Being Human: The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art Knows How

by Rachel Anne Farquharson

The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art’s recent presentation of two distinct curatorial efforts illuminates a single, perpetually debated concept: the state mythologically, culturally, and physically of being human.  Ineffable Plasticity: the experience of being human is Camilla Singh’s curatorial comment on the matter + energy basis of humankind’s comprehensive existence.  Taking nature as an inexorable ingredient in our psycho-physical make up, Singh questions the ecological crisis attendant among today’s anxieties. The end of humanity is yet another extinction within the context of Ineffable Plasticity and the base matter into which we will disappear is but a metamorphosed form of the very same energy and matter that comprised our predecessors.  With a similar impetus, Human/Nature provokes visitors to contemplate the ways we comingle with nature as well as enunciates how humans form complete identities given the diaspora common to most cultures today.  The sculptures, drawings, and textiles of this small exhibit were culled from the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection of contemporary art and feature four artists of Canadian, international, or indigenous cultural heritage.  Gesturing toward oral tradition, personal mythology, and our evolutionary record, the moment synthesized by these exhibitions combined is one of homeostasis.  Like the equilibrium mechanisms that regulate the human body, the dialogue carried on by artists like Ah Xian, Mat Brown, and Sherri Hay attempts to maintain our sense of self-awareness as human beings.

Invisible

Ed Pien, "Invisible", 2008, 3M reflective material and shoji paper, 274 x 365 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC

 

            One of four components of Human/Nature, a monumental paper cut piece by Ed Pien entitled “Invisible” (2008) lends a sense of delicacy and rapture to the project space, a self-enclosed part of MOCCA’s large edifice that can at times feel austere.  The work harkens Chinese paper cut art with all of its ephemeral qualities and its forest imagery enlivens in viewers’ minds fairytales and folklore of the most imaginative kind.  Treating shoji paper with reflective material gives Pien’s entangled canopy of branches an uncanny quality that stimulates thoughts of mythological creatures and a world beyond our own.

Ah Xian, China, "China-Bust 18", 1999. NGC Collection. Photo © NGC. © Ah Xian.

Ah Xian, China, "China-Bust 18", 1999. NGC Collection. Photo © NGC. © Ah Xian.

 

            “Invisible” is in good company with Ah Xian’s porcelain personages.  A startlingly novel take on the traditional Western Portrait Bust, these evocative heads conflate an artistic canon that for centuries dwarfed attention given to the output of the East with the style predominant during the Ming and Qing Dynasties of China.  For the last decade, consideration of art from the Asia-Pacific region has nearly always been double-edged: attention is given to artists who define themselves and their practice relative to their inheritance while—admittedly—the current state of contemporary global art is inherently diasporic.[1]  Xian’s China series reveals with sensitivity and tenderness his own displaced identity as well as his relationships with family and friends, the faces of whom were used in the moulding process.  “China-Bust 18” (1999) features a frown still evident beneath a lyrical landscape painting that wraps itself around the sculpture’s contours.  The deep cleft above the bust’s clavicle—created by a shrugging of the figure’s shoulders—hosts tufts of cottony clouds above a mountainous landscape which extends across the chest and curls around the sculpture’s right shoulder.  Each of the three figures in the series embodies such dynamic movement that it is hard not to imagine them as live people with full body tattoos.    Arnaqurk Ashevak’s sculpture and Marion Tuu’luq’s textile and drawing pieces complete Human/Nature and give the succinct selection of works coherence. 

Faith La Rocque, "Magic Bags", Linen, buckwheat hulls, bergamot, Dimensions variable, 2011

Faith La Rocque, "Magic Bags", Linen, buckwheat hulls, bergamot, Dimensions variable, 2011

 

             Moving back to the main exhibition space, Faith La Rocque’s “Magic Bags” (2011) offers the perfect bridge into Ineffable Plasticity.  The buckwheat and bergamot filled-linen bags that comprise the installation speak an everyday urban language, given how prone cities like Toronto are to construction and city work.  There is something far friendlier about these plump sacks, however.  Piled one a top the other in an enclave of the building’s brick wall, “Magic Bags” invites sensations of softness, warmth, and sleep.  Given Singh’s curatorial statement, these sensations can be equated to the elusive “energy” that is re-circulated in the universe in perpetuity. The natural material of linen, buckwheat, and bergamot are therefore understood as equivalents of our physical selves, the “matter” component of life.  How distinct are flora from fauna, when each articulates a life cycle of gestation, growth, and death?

Susy Oliveira, "Hot Wet Planet", Chromira prints on archival card and foamcore on panel, 24 x 36 x 3 inches, 2011

Susy Oliveira, "Hot Wet Planet", Chromira prints on archival card and foamcore on panel, 24 x 36 x 3 inches, 2011

 

              The cavernous main space at MOCCA is host to both wall-mounted and free standing artwork, among which Susy Oliveira’s “Hot Wet Planet” (2011) is a pleasantly physical work. Resembling both an Aztec idol’s visage and a rainforest of fractals, the shadow box-enclosed piece offers saturated fuchsias and a succulent incandescence that is difficult to believe can be rendered on archival card. The heat emitted from Oliveira’s work is real and primal, reminding viewers of Earth’s smouldering core, the undoubted source of much of our planet’s biological matter.

