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The Immersive Frida Kahlo exhibition in Toronto.LighthouseImmersive

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought, there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do.” That’s a viral quote that’s been attributed to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo so often that it’s been featured in comic strips, countless social media posts and on the website Goodreads. It’s even been shared by the MoMA, arguably the world’s most prestigious museum of contemporary art.

Only, Kahlo never said those words.

In 2008, Rebecca Katherine Martin, a teenager from Markham, Ont., scrawled those lines onto a postcard with Kahlo’s likeness on it and sent it into a project called PostSecret. From there it appeared online and thus began this strange saga of the Kahlo quote that never was, as she would later recount to Buzzfeed News and Macleans. But it’s not hard to see why that sentiment and those words were so easily attributed to one of the world’s most famous and recognizable queer artists, someone known for her rebellious politics and fulsome embrace of her outsider status.

And it’s certainly not the first or last time Kahlo’s identity has been appropriated and distorted to fit the mould of whatever trendy pseudopolitical movement has chosen her as their ad hoc spokesperson to sell everything from coffee mugs to body positivity. This is certainly the case in a new immersive exhibit being mounted in Toronto that is clearly designed to be the background of a thousand Instagram stories, rather than a meaningful exploration of Kahlo’s place in the thorny contemporary battlegrounds of feminism, class and identity.

Born in Mexico City in 1907, Kahlo became known for her use of the traditional Mexican folk art style to prod at uncomfortable questions of sexuality, colonialism, gender, identity, race and class. Those ubiquitous self-portraits, unibrow and all, may seem like art-gallery-gift-shop fare at this point, but her use of the self as a vehicle to explore everything from communism to disability remains revolutionary in its scope and sphere, as urgent and provocative now as it was nearly 70 years ago.

The Lighthouse Immersive team behind Immersive Frida Kahlo worked with the artist’s closest living relative, her grandniece Mara Kahlo, to piece together the images for this exhibition.LighthouseImmersive

Yet just as Kahlo’s work has often become eclipsed by her role as a stand-in for everything from body-hair acceptance to gender expression, her real political beliefs and the body politic of her art threaten to be rendered meaningless by displays of her work that stretch the limits of what she really stood for. Kahlo’s catalogue is not entirely in the public domain, so the Lighthouse Immersive team behind Immersive Frida Kahlo worked with the artist’s closest living relative, her grandniece Mara Kahlo, to piece together the images for this exhibition. Despite this collaboration, it’s clear from the moment you arrive in the building that the involvement of Kahlo’s family has not dissuaded exactly the kind of hyper-commodification that public-domain fights often hope to avoid.

Adding insult to injury, Kahlo’s feminism has been marketed as a central focus of the show, yet her physical injuries, struggles with chronic pain and rejection of the gender binary are highlighted alongside an opportunity to see the exhibit while attending a yoga and barre class in the space. Barre, a method introduced in the 1960s by Lotte Berk that became a favourite among Hollywood celebrities, is rigorous exercise for the purpose of “getting you in shape for a hyper-accelerated capitalist life,” says Jia Tolentino in her book Trick Mirror. In a piece called “Athleisure, barre and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman,” Tolentino writes: “The ideal woman has always been generic. … She looks like an Instagram – which is to say, an ordinary woman reproducing the lessons of the marketplace, which is how an ordinary woman evolves into an ideal.”

Far from identifying with those types of ideals, much of Kahlo’s work and life was punctuated by her fraught relationship with her body and a lifetime of dealing with chronic, often debilitating illness and pain. Rather than something to be tamed into physical perfection, or in the pursuit of leisure, her body became a source of alienation and frustration; it forced her to relitigate how to be a person in the world.

In turning a display of such a revolutionary, status-quo-defying artist into an Instagrammable moment, Kahlo is reduced to a facsimile.MICHAEL BROSILOW/LighthouseImmersive

So much of the agony of Kahlo’s life, and therefore her art, is absent from a show that bills itself as a look at how “she overcame pain and adversity through self-expression.” From the bus accident that fractured her pelvis, broke her spine in three places and punctured her abdomen and uterus, to the Mexican revolution that shaped her world view from an early age, pivotal moments of anguish so central to Kahlo’s work become little more than beautiful background noise for a display that feels designed to sell a reproduction of Kahlo to a new generation.

In turning a display of such a revolutionary, status-quo-defying artist into an Instagrammable moment, she is reduced to a facsimile.

Like the immersive Van Gogh attraction that came before it, this show takes an artist whose work demands the interrogation of uncomfortable, probing subjects and flattens them to the point of parody, creating little more than an expensive light show that could barely hold the attention of my four-year-old child.

Frida Kahlo has never been a generic woman, and it is Immersive Kahlo’s greatest crime to try and turn her into one.

Michael Brosilow/LighthouseImmersive

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