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Vancouver Is Showing Terrific Art Right Now

Calling all lovers of wind, beauty, controversy, dogs. And of course, fine works.

By Dorothy Woodend 12 Jul 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

It being summer, there’s a tendency for folk to want to go outside. But if you’re tired of looking at mountain vistas, ocean views and fluffy trees, there are plenty of other things to look at inside as well. Art is everywhere at the moment, and local galleries have some terrific new shows. It’s time to get your art on!

The New Media Gallery

The coolest gallery in town is actually a short SkyTrain ride away in New Westminster. Tucked inside the belly of the Anvil Centre, the New Media Gallery has been presenting staggering shows since it opened. Each visit I’m struck by the experiential nature of the work on display, but also by the more mysterious stuff that happens when art talks to other art. This is what curation is really about: mysterious, unpredictable stuff, as clearly felt as a breeze on your face.

This curious interstitial experience, full of rustling, whispering sensations, is fully in evidence in Winds, the gallery’s newest exhibition. The show consists of four different works from artists David Bowen, Spencer Finch, Nathalie Miebach and Chris Welsby. Each artist uses wind as an informing element. On the surface this might seem prosaic, but we humans are delicate machines, capable of the registering the minutest sensation. It only takes the gentlest slick of air current, and the physical and the metaphysical world meet.

Standing in front of Spencer Finch’s 2 hours, 2 minutes, 2 seconds (Wind at Walden Pond, March 12, 2007) I felt something rise up, a ghost of feeling from summers past, warm wind smelling of dust and lake water. The work is part of a series using basic items to recall famous places, periods and people. In 2 hours, Finch summons the spirit of Walden Pond — home of Henry Thoreau for two years, two months and two days while writing the book that would secure him immortality.

Finch recorded the movement of the wind onsite and recreated it with a bank of plain white fans. Like a musical composition, the feeling eddies around you, flips the hair off your forehead and tugs gently at your clothes. The pull of emotion, memory and meaning becomes a form of alchemy that feels at times almost magical.

In purely technical terms, David Bowen’s tele-present wind is made up of 126 dead plant stalks, each attached to a mechanism that’s connected to an accelerometer. As curator Sarah Joyce explains, there are three different installations around the world, each responding to the dictates of a central device that measures wind, speed and direction. Depending on the vagaries of the wind, each of the individual plants participate in a strange performance. The staccato sounds of their rattling resemble rain falling, or fine gravel being poured. Laid flat to the ground or springing to erect posture, they enact a dance from a distance world. Watching the work in action, a form of nostalgia emerges, both mournful and sweet.

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David Bowen’s tele-present wind, showing at the New Media Gallery in New Westminster. Photo courtesy of the New Media Gallery.

But not all natural phenomena are gentle; occasionally wind can destroy everything you’ve ever loved. Nathalie Miebach’s work Hurricane Noel III is a powerful reminder of that fact. The artist, trained as a scientist, recreates a 2007 killer storm as a sculptural installation. The work pulls from multiple disciplines including sound, data and, weirdly enough, basket-weaving to recreate the storm that killed 163 people. The central sculpture, rendered in primary colours that indicate meteorological data, resembles a screaming mouth, a vortex of energy and destructive power that also functions as a musical score.

In 1972, Chris Welsby attached a pair of Bolex cameras to two large wooden tripods, with wind vanes, and trucked out to Hampstead Heath in London to make a film. The conceit of the work was to allow the wind to swing the cameras left and right, a full 360 degrees across the landscape. The result was Wind Vane. What Welsby captured almost 50 years ago — a large oak tree, people walking their dog — is quotidian stuff. The experience comes through the actual watching of what is depicted, feeling the weight of time it embodies. It’s like witnessing a home movie, a tiny snatch of period and place, plucked from history and deposited like a pebble in your mind.

The Vancouver Art Gallery

The Vancouver Art Gallery recently opened Vikky Alexander: Extreme Beauty, a retrospective of the Canadian artist’s work. Alexander studied at NSCAD in Halifax before moving to New York to hang with a crop of artists who were busily changing the cultural landscape.

