Friday, March 23, 2018

ESSAY: La Guaria Morada

Exhibition Essay: Juan Ortiz-Apuy’s La Guaria Morada (2018). Truck Gallery, Calgary.

My partner’s mother Carol keeps 20 orchids in her Jimtown, Nova Scotia home. They’re potted with bark to keep the roots aerated, and placed in front of North-facing windows for cold snaps to set the bloom. With her sisters, Carol conspires to protect the orchids from critters, pets, and the moody Atlantic weather. The Los Angeles flower district occupies a few blocks along 7th St. Big orchid wholesalers share the area with a homeless population stretching south from Skid Row. Some 17,000 people live out of tents amidst the flower stocks. I haven’t found estimates of the orchid population there, but I like to think it’s around 17,000 – one per resident.

To these images of beauty and vulnerability, add Juan Ortiz-Apuy’s La Guaria Morada. Orchid plants hang 56” off the ground, at the standard height for museum displays. They are spliced to hunks of bark and suspended by airplane wire against “evening blue” walls. Ortiz-Apuy is fond of factory paint names, and the atmospheres they evoke. But the plants are indoors, hidden away from the sky, like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Evocation is slippery. These orchids are not Jimtown orchids, or Skid Row orchids, but they’re close. As the national flower, purple orchids enjoy great visibility in Costa Rica, but here they’re in hiding, or waiting, or triage. This is not their natural habitat, but it’s close. Humidifiers and dehumidifiers simulate a tropical garden in the wrong place and out of season. For Ortiz-Apuy, the plants are “hustling” in Calgary.

They will grow slowly here, or one imagines - perpetually. Development in Costa Rica is a lot like this too - perpetual, precarious, and aimed at a curated beauty. Ortiz-Apuy moved from Costa Rica to Montreal in 2003 and has travelled back only twice since. After ten, nearly uninterrupted years away, he wished with this work to make a touristic homage to his country of origin. The view of La Guaria Morada is a visitor’s view, but collaged together, with conspicuous joints. In much of Ortiz-Apuy’s work, collage is a method. He keeps a meticulously indexed library of National Geographic issues and Ikea catalogues at the studio. La Guaria Morada mingles the visual languages of documentary photography and advertising, in its clinical arrangement of plants, and colour-coordinated humidifiers. Costa Rica is cast here as an idea, laid open to innocent curiosity and to consumer choice.

La Guaria Morada’s elements function as interior signs of a partially-recalled tropical outside. But what of this outside, and of its history? Costa Rica is carefully arranged to show or conceal its cracks as needed. Roads through the Monteverde rainforest are deliberately left unmaintained by the parks service to sustain an air of wilderness for eco-tourists. Elsewhere, private resorts have displaced Indigenous and farming communities. Costa Rica’s recent economic history, or ‘development’ follows on decades of World Bank-mediated, US investment and meddling in the region to combat socialism, and extract fruit, rubber, and oil for international markets. La Guaria Morada’s delicate balance, between hung flowers, and the inputs and outputs of humming climate-control appliances is a striking metaphor for the phenomena of resource preservation and extraction in Latin America, and beyond in the Global South.

Ortiz-Apuy’s sculptural language owes a debt to the readymade. In The Lovers: Hunter and Kenmore (2013), he joined a humidifier and dehumidifier at the lips, as it were, in a pose of absurd co-dependence. With this earlier work, Ortiz-Apuy rewrites the Dadaist’s script for the readymade as a cyborg romance in a department store. Through Ortiz-Apuy’s art we re-read the cool, spare industrial parts aesthetic of the readymade in relation to absented people. His response to Dada offers an abstracted social realism for our times, and for this place. Just as La Guaria Morada points outward to an increasingly uncertain planetary horizon, the work’s association of care, Sisyphean labour, and beauty is also site-specific, and in dialogue with the fragile ecosystem of artist-run culture. In all this, Ortiz-Apuy encourages us to pause on the repeated coupling of beauty and vulnerability, from Monteverde, to Jimtown and LA, to Truck’s temporary home for a few purple orchids.

