MODELS TAKING PART
Runs to Dec. 22
College Art Gallery
The projection reaches the ceiling: a man, pictured from hip to head, dominates. Shirtless, wielding a machete, his anger is palpable: his accent isn’t thick, but the captioning reinforces his words. “The government takes it and we suffer we suffer we suffer we suffer…” He strikes his chest with the machete, punctuating each “suffer.” As harrowing as his rage are his final words to us: “Thank you. Next time don’t come here again. This is your last day. My papa taught me how to hunt.”
Behind you is another gigantic scene, featuring what I can only describe as the ravenous pigs of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange — the howling savages of the largest commodities exchange in the world, speculating on oil futures. Their din is unending, painful and offensive to the ear, as they gesticulate wildly with expressions of almost orgasmic exultation on their indolent, upturned faces. One sports a blazer patterned like the U.S. flag. No captioning here: no need.
Turning back to the previous projection, a member of MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) very reasonably states, “So the oil belongs to us. You come to us. So why can’t we reap of our sweat? We want to be liberated from the clutches of poverty.”
Now back to the second, where the baying mob has been replaced with endless numbers and scrolling, frantic LEDs: NASDAQ, NSE — symbols for the privileged dialectic of First World Wall Street.
Mark Boulos’ “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air,” part of Models Taking Part (curated by Juan A. Gaitán, at the College Gallery), made me ill. At the opening reception of Models, I returned to it several times, and others did the same, ignoring the social imperative of beer and snacks.
“Solid” demanded repeated attention, breaking the thin veneer expected of art into reality, disorienting and discombobulating us. Gaitán describes this as confronting “the viewing audience with conflicting yet inextricably enmeshed forces. [This] highlights the distance between global capital speculation and its local effects.”
There are six international artists in Models, presenting “critical interpretations of the public sphere as an idea and ideal that intersects uneasily with factional and even personal interest, and is constantly thrown into fragments.” (I’ll add Howard Zinn’s words: “We must not accept the memory of states as our own.”)
Boulos is one of the artists upstairs; downstairs is Arthur Zmijewski’s multi-screen installation “Democracies,” with brief “vignettes of public protests,” demonstrations and actions. In Warsaw, we see a demonstration for what’s titled a Feminist Demonstration and a Counter Demonstration, with slogans like “We want medicine not ideology” from the former, and (confusingly) “Feminists are Nazis!” from the latter — odd to see that in a site once occupied by actual Nazis...
There’s also a Labour Day march in Berlin, at first family friendly and festive with dancing in the streets, but which gives way to angry violence (amid the neon lights of Berliner Bank). Others are less political, with football hooligans yelling and cheering about a match between Germany and Turkey for the semifinal of the European Championship.
That last is sadly relevant here — because Canadians don’t riot about horrific, undemocratic omnibus bills: we riot over the Stanley Cup. Even closer to home, when the head of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce was banned from the Legislature after (gasp!) criticizing the government, the major news story in this province was about the Roughriders. Sigh. Westerners love to look down on the loud “welfare state” Europeans who populate Zmijewski’s videos, but his “Democracies” seem to be contesting real issues: do we?
Renzo Martens’ contribution to Models, Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, will only make you squirm more. Gaitán describes this as “the coda for this exhibition.” Martens offends many at a press conference when he states, “The fight against poverty [is] an important natural resource for the Congo.” The plantations that employ indigenous workers don’t seem to be giving them a better life. (A worker shown feeds his family leaves from manioc plants, apologetically saying, “That’s what I can offer my children. It’s all there is.”)
At that press conference there’s almost a fetishization of their poverty, through a photo exhibition of the workers, in the name of “helping them.” Renzo goes around the exhibit asking pointed, unwelcome questions — as unwelcome as the neon “Enjoy Poverty” sign he’s looking to mount. He’s the offensive jester who states truths about a third world “reality that, though widely discussed, is generally suppressed from media representation or, worse, industriously controlled.”
Martens reminds me of a conversation I’ve had with local filmmaker and activist Marcel Petit, about how there is a significant industry and investment — and profit — based upon the status quo of aboriginal poverty. To quote Phil Ochs: “But I’ve grown older and wiser and that’s why I’m turning you in. So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.”
See this show — another excellent touring exhibition brought to us by the College Gallery: it’s a breath of fresh, although perhaps difficult, air. It’s necessary viewing, amidst the StarPhoenix’s “New Saskatchewan” tarsands cheerleading, and artists here who think innovation involves playing with 3-D scanning toys. Models Taking Part may offend, disgust and horrify you, but real art is sometimes difficult to digest.