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The TIFF exhibit’s collection from five decades of Cronenberg’s career includes the Mugwump and Interzone Bar from the movie Naked Lunch. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The TIFF exhibit’s collection from five decades of Cronenberg’s career includes the Mugwump and Interzone Bar from the movie Naked Lunch. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Diverse shows bring David Cronenberg’s world to life Add to ...

‘Being terrified is just the beginning!” says the Shivers movie poster in the first room of David Cronenberg: Evolution, TIFF’s museum-style exhibition. That’s a pretty good slogan for the whole of Cronenberg’s career, and of the way his style and obsessions have rippled through the culture, influencing younger artists and making us see other works differently.

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Two shows at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art survey those outward emanations. Through the Eye, which opened on the weekend, exhibits eight works “personally curated by David Cronenberg” from the National Gallery of Canada and two private collections; Transformation, which has been up since October, gathers six recent or commissioned pieces by younger artists.

Curating can mean a lot of things, and for Through the Eye, the advance selection was made by people at MOCCA, the National Gallery and TIFF, who then passed a list of possible works to Cronenberg for final selection. In film terms, he was less the director of this project than a producer who had the final cut. He told me last week that he wasn’t previously familiar with some of the pieces he chose.

Nonetheless, the six powerful works on display feel germane to Cronenberg’s world, like a non-verbal commentary in the form of eight autonomous works. Mark Prent’s silkscreen Ring Turner and Louise Bourgeois’s bronze Arch of Hysteria (the only sculpture in the show) both present distressed figures hanging in space, straining for a goal that may represent an even sharper form of duress. The link with the existential extremes of Cronenberg’s films isn’t hard to see.

A William S. Burroughs painting, untitled but marked in pencil “for David Cronenberg,” shows a textured red smear that looks like a faux finish achieved by rolling internal organs on the paper; and a Charles Burns print (also owned by the director) seems to depict Burroughs himself, armed with a gun against a world in flames, his face half that of a comic book Martian. Burroughs, of course, wrote Naked Lunch, visualized in Cronenberg’s film as a place of uncertain boundaries between life, hallucination and technology.

The remaining works by John Scott, John Massey, Andy Warhol and Alex Colville all deliver a charge of unease, either by confronting us with something visibly horrific (Scott and Warhol) or by submerging the terror under a placid or decorative surface (Massey and Colville).

Transformation’s dominant form is video, though the visitor is greeted outside by one of Laurel Woodcock’s cinema-related one-liners, painted on the wall: “Surprisingly, the show has a moderately classy look to it for middle-of-the-road softcore.” A similar strain of parody runs through Jamie Shovlin’s Rough Cut (Hiker Meat), a multiscreen video version of a continuing project about a fictitious low-budget Italian horror film from 1982. It’s a fabricated world built from “real” and “behind-the-scenes” footage that – like Cronenberg’s game-oriented eXistenZ – continually toys with the ways in which we trust or distrust photographic imagery.

Marcel Dzama’s Une danse des bouffons (or A Jester’s Dance) animates figures from the Winnipeg artist’s darkly whimsical drawings into a cheap-looking TV game show, shot in black and white, starring Sonic Youth’s too-cool-for-school Kim Gordon. The film includes a climactic allusion to a famous Cronenberg moment, and a bloody second birth that could have been written into Naked Lunch, as well as some high-speed choreography that looks like something from a Fritz Lang silent. A storyboard and nearby sculptural installation lay out the film’s final tableau.

The real show-stopper of this exhibition, however, is Jeremy Shaw’s Introduction to the Memory Personality, a pre-existing piece that this Berlin-based Vancouver artist and musician expanded for Transformation. You enter a black booth and sit alone in front of a screen, a brain scan pulses before your eyes, and a soothing voice gives hypnotic instructions about how to let the subconscious mind take over the work of memory. Part mind-control parody, part music video, the 13-minute installation pulls you into a zone where there are no clear boundaries between reason and unreason, belief and instinct, self and environment. It’s the Cronenberg world, and for a brief quarter-hour, we live fully inside it.

Another simulation of that world exists online, at CFC Media Labs’ bodymindchange.ca, where a virtual assistant offers to guide you to greater happiness with a customized information pod that will be surgically implanted later. I haven’t yet picked a date for the operation, but I do have a new virtual friend named Elena, who is, I’m sure, everything she claims to be.

David Cronenberg: Transformation and David Cronenberg: Through the Eye continue at MOCCA through Dec. 29. Bodymindchange.ca accepts new clients through Jan. 29; a gallery version of the project runs at the CIBC Canadian Film Gallery through Jan. 19.

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