By Tammer El-Sheikh

Tammer El-Sheikh is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia. He received his PhD from McGill University in 2013 for his work on the reception of Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said within the discipline of Art History. Since then, his teaching and writing have focused on contemporary art and identity politics. His scholarly writing has appeared in the periodicals ARTMargins and Arab Studies Journal, and most recently in the anthology edited by Martha Langford and titled Narratives Unfolding: National Art Histories in an Unfinished World (MQUP, 2017). His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, Parachute, C Magazine and ETC Magazine. He is the Montreal correspondent for Akimbo.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

ESSAY: Reservoir

Exhibition Essay: Chapter I: A monument to tears

It is such a secret place, the land of tears.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Here too we find a virtue somehow rewarded,
Tears in the nature of things, hearts touched by human transience
- Virgil

Monument (mänyəmən), noun
A lasting evidence, reminder, or example of someone
or something notable or great

She only cried once, but her tears birthed a river. And they stained her face for the rest of time, or at least as long as the particulate matter of a stone stays molecularly bound together. Her river was a tributary to a larger one, and that one: a benefactor to the salty ocean.

She didn’t have a name. Well, at one point she did, but as part and parcel of her sacred obligations, she was required to relinquish it. Thereafter, she was known only as the Oracle. Or sometimes the Sybil, or other times still: the Pythia. Nomenclature in the hands of patriarchy is a science of oppression; those names were only indicative of a category, a box for many—an occupation or a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it—and not a particular human with a unique permutation of 20,000 or so combinations of cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine, a singular arrangement of seven billion billion billion atoms. There were 100 trillion neural synapses in her brain, greater than the number of galaxies in the universe. Her mind was a cosmos. But she didn’t have a name.

Every day before sunrise, she was awoken by a Keeper, bathed—in the purest of water, of course—and then led down. Down, down, down, down. Into her subterranean throne room: Queen of the foul gases that leaked through the cracks of her cavernous, cold castle, gases that swirled around her face, then her respiratory system. They coursed through her blood—O Negative, O, sweet priestess—creating unusual and novel new highways in her neural circuitry. She had visions. She was the Oracle of Delphi.

She was a canary in a coal mine, or rather, its antithesis. Canaries cease their song in the presence of carbon monoxide (CO) or methane (CH4) or an excess of ethylene (C2H4). When the music ends: time to leave. These alkanes are deadly. But, in that sweet spot of just enough but not too much, they compelled her songs, her sad prophesies. The gaseous plumes? Inhabiting her mind, as a god might. Eddies and she their epicenter.

She had the voice of a ghost, not an angel, emanating from the cave of her chest, out into the cave of her workplace, where it bounced off the wet, cold, stone walls, returning to the caves of her ears as something other than what left her mouth. When she was alone, when she was lost in the damp darkness—the kind that settles into your bones and sinews and becomes part of your anatomy—her voice was her only companion. Although her sounds would run away from her, in the cave, they always returned, wiser, with all manner of textures accrued throughout their journey. She would stop her singing for a time, and wait for her reverberations to come home, back to her. She was never really alone.

Then: another voice, a reverberation from the dark. Sounds mingling with hers. A call back, a response. From who? She would never see. She could only hear their nuclear fusion: a synthesis of the immaterial vibrations into something more dense. A magic. A harmony.

They sang perennially, preternaturally: time ceased to exist. Then a clamor, a crash, which summoned their fleshy bodies back to the cave. But they had one last perfect consonance. With it: her tears.

A smell can conjure a memory, but a sound can excavate something buried deeper in the neural fabric of the brain. Something that arouses every hair follicle, commands trembles down the notches of a spine. Sound is an archeology of feeling.

She only cried once, but she never stopped. Her tears birthed a river, a tributary to a larger one, and that one: a benefactor to the salty ocean. She relinquished every ounce of water, and turned to stone. A reprieve from her nameless fate. Now: she’ll be known forever.

We drink from her reservoir. She sustains us all. A monument to tears.

By Natasha Chaykowski

Natasha Chaykowski is a researcher, writer, and curator, based in Wichispa Oyade (Calgary, Alberta) on Treaty 7 Territory. Currently, she is the Director of Untitled Art Society.