Sherri Hay, "What dreams became amongst our accumulated daylight", Paper, water colour, thread, polymer clay, 19cm x 31cm x 12cm, 2011

Sherri Hay, "What dreams became amongst our accumulated daylight", Paper, water colour, thread, polymer clay, 19cm x 31cm x 12cm, 2011

 

             The size and volume of most of the pieces in Ineffable Plasticity is off-set by a wonderfully miniscule work by Sherri Hay which, despite its size, has as forceful a presence as any other work in the show. “What dreams became amongst our accumulated daylight” (2011) is an uncannily intuitive recombination of flora and fauna: a human’s physical form manifested with the same biological vocabulary as the fields we sew our nutrition in. The miniature status of Hay’s tiny figure approaches that of a religious idol or a relic of some sort. Within its theatrical proscenium arch, this flower being becomes a deity.

Mat Brown, "Anthropic History" from All Within the Circle of Willis, Ink on Matte Board, 2011

Mat Brown, "Anthropic History" from All Within the Circle of Willis, Ink on Matte Board, 2011

            

               The origin of life and humankind’s co-existence with deities, saints, and gods on Earth has been the kindling and firewood of religious mythology since oral language first developed.  The institution of science has also focused on understanding the causes and effects of biological species development, finally placing itself directly between Christianity and God’s omnipotence with the induction of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories into Victorian English society.  Artist Mat Brown’s contribution to Ineffable Plasticity, “All Within the Circle of Willis” (2011), offers a playing field for each institution’s beliefs by tracing anthropic history through well-defined eras not unlike those used in a typical dinosaur chronology.  Brown’s understanding of evolution seems a little inaccurate, though the artist’s twenty-nine vividly animated panels still pose the right questions.  The challenge in understanding evolutionary theory is in resisting literal interpretation of the phrase “survival of the fittest”.  There is no physical competition between organisms but only a genetic one wherein random point mutations in a single organism’s DNA allow it some advantage over members of its same species.  The mutant organism is therefore more “fit” for its environment, most likely living long enough to procreate and pass on the mutated gene. Scientific accuracy aside, “Circle of Willis” and its accompanying artist text attempt to unpack how the various institutional bodies that influence our thoughts, lives, and technologies actually take a back seat to the law and rule of nature.  “Anthropic History”, the first panel of Brown’s lineage, conflates a long pink brain stem with a genitalia-like organ in a frightening yet intriguing way.  Is this the pulpy diathesis from which we were borne? The father of man sits atop a mountain of rubble with an urban skyline on the horizon—a premonition of the future, to be sure.  His pointer and index fingers are poised on his tongue as if to purge some life-giving substance onto the burning heart below, suggesting that matter and energy truly are re-circulated.  Images further on in the lineage maintain the same highly saturated colour schemes, compositions bursting with sexualized imagery, and iconography that demands intense concentration to decode.  It is not always clear how each element of a designated era co-exists symbiotically, but Brown has created the beginnings of one of the more indepth visual explorations into human history today.

Mat Brown, "Oligocene/Miocene 25.7 MYA"

Mat Brown, "Oligocene/Miocene 25.7 MYA" from All Within the Circle of Willis, Ink on Matte Board, 2011

           

             Fusing my experience of Human/Nature and Ineffable Plasticity together, it is extremely clear how important it is for humans to continue to mine for the jewels of our existence in order to maintain equilibrium and homeostasis.   The state mythologically, culturally, and physically of being human has a primacy that the modern populous, myself included, may be too narcissistic to ignore. That said, I am also reminded of how relative an understanding of personal and cultural identity is to the exploration of humankind’s history, not to mention that of the natural world and the universe in its grandeur. Funnily enough, a line from the pop cult television show, The Sopranos, might enunciate this sentiment best:  “If the history of the planet was represented by the Empire State Building, the time that human beings have been on earth would only be a postage stamp at the very top. D’you realise how insignificant that makes us?” Wise words that we would all do well to consider, straight from the mouth of Boss Tony Soprano.[2]

Bibliography

Green, Charles. “Beyond the Future: The Third Asia-Pacific Triennial”, Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Winter, 1999): 81-87

Soprano, Tony (James Gandolfini), “The Fleshy Part of Thigh” (Episode 4 Season 6), The Sopranos, directed by Alan Taylor and written by Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, April 2, 2006


[1] Charles Green, “Beyond the Future: The Third Asia-Pacific Triennial”, Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Winter, 1999): 81

[2] Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), “The Fleshy Part of Thigh” (Episode 4 Season 6), The Sopranos, directed by Alan Taylor and written by Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, April 2, 2006

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