Unlike her fellow photo-based artists in the Vancouver School, Alexander was less interested in images of crappy old derelict buildings and more interested in the odd intersections of advertising, mass media and image. Extreme Beauty includes some 80 works that span the length of Alexander’s career. The earliest work in the exhibition, Obsession (1983), may give you hardcore 1980s flashbacks, with a piece dedicated to super model Christie Brinkley.

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Vikky Alexander, Obsession (1983). Silver gelatin print, vinyl type, coloured Plexiglas. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, gift of the artist.

The job of an artist is to make things that have become background scenery become visible again. Postcards, wallpaper, the West Edmonton Mall, French formal gardens, condominium display suites: it is all put through the prism of the artist’s gaze, and through this refracted lens we are able to see things more clearly. Just how deeply strange and oddly beautiful they are.

The Contemporary Art Gallery

Maryam Jafri’s new show is a mind-melting experience. The first major solo show of Jafri’s work in Canada, Automatic Negative Thought runs July 5 to Sept. 22 at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. The exhibition encompasses three of the artist’s sculptural installations as well as a newly commissioned video work.

The self-care industry is ripe for the plucking, and pluck Jafri does, taking apart social fragmentation, control and cultural capital with the precision of a vivisectionist. Albeit one with a sense of humour. Wellness-Postindustrial Complex (2017) uses ordinary items, “ready-mades” in art parlance, that include stuffies, toilet paper, yoga mats and a pair of disembodied feet, punctured with acupunctures needles.

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Maryam Jafri, Depression (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Laveronica arte contemporanea, Modica.

But nothing is quite what it seems. The feet were purchased in a sex shop and are meant for fetishists. The moment this information is received, the objects do a 180-degree flip, morphing from something mundane into something quite different. Immediately, one wants to know how they’re used, why, and whose feet they were originally modelled upon.

On the surface, Mariam Jafri vs. Maryam Jafri (2019), co-commissioned by the Contemporary Art Gallery and the Taxispalais Kunsthalle Tirol in Innsbruck, Austria, is a funny story about the artist’s battle with Getty Images over the issue of copyright. At the 2017 Frieze London Art Fair, Jafri’s work was included in one of the exhibitions. Unbeknownst to her, a photographer from Getty Images took a photo of one of her sculptures and offered it for sale as a stock photo. Adding insult to financial injury, Getty Images also managed to misspell Jafri’s name. From there, it’s a long strange trip down the rabbit hole of art, money, authorship, and control.

Jafri had previously explored some of these same ideas in a work entitled Getty vs. Ghana that revealed the struggle between the country and the company over who actually owned archival images. Jafri’s intelligence and wit make what could devolve into a tangle of issues come surging forth with clarity and anger. Her work is both funny and horrifying, and you lurch back and forth between these two polarities, not sure whether to laugh, cry or rage at the state of the world. Jafri’s work does all three simultaneously.

The Polygon Gallery

The Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver has some truly extraordinary work that both humans and dogs might enjoy. On the gallery’s first floor is Dog Days, a selection of canine portraits spanning the last century of dog and human interactions. The photos and video installations, some cheeky and hilarious, and others infused with the soulfulness of a cocker spaniel’s deep brown eyes, evoke the infinitely varied relationships that humans have with dogs — be they workers, companions, fur-babies, performers or rescuers. You can even take your own dog to the show and have a chat over a glass of wine and some kibble afterwards.

On the second floor, a purpose-built theatre shows Christian Marclay’s film installation The Clock. Composed of film and television clips culled from the past 70 years, each scene is synchronized to the actual time in which it is screened, so that the entire work functions as 24-hour timepiece.

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Christian Marclay, The Clock (2010; installation view), single channel video, duration: 24 hours © the artist. Courtesy White Cube, London and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

The show has drawn effusive reviews and attracted every cinephile in the region, as well as a few more far-flung completists who missed certain sections (3 a.m.) when the work ran at the Tate Modern. The Clock runs out on Sept. 15, but get there early, so you can offer lofty opinions to everyone about the nature of time, film and the fleeting nature of existence.  [Tyee]

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