Exhibition Essay: Anthems Un/sung

William Robinson’s Duet is a piece of music created from the American and Canadian national anthems, played between speakers and at a distance from each other, like two fence posts facing off in a borderland. A compositional booklet shows the graphic breakdown of the composition, and if you like, you can follow along. The original scores for “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” are treated first as physical objects, on which Robinson has drawn in order to change their patterning, resulting in mutations of sound, rhythm, and pitch. The subsequent score is sung a cappella, recorded, and further digitally manipulated: stretched, distorted, doubled, augmented, and peppered with electronic effects. In their final recording the anthems are still recognizable, and while skeletons and shadows of their former selves, maintain consistent ‘known-ness’ and inherent power over the listener. A powerful echo, which, coupled with their disruption and reconfiguration in the gallery, interrupts a clear notion of the anthemic and calls into mind the anthem as a potential site of protest.

A common thread in his practice, it was perhaps not surprising that Robinson chose to examine and play with the musical scores of the national anthems of Canada and the United States. After a lifetime in Canada, the last 17 years in Halifax, Robinson moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey to attend Rutgers University for his MFA. As I had also moved from Canada to the US in the Trump election year (I landed in New Orleans) we reflected on shared experiences over the last six months as Canadians living in the US. I wondered if Duet provided an opportunity to explore metaphors for the relationship between the neighbouring countries, or touch on the rise of recent Nationalist and White Supremacist groups and the desire to “Make America Great Again”. We talked about the roles of protest and monument in colonialism and civil rights. Robinson was curious how I felt living a few blocks from the now-removed confederate monuments in New Orleans, the Jefferson Davis monument and Gen. P.G.T Beauregard monument, which stood outside the New Orleans Museum of Art. We agreed that the empty pillars, like plinths in a gallery in the absence of old objects and in wait for new, signalled necessary change.

We also discussed Colin Kaepernick, and his use of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a site of resistance, and it led me to reflect on Robinson’s practice more broadly and his inquiries into how monuments, buildings, and music might provide architectures for new meaning. So how might music be an architecture of protest? The most obvious example might be the protest song, whereby lyrics speak to injustices or reveal prejudices. African American blues singers protested discrimination and other issues, like Lead Belly’s “The Bourgeois Blues” or Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, and folk singers of the 50s and 60s discussed Civil Rights, the War, and unions. However, alterations can reflect all matter of opinion. In 2016, at an MLB all-star game in San Diego, one of the Canadian Tenors was fired when he changed the lyrics of the Canadian anthem and held a sign in support of “All Lives Matter”.

The interpretation of a familiar tune can also be confrontational. It can be stretched, distorted, played irreverently, played to a rhythm or slant of an underrepresented voice, or a particular genre or musicology can be employed to call notice. Jimmy Hendrix’s version of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, or Marvin Gaye’s 1983 NBA All-Star Game performance come to mind as versions that reflect cultures historically ‘unsung’ by the country.

This is also where I would locate Robinson’s work and the techniques he uses to create meaning, as in Duet. In the case of Kaepernick, while the music itself had not been altered, its framing as part of a traditional event with defined structural elements (standing, bowing, holding hand over heart, singing along reverently) was disrupted. In Duet, Robinson is interested in the many layers of potentiality in music—how it can be created, manipulated, and melded as a sonic art, but also, as an architecture. The anthem is its own kind of monument, and like the monuments in New Orleans, its structure can be dismantled.

By Erinn Beth Langille

Erinn Beth Langille is an award-winning writer who has published in National magazines, newspapers and journals. She has degrees from Dalhousie University, the University of Essex, and two from NSCAD, and is currently an MFA Fiction candidate at the University of New Orleans. A past participant of several residency programs, she is co-founder and creative director of The Lemon Tree House Residency in Tuscany, Italy. Her ekphrasis poem "Take Away The Bells", a commission by the artist William Robinson, was cast as a bronze plaque and displayed at the National Gallery of Canada from October 2016 to February 2017.