By Elena Potter
Sept. 23 - Dec. 31, 2010
What can art do to inspire environmental change? What kind of art could be shown at an industrial site that is now an eco community centre? To answer these questions, this exhibition brought together four different videos, projected into adjoining brick tunnels, which house the kilns left over from the site’s former life as a brickworks.
The four kilns are an inspired choice for the installation. When visited separately, each function like a private screening booth. Their dimensions make for an unusual viewing experience: standing at the entrance of each tunnel is like peering down a rabbit hole to a distant reality. Walking deeper into the installation is immersive.
As a title, Four Directions is apt— the four works had only tenuous links. Described as representing the balance of the directions on the First Nations Medicine Wheel, this theme came off more like representations of the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and the works suffer from this oversimplification. This is not to say that the individual pieces themselves are without value, just that the curatorial position is a stretch. Admittedly, when I set out to visit the exhibition, the publicity led me to believe the installation included only Isabelle Hayeur. But, I got extra bang for my buck: works by Dana Claxton and Val Klassen commissioned for this project, along with a clip from Werner Herzog’s seminal Lessons of Darkness (1992) round out the exhibition.
I had previously seen Lessons of Darkness — its long, unbroken filming lulls the eye, a feeling that is at odds with the wasteland scenes. But, the engrossing effect is lost in this installation; its generous length is cut to a six-minute clip. This decision throws off the pacing of the film, which is where much of its power lies. Seeing such a short snippet feels jarring.
The next tunnel houses Hayeur’s L’Or Blanc/White Gold. The piece creates the illusion of extending the brick tunnel, opening onto a grey seaside with steadily crashing waves. A metal grid lays above the kiln tunnels in physical space visible in Hayeur’s semi-reality, and this apparatus directs streams of pale salt flowing periodically from above. As the salt falls, it makes a sound like the ringing of a wire whisk against metal, close enough to bells to be musical, but with a raw, industrial tone. The overall effect is transporting, and fits well with Hayeur’s previous imaginings of what spaces can become. The best of the bunch, this work stands out because of its site-specificity and subtlety.
The remaining two pieces, Cyanide Flats 50° 54’15”N / 95° 20’20”W, by Val Klassen, and Dana Claxton’s Waterspeak (2002), are unremarkable. Klassen’s piece, depicting two figures frolicking in slow motion through a dead landscape, suffers from distractions such as camera shake and fumbling microphone sounds. Purportedly a reflection of hope, the characters’ silent gambolling seems more ironic. Claxton’s Waterspeak is positioned as a plea on behalf of water but its dreamlike qualities make it hard to follow. It seems like the ending to a story whose beginnings viewers aren’t privy to.
According to the statement by curator Andrea Carson (who collaborated with No. 9: Contemporary Art and the Environment), the three video works “provide a response to Herzog’s film […], that contemporary art can stimulate positive social and environmental change.” Though the works do not present a solution to the destruction depicted in Lessons of Darkness, their most salient points are about engaging with the spaces around us.
Elena Potter is a photo- and video-based artist and art writer transplanted from Ottawa to Toronto. Like many before her, she discovered image-making through the time-honoured activity of meandering urban strolls, camera in hand. Her work has been featured in Toronto at Gallery 44, Dundas Square, the Gladstone Hotel and the Ryerson Gallery. Elena blogs about art in Toronto and writes for BlogTO.