipeg’s municipal buildings — and reifying the role of the wall as the very fabric of separation and, increasingly, discrimination.
Peony Unfurling at Various Speeds in Shopping Mall, a dance performance conceived by Pablo Bronstein and co-choreographed by the artist and dancer/choreographer Rosalie Wahlfrid, took place at the Fort Garry Place Mall. Constructed in the 1980s, at the height of postmodern pastiche architecture, it’s the kind of space that feels deserted even when it is occupied. The mixing and faking of architectural and decorative styles — chandeliers, trompe l’oeil marble columns, a gilded mezzanine, and faux Rococo and Baroque paintings — reflects the pastiche in Bronstein’s drawings and paintings of real and imagined architecture.
The performance, a synthesis of ballet and modern dance, featuring Wahlfrid and seven local dancers, might have been campy in the hands of another artist, but Bronstein and Wahlfrid’s sincerity was evident in the technique and grace of the work, complementing the idiosyncratic sincerity of the building’s design.
Papararo plans to revive Stages as a biennial event in Winnipeg. Future iterations, she stated, might adhere less to the “stage” premise and include two-dimensional works; however, the principle of moving artwork out of the museum and into the city, and encouraging both interactions and interventions, will remain central.
Some of the works achieve this kind of active engagement — connecting with or confronting the public — more successfully than others. What makes the whole of Stages gutsier, and more fulfilling, than most public art projects is the willingness of its creators to expose Winnipeg’s unconventional and, at times, undesirable aspects and to allow public art to act as a kind of magnifying glass, finding intrigue where we might otherwise see a curiosity or worse. Undoubtedly the city’s isolation plays a part — it’s hard to imagine such freedom in securing public sites from a city vying to revamp itself for tourists — and Winnipeg will soon go back indoors for winter. But it’s a fascinating notion and one that beckons fruitful exploration of this city in the future.
Stages: Drawing the Curtain continues at various locations around Winnipeg through September 4.
Travel to Winnipeg and hotel accommodations were provided by Travel Winnipeg in connection to the exhibition.