Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

R.M. Vaughan

Serious art, funhouse style Add to ...

Tasman Richardson at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art

Until April 1, 952 Queen St. W., Toronto; mocca.ca

Tasman Richardson is one of Toronto’s, indeed Canada’s, brightest stars.

Since the mid-1990s, on his own or in collaboration with local co-star Jubal Brown (plus a host of international artists), Richardson has sought to re-invent video art via an unapologetic visual aggressiveness, a manic engagement with (and exaggeration of) video art’s primal power – the allure of the projected moving image onto, or into, contained spaces.

More from R.M. Vaughan

The results are, to be blunt, catatonia-inducing and, oxymoronically, raging, full of bluster. Richardson can do quiet and introspective, but his overriding modus operandi is the lightning-fast mashup: the assembling of a dissociated collection of culled filmic footage, sometimes hundreds of still images or seconds-short scenes, plus the remixing of same into high-speed collages. Epileptics be warned.

Richardson’s work pairs cascades of flickering light with inner-ear-blistering sounds and relentless, heart monitor pulses. His hallucinatory, too-fast-for-cognition visions first enthrall, then alarm, and then further ramp up the volume (figuratively and literally).

If Richardson’s work had a theme song, it would be the Ramones stomper Blitzkrieg Bop. The Winnipeg-based multimedia artist Andrew Harwood had the best one-liner for Richardson’s work, meant in the most loving way: Nazi Disco Irritainment (the Nazi part coming from a time in Richardson’s co-career with Brown wherein the two used more Second World War footage than the CBC in November).

For viewers new to Richardson’s work, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art is presenting a funhouse survey of new and recent work, entitled Necropolis.

And I do mean funhouse.

The works – which range from looped videos on old televisions to slithering projections on long, rectangular screens set up as gantlets/hallways – are encased in a winding, very dark maze, a space designed to create confusion (expect to bump into walls) and claustrophobia.

In the maze, cognitive and emotional states are interrupted or reoriented by sudden, blazing discoveries, found down dark halls or in tight corners, and by wailing, creature-feature soundtracks. Whatever you think of this assembly, whether you find it thrilling or annoying, you will not be bored.

My favourite works in the maze are the beautiful Memorial, an assortment of close-ups of Joan of Arc – as played by Maria Falconetti, Ingrid Bergman, Jean Seberg and Milla Jovovich – projected through a cut-out replica of one of Notre Dame de Paris’s famous rose windows.

In each ring of the window, each layer of petals, if you will, Joan smiles, gnashes her teeth, looks to Heaven, and puts on her battle face. But in the clover-shaped centre cut-out – normally the space reserved for the most holy entity in any actual rose window – a menacing film of roaring flames chugs along, they being the flames that will eventually consume each Joan.

If every generation gets the movie Joan it deserves, it is also true that, no matter the directorial take, Joan’s story always ends at the stake. This is an interestingly resigned message of consistency, a nod to eternal truths, from Richardson, an artist who otherwise specializes in generating intentionally unstable meanings.

The other standout work is the chilling Forever Endeavour (forever and ever?): two facing screens, one showing a girl, the other a woman, looking into television screens while static reflects onto their faces.

The child is Heather O’Rourke, playing the spectre-haunted Carol Anne in the Poltergeist films. The adult is Naomi Watts, playing the beleaguered mother in the U.S. remake of The Ring.

As your eyes move back and forth between O’Rourke and Watts, you notice not only their eerie resemblance – both are pale, blond, pretty – but also that both are registering shock, disbelief, horror, and no small amount of intrigued, can’t-look-away curiosity.

Both are just about to open their mouths and say something. The cross-positioned loops capture, and hold, the actors’ resonant performances of terrible awe with a palpable, unexpected tenderness.

Film nerds will not be able to resist further connecting the dots. O’Rourke died when she was 12, while making the third Poltergeist film. Her death, alongside the untimely or violent deaths of three other cast members from the franchise, have created an entire subculture of Poltergeist Curse studies. Meanwhile, in The Ring, Watt’s character Rachel is desperate to protect her son from … a supernatural curse.

My only critiques of Necropolis are of its presentation scheme.

As curated by Rhonda Corvese (who must have had a major say in the layout of the installation), the “funhouse” set up does not quite work. There are some badly laid-out spaces in the maze, spaces that actually defeat the projected works and prompt dissatisfaction, not marvel. Worse still, the set up often over-determines the reading of the work, to the point where it arguably signals to viewers that video art is primarily a stunt, an amusement.

Several video artists I spoke to about Necropolis told me that they loved the actual works, but hated the presentation strategy and perceived it as pandering gimmickry.

Another issue is one of access. The MOCCA is an agency of the city of Toronto, and, as such, has the responsibility to create exhibitions equally accessible to people with mobility issues. Although the MOCCA staff is extraordinarily co-operative, I doubt anyone using a mobility device looks forward to being “helped” through the installation.

A little more thought about practicalities and the messaging inherent in presentation choices would have made Necropolis a complete hit.

IN OTHER VENUES

Spectral Landscape at MOCCA

Until April 1, 952 Queen St. W., Toronto

A collection of landscape works that investigate landscape art, the show veers from the spectacular (the dreamy, augmented Arctic photos of Sarah Anne Johnson) to the underwhelming (Tim Gardner’s banal watercolour copies of holiday snaps). But after the barrage in MOCCA’s main space, it makes for a cozy change.

Daisuke Takeya at MOCCA

Until April 1, 952 Queen St. W., Toronto

In response to the physical and emotional ruin caused by the Japanese earthquake of 2011, Takeya creates a cluttered and broken microcosm of wreckage-strewn communities in recovery. You can practically hear the waves crashing against the walls.

Adad Hannah at Centre Space

Until March 31, 65 George St., Toronto

Hannah’s ongoing fascination with Rodin takes a sexy turn. First, he had a Rodin bronze nude wrapped by a professional conservator. Next, he slowly unwrapped the bronze, taking teasing photographs of the gradual unveiling. High art meets bump and grind.

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular