Themes of self, society and the pandemic inform many of the latest visual art exhibits
In the art world, there’s a long and venerable tradition of the self-portrait. Until the present day, however, it was usually limited to the sphere of the artist, whether it be Rembrandt or Cindy Sherman. Now, thanks to digital technology and the smartphone, anyone can – and seemingly everyone does – take selfies.
That fact hits home in Together Alone, a new work by Pakistani multimedia artist Rashid Rana, receiving its world premiere at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum. From a distance, Rana’s work appears to be three self-portraits by a 19th-century French photographer. Viewed up close, however, the pictures turn out to be a photo mosaic, created from thousands of selfies that people have submitted to the artist for the project.
The piece is encountered at the end of IMAGE? The Power of the Visual, a thought-provoking new exhibition opening on April 9 at the Aga Khan Museum – among the highlights of this spring’s visual arts offerings.
Rana’s is one of two contemporary works in the show that emphasize the ubiquity of image-making today. Mémoires, a striking installation by Montreal artist Roberto Pellegrinuzzi, greets museum visitors with what looks like an enormous grey cloud, composed from 275,000 photographs suspended on nylon strings – corresponding to the number of frames available on a smartphone’s camera.
Sandwiched in between the Pellegrinuzzi and Rana installations is a deep dive into the historical use of the image – whether to project identity, assert political authority or express spirituality. The exhibition, curated by Marika Sardar, features 62 pieces in a wide range of media, from manuscripts and paintings to pottery and textiles. They’ve been gathered from the museum’s collection and from those of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Royal Ontario Museum and other lenders.
Among other things, the show reveals that world rulers were among the first to flaunt their self-images. As an example, Ulrike Al-Khamis, the Aga Khan Museum’s executive director and CEO, points to a 15th-century medal of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, the “Caesar” of the Byzantine Empire.
“He was a master at using just the right visual language to project his power to both East and West,” Al-Khamis says, noting how one side of the medal is a portrait in an Italian Renaissance style that establishes Mehmed’s role as a European leader, while the reverse side boasts his western conquests to his Muslim peers.
The self and its relation to others is also a theme of another of this spring’s noteworthy shows. Shary Boyle’s Outside the Palace of Me, now on at the Gardiner Museum through May 15, is a major new exhibition by the ever-intriguing Toronto artist, who represented Canada at the 2013 Venice Biennale. A labyrinth of drawings, ceramic figures, moving sculptures and two-way mirrors, it’s a fantastical interactive experience that evokes both the theatre and the carnival sideshow.
“All the works are key to this idea of the performance of self – the way that we perform our selves, both on our own and for each other,” explains the Gardiner’s chief curator, Sequoia Miller.
The show’s title, lifted from a lyric by British poet-rapper Kae Tempest, also suggests stepping outside the self to confront the world around you. Miller says some of the work reflects Boyle’s ongoing concerns with social injustices, from colonialism to misogyny. But there’s no question that the show also speaks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it has reinforced how, in Miller’s words, “we’re a society and not just a collection of individuals.”
Miller says one work in particular, titled The Procession, has been described by Boyle as her “lockdown piece.” It consists of small-scale ceramic sculptures participating in what could be a parade or rally – an allusion to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Miller says, “but also to the longer history of human gatherings to raise a political voice.”
The pandemic has, not surprisingly, informed much of the new art on display this spring. “Many of the works we’re presenting are quiet, intimate, not as grandiose in execution,” says Darcy Killeen, executive director of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, which runs throughout May. “Instead of creating these large productions in foreign countries, artists have been doing things close to home.”
Having to stay put, of course, can be a source of inspiration. Look no further than the big new show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Described as “a celebration of daily life and human creativity,” I AM HERE: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces, opening April 16, explores the enduring urge to document day-to-day living. Using as its springboard vintage home movies culled from the vast Prelinger Archives of film ephemera, the eclectic exhibition mixes work by famous artists such as David Hockney, Mary Pratt and Patti Smith with photo albums, letters, social media posts – even grocery lists.
Co-curated by Jim Shedden and Alexa Greist, the show also incorporates the AGO’s recent pandemic project, Portraits of Resilience. It includes a digital collage made up of the 3,000-plus submissions the museum received from its online call-out for artwork depicting life during the first year of COVID-19.
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