Exhibition Reviews – Southern Alberta Art Gallery

 

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Turo, 2016.
35 minutes, digital video, sound.
Image taken from SAAG website; courtesy of the art

Hoping in Kaleidoscope: Anton Ginzburg’s “Blue Flame: Constructions and Initiatives”

NB: This is a review of an exhibition which ran at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge, Alberta, from December 3, 2016 to February 5, 2017.

A series of towers rise, stand, and fall in Anton Ginzburg’s “Blue Flame: Constructions and Initiatives.” One of these is an abstract sculpture erected upon a pile of charred debris; another is constructed out of similarly blackened fragments. Others appear only virtually, in the focal point of the exhibition, a film entitled Turo (Tower), which takes its viewers on a tour of mostly ruined, Soviet-era modernist architecture. It’s difficult to say what, exactly, the exhibition “means.” Ginzburg’s frequent deconstructivist gestures aim to problematize the very concept of interpretation itself. And yet, ironically, I can’t help but feel that the exhibition searches for meaning despite itself. Intentionally or not, by exposing us to the dystopian fate of modernity’s best hopes for the future—by confronting us with the possibility of meaninglessness—Ginzburg rekindles the low-burning flame of utopian longing. He makes us want to know more, better.

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Turo, 2016.
35 minutes, digital video, sound.
Image taken from SAAG website; courtesy of the artist.

The film begins with a slide show. Cryptic though they may seem, these slides could conceivably be described as an expository device; like a Shakespearean prologue, they provide a guide to the action to come. They include a hieroglyph, the Tower of Babel, Soviet flags, blueprints, and characters in Esperanto, that would-be universal language, which mimic those inscribed on one wall of the exhibition. Next, the film offers a close study of Moscow’s Melnikov House, a white, cylindrical tower punctured by hexagonal windows. It is winter, and the scene is melancholy. A Greek or Roman statue stands as a reminder of, and a witness to, the inevitable storm of progress, which, as Walter Benjamin famously observed, sweeps civilizations aside like a wind out of heaven. Later in the film, Paul Klee’s Angel Novus, the image that inspired Benjamin’s metaphor, appears sketched beside an open doorway—yet another ambiguous sign. Did Ginzburg place the sketch there, or did he discover it? What, moreover, is the significance of the doorway, which stands open at either end as if to history and progress, to atavistic pasts and utopian futures both?

On the one hand, Ginzburg confronts us with ruin and rubble. On the other, he seduces us with possibilities. In his inaugural lecture at the University of Tüebingen, Ernst Bloch, a Marxist philosopher tendentiously associated with Benjamin’s Frankfurt School, wondered, “Can Hope Be Disappointed?” He concluded that, by definition, hope not only could, but must, be disappointed; for what but disappointment could tempt us to hope again? If, as Ginzburg suggests, the universalizing narrative of the Enlightenment, which culminated in the violent disappointments of the twentieth century, has, to a certain degree, failed, that is, nevertheless, no reason to despair. On the contrary, it is the prerequisite condition for continuing to hope.

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Turo, 2016.
35 minutes, digital video, sound.
Image taken from SAAG website; courtesy of the artist.

On one wall of the exhibition, a mural consisting of mirrored fragments, metal scraps, and blocks of colour stares back at the viewer like the lens of a kaleidoscope. It manifests the essence of Ginzburg’s exhibition, which makes of the debris of days gone by—those fragments wheeling in Benjamin’s wind—a kaleidoscopic lens through which to peer. The future comes down through the eye of the storm.


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“When We Stand on the Threshold Between Two Worlds, Our Soul is Engulfed with Dreams (Sea)”; Double-sided lightbox: photo transparency, white & CMY LEDs, walnut frame, 42 x 52
Image taken from SAAG website, courtesy of the artist

Experience, Association, Shift: Miruna Dragan’s “Another Name for Everywhere”

NB: This is a review of an exhibition which ran at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge, Alberta, from December 3, 2016 to February 5, 2017.

Experiencing Miruna Dragan’s “Another Name for Everywhere” prompted me to reconsider what it means to “experience,” anyway. The exhibition showcased Dragan’s handiness with a variety of media and emphasized, in particular, her talent for weaving, sculpting, and plain conjuring up many different textures. “Plain conjuring up” might read like a paradoxical phrase, but I think it gets to the heart of Dragan’s practice. Judging by this exhibition, at least, she is an artist who is interested less in the pretensions of artistic or contemplative deliberation than in the processes of crafty creation and sensual enjoyment. Her exhibition therefore occasioned an aesthetic experience in the true and simple sense of the term: she pulled my body and my mind a little bit closer together.

On entering the gallery, I encountered a series of rugs that were laid out like so many welcome mats. Troping on the artist’s cultural heritage, these fringed rugs were patterned with the Romanian Tree of Life. It’s appropriate, then, that they did practically come to life as I approached them, perhaps because of the vibrancy of their dyes, perhaps because they were arranged so that they seemed to crawl, lichen-like, up or down one wall. Across the gallery, a series of silvery, sculptural pieces likewise appeared halfway animate. They stretched up from the floor and dangled down from the ceiling as if attempting to reach out and touch. Scalloped and scooped, bubbling and burst, these sculptures put me in mind of various associations from nature, such as mould, clouds, coral reefs, and stalactites and stalagmites. Two of the four gallery walls were papered in black and white, amorphous striations. These compelled me, yet again, to allow my perceptions to shift. The striations reminded me of everything from x-rays to Rorschach blots, from shifting tectonic plates to Saturn’s singing rings.

When I tried to decipher Dragan’s methods, I thought not of any man-made art, but of natural process itself. Her synthetic artworks bring real life to mind. Theirs both are the arbitrary precision of volcanic explosions and the meaningless certitude of glaciers melting. Her work, although unburdened by the weight of deliberation, nevertheless struck me as the product of a precise craft, if not necessarily an intentional one. In other words, I like to imagine that Dragan makes art the way nature selects genes.

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“When We Stand on the Threshold Between Two Worlds, Our Soul is Engulfed with Dreams (Cave)”; Double-sided lightbox: photo transparency, white & CMY LEDs, walnut frame, 42 x 52
Image taken from SAAG website, courtesy of the artist

There are no words in “Another Name for Everywhere.” Because the exhibition promises, but doesn’t deliver, any universalizing name, the title is, ironically, a bit of a misnomer. However, that is, no doubt, the point. Insofar as Dragan’s artworks defy description, they speak to that which is universal, and unnameable, about experiencing itself. Words would only get in the way. Frozen but unfettered, Dragan’s artworks are metamorphic stuff, caught between reality and artifice, nature and art. After leaving her exhibition, I realized that I, too, had been changed by the experience–and, like one of Dragan’s sculptures, was somehow changing still.

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