When the Georgian artist Vajiko Chachkhiani was preparing for a Toronto gallery show last fall, he applied for a visa to visit Canada. Chachkhiani had represented his native Georgia at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and was emerging onto the international art scene from his current base in Tbilisi. Now, the Scrap Metal Gallery in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood was planning to introduce him to Canadians with his first-ever North American show.
That show continues at Scrap Metal and features several major examples of the artist’s work, but Chachkhiani himself hasn’t made it to Toronto yet: His visa didn’t come through in time for the October opening.
There’s a certain irony in Chachkhiani’s difficulties navigating the bureaucracy of Canadian immigration: His work deals in part with the coercive power of the state. Coincidentally, his Toronto show includes a large installation featuring two locked interview rooms in which visitors might just glimpse some menacing interlocutors ready to demand who you are and where you’re going.
If you stop by Scrap Metal, located down an alleyway off a small street near Bloor and Lansdowne, you may not even notice the two rooms. They are built with cinder blocks, painted institutional white and positioned to form a narrow corridor that leads – or forces – the visitor down to the back of the gallery where two videos by Chachkhiani are playing. But spend a bit of time, on your way in or out, questioning how this space is built, and some disturbing characteristics emerge.
The two boxy, nakedly functional constructions are fronted by large mirrored windows and anyone who pauses there will begin to notice you can actually see beyond your own reflection into the rooms. In each one, there’s an empty chair and a human figure standing right up against the glass.
Peer for a bit and another creepy reality will dawn: The figure shifts and moves from time to time; it’s a real person, standing there looking at you, and to properly see this person you have to press yourself awkwardly close. (These roles inside the rooms are played by two actors.) If and when it registers, the effect of surveillance and invasion created by this work, titled They Kept Shadows Quiet, is immediately troubling; the viewer is left dancing around the piece, uncertain how close to get and unsettled by the encounter.
Chachkhiani’s videos are easier to watch, but also leave you querying what you are witnessing – and wondering if the artist does not have a promising future as a feature filmmaker, too. Cotton Candy is an elliptical 12-minute story following a middle-aged woman taking a small girl to the circus in Tbilisi. Colourful images of the show horses, the acrobats and the trained bear are occasionally interrupted by a still, almost monochromatic scene of a house in a flooded landscape that seems to represent some traumatic memory for the woman. Meanwhile, a man in the audience watches her: Is his gaze spying or protective? The film ends equally mysteriously as she buys cotton candy for the child, who loses it on the street in what might be a tragic traffic accident.
Winter which was not there feels more overtly symbolic: It begins as a huge concrete statue is lifted out of the water by a crane. This Stalinist figure is then attached to the back of a pickup truck by a man who drives it into the city. Along the way, sections of the dictator fall away and by the end, the driver is towing nothing but the rope.
It’s easy to read the 10-minute film as a statement on Georgia’s emergence from communism after it seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991 – drive long enough and eventually the difficult past may fall away. Interestingly, in the gallery’s essay about the exhibition, writer Milena Tomic prefers to see the video mainly as a reflection of Chachkhiani’s interest in his materials: The story is partly about the disintegration of concrete. If that sounds improbable, look to We drive far, you in front, a briefer video that simply documents the breaking apart of large stones when tumbling from a height.
That video also forms a link with a different style of work: Two small pieces feature a half-dozen burnt twigs or branches, mounted on the gallery wall almost as though they were fingers or the bones of a wing emerging from it. The positioning of natural materials in the constructed space established by They Kept Shadows Quiet, and the animist aspect of the branches, suggest that Chachkhiani has a larger palette at his disposal than those two cinder-block boxes might suggest; the artist had planned a bigger installation using tree branches, but couldn’t execute it without coming to the gallery to build it. So, for now, Toronto must press itself against the glass to glimpse Chachkhiani’s provocative talent, but he has reapplied for his visa and hopes to be here to deliver an artist’s talk before the show closes.
Vajiko Chachkhiani: They Kept Shadows Quiet continues Saturdays through March 30 at the Scrap Metal Gallery, 11 Dublin St., Toronto (scrapmetalgallery.com).