Sunday, March 25, 2012

Miner for a Heart, An Article by Yael Brotman

The following article was published in IMPRINT, Volume 47 Number 1 (2012), Print Council of Australia, North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia and is reprinted here courtesy of Yael Brotman:

Miner for a Heart: An Open Studio Curatorial Project
 by Yael Brotman, Toronto-based artist and Lecturer, Visual and Performing Arts (Studio), University of Toronto Scarborough

Last September I traveled to Australia from Canada to install a group exhibition of Toronto print-based artists at Impact 7, the Multi-disciplinary Print Conference at Monash University in Melbourne.

Campbell south of Grant, Mnemonic Stoop series 2009-10, etching on Kurotani paper, BFK, foamcore, archival tape, 9½”H x 14”W x 16”D. Photography: Peter Legris
On meeting Australians – participants in the conference, presenters, and visitors to the exhibition – conversations often turned to comparisons of the social and political realities in our two countries. Much seemed surprisingly familiar. Besides our mutual and often contentious British heritage, with its voracious appetite for sending young colonials to become cannon fodder during World War I, we spoke of the treatment of Aboriginal communities, of the modest and restrained roles our countries play on the international stage, and of the politics of immigration and emigration.

The latter topic was a particularly galvanizing and engaging one because the exhibition that I curated, Miner for a Heart, examines aspects of the immigrant experience. Apart from the First Nations, Canada like Australia is a land of immigrants. Toronto, its largest city, has been a magnet for many people seeking asylum, looking for safety and to establish new lives.

Among those who arrived in mid to late twentieth-century Toronto, then just beginning to divest itself of the vestiges of a smug monoculture derived from colonial elitism, were individual artists of all sorts searching for a community of like-minded cultural workers with whom they could connect.

Open Studio, an artist-run printmaking centre, was its meeting place, a home, the ‘heart of gold’ (taken from Neil Young’s song) referenced by the title of the exhibition. Established in 1970 by American emigrés Richard Sewell, Barbara Hall and Don Holman, Open Studio has from its inception reflected the larger social expression of migration to Canada, and the lively, ethnically diverse Toronto of today.

The artists I chose for inclusion in the exhibition – Nadine Bariteau, Janet Cardiff, Libby Hague, Christopher Hutsul, Ed Pien, Richard Sewell, Penelope Stewart, Ho Tam, Jeannie Thib, and myself – all printed at Open Studio and are found in its archive. All parse the immigrant narrative: they have crossed borders, from rural towns to the big city, from other provinces, from other countries.

They were also chosen because their artistic visions are energetic, inventive and interdisciplinary. They explore the use of materiality. Conceptually, their focus in the work selected is framed by attention to the here and now. They observe and question details of life in their new home and the pursuit of endeavor, cultural identities, and communities.

Out of the multi-layered connectivity that exists among the artists and their work, a distinct narrative begins to emerge relating to migrant politics. Christopher Hutsul and Janet Cardiff each explore the streets and neighbourhoods of their new city with irreverence and humour, while Ed Pien contemporizes figures from Chinese myths to meditate on re-constructed personal realities. Jeannie Thib, in her piece Archive, explores the diverse cultural and historical sources of design through body decoration that implies tattoos and other markings of pride or shame that members of immigrating communities might arrive with.

In her print installation, My one and only life – so far, Libby Hague celebrates the cultural wealth that new communities bring to an evolving societal silhouette.  In it she examines her own life with its surprises, opportunities, and hurdles. Risk and luck parallel the universal experiences of successive waves of new arrivals to the city. In her installation, Hague focuses on the break from the everyday, the parade. On a public level, the parade calls attention to the rituals and celebrations of a community. It also marks time and the rhythm of a year. On a personal level, she perceives the parade as a schematic on an invisible graph charting the course of a life. It may be colourful and bright but there is an undercurrent of wariness and ambivalence about the arrival of the last float.

In the parade of artwork in this exhibition, Ho Tam expresses the most politically direct critique. Tam, originally from Hong Kong, comments on the friction between China’s past and present as well as on the search for identity in the diaspora. Fine China is a dual piece: a print on architectural blueprint paper and a video in which the blue and white vases of the print are viewed one at a time with the central image transformed by animation. Some of the animated images are funny, like those of Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu moves, while others, such as the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square, are more sombre. The blue and white porcelains reference the old silk routes and the historic influence Chinese art had on European design. In superimposing contemporary Chinese events and icons, Tam speaks of re-invention in both the private and global realms. Personally he examines the opportunity for self-actualization in the diaspora, while at the same time keeping an eye on China’s emergence as a superpower on the world stage.

Nadine Bariteau, originally a francophone Montrealer, investigates the anxiety and uncertainty that immigrants often experience. She recognizes that not speaking English, the dominant language in Toronto, contributes to a sense of isolation and fear. Bariteau’s process of image gathering includes randomly videotaping subway platforms. She regards Toronto’s underground transit system as a space where individuals from around the world make contact with each other and observe and are observed. But curious and friendly observation can have menacing aspects, as alluded to in the title Every Move You Make (from a song by Sting about stalking). The format of the piece — its blurry images, the shape of the curved wood upon which the images are printed, and the high corner/ceiling intersection where it is installed — all evoke surveillance.

Migration and politics are poetically intertwined in the work of Richard Sewell.
Sewell had immigrated in the late 1960s with many other young, spirited, educated Americans protesting the war in Vietnam. They quickly became enmeshed in the cultural life of cities across Canada. Anguish followed when they were not allowed back to visit their families and it left its mark on many. Sewell’s piece in the exhibition, La diversité menacée, offers a poignant exchange on migration, freedom, entrapment and protection. Three wonky cylindrical mesh birdcages with embedded printed birds and trees are suspended above the floor. An accompanying sound element incorporates bird songs with human voices, further underscoring the concept of migration and its imperatives.

Shifting metaphors, Penelope Stewart’s piece, La Grande Ruche, implicates insects. The oversized singular Victorian cloche shape in her drawing references a highly sophisticated, tightly organized social structure, where the individual is subsumed by the whole – the beehive. Conceptually, she considers the elasticity and accommodation of a utopian model for human society, and the implications regarding the absorption of an individual into the larger entity. Her piece, hand-rendered acrylic on Mitsumata tissue, mimics in its process both the determination of the worker bee, and the preparation of a drawing for the silkscreen mesh that will be transformed into the printing matrix.  

A universal immigrant’s desire for a physical home in a reconstituted community is explored in my own sculptural installation, Mnemonic Stoop. The trajectory of aspiration to acquisition is examined, as well as the relationship of personal to communal space. My experience of negotiating the latter derives from my birth on an Israeli kibbutz and migration from that social experiment to the novelty of a burgeoning Canadian suburb. Mnemonic Stoop consists of model-sized reimagined houses I have inhabited. The houses, made of etching on Kurotani paper are fragile and required protective foamcore cases for transit to Melbourne. The irony of protecting the structures that protect us so intrigued me that I incorporated the cases alongside the houses in the exhibition.

In this exhibition, my fellow artists and I mined our own histories to create conversations among the tropes, stories and cultures that engage our viewers. Canadian identity is slippery, constantly being redefined and debated: a new world flexible enough to give citizens and artists alike space to parse multiple identities and to examine who or what we want to express. This culture of participation has enriched Open Studio and Canadian society as a whole, promoting the sense of community needed to embrace the energized experimentation seen in Miner for a Heart.