Consider the humble phragmites. Also known as European common reed, the plant is a ubiquitous sight along highways and across wetlands in Ontario – its tufted stalks so commonplace that they are almost invisible. But it is in fact a killer hiding in plain sight, an invasive species that has been wreaking havoc on Ontario’s ecosystems for decades. Thanks to COVID-19, many of us can relate more keenly to the perilous feeling of being a species under threat of invasion.
While we do everything we can to protect ourselves against that biological menace, artist Cole Swanson has been constructing a sort of temple to this one. “The Hissing Folly,” a thatched pyramid of phragmites installed in the loft space of a historic barley mill at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington in Bowmanville until Feb. 7 weaves together multiple layers of meaning. It draws parallels with the destructive consequences of imperial ambition – the grasses entered North America following the same ocean passage as European colonizers – while also recognizing that phragmites (which derives from a Greek word meaning fence, or screen) possess value as a material for construction. With reeds reaching into the rafters, this folly – an architectural oddity that exists primarily for decoration while signifying a greater purpose – looms as a reminder that nature will always challenge humanity’s attempts to dominate the land.
The natural world and the screen meet again in Chantal Rousseau’s exhibition at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, on view to Dec. 6, though this time with a welcome dose of whimsy. In Tap Dancing Seagulls and Other Stories, the Kingston artist sets her detailed watercolours in motion through the internet’s favourite medium, the animated GIF. A squad of squirrels does fitness training at a frenetic pace, repeating endless sets of exercises without any hope of rest. Two irritated-looking blackbirds stake claim to a Cheezie, wiggling back and forth forever in an interminable battle for some precious neon-orange cheddar dust. At first quirky and even a bit quaint, the animal characters appear increasingly agitated and anxious the longer you look at them. Who can blame them – performing the same routine in the same small space every day is making all of us go a little loopy.
The first Canadian artists to sit in front of a computer and decide to get creative get their dues over at McIntosh Gallery in London, where curators Adam Lauder and Mark Hayward present a landmark historical survey of first-generation computer art in Computational Arts in Canada 1967–1974, on view to Dec. 12. Western University was “one of a handful of universities across Canada to house a mainframe computer during that time,” Lauder says, so the artists who engaged with the technology were entering territory then occupied only by engineers and other specialists – not exactly the user-friendly interfaces we are now familiar with. Among highlights are dramatic, zigzagging paintings by Suzanne Duquet, who was a professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal. “She is one of the few artists that learned to code,” Lauder says. “Her paintings are based on programs she wrote herself.”
At the Art Gallery of Hamilton until Jan. 3, Rebel Opera is a retrospective exhibition covering four decades of work by pioneering artist Nora Hutchinson, who made key early contributions to feminist video art, performance and installation. Sung and spoken words feature heavily, with expressive and personal poetry recited over experimental music tracks in early autobiographical works and in later works that tackle social issues such as mental health. A teacher at the Ontario College of Art and Design, the University of Guelph, York University and the Dundas Valley School of Art, Hutchinson is revered not only for her artistic contributions but also for her role as a mentor to many in the media arts community. In Opera Around the House from 1987, which she has described as a “comedic tape about everyday life which combines the formalities of the opera format with songs about kids, dogs, cats, laundry, groceries,” she sings, “Courage comes from the word heart / Coeur, coeur, coeur.”
The Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery bravely interrogates its own city’s history of white supremacy and anti-Black racism in Black Drones in the Hive by Montreal artist Deanna Bowen, on view until Feb. 28. Opening on the 100-year anniversary of the gallery’s first exhibition by the Group of Seven, this research-intensive project acts to dismantle the myth of terra nullius espoused in the group’s work and bring visibility to the maligned narratives of Black and Indigenous survival in Canada. Bowen’s own family history is included in 1911 Anti Creek-Negro Petition, a reproduction of a 234-page document recording signatures of people opposed to letting those of mixed Black and Indigenous heritage enter Alberta – some of whom were Bowen’s ancestors. Barker Fairley, an early champion of the Group of Seven, was one signatory. In a video introduction to the exhibition, senior curator Crystal Mowry asks of today’s proliferation of digital petitions, “Who is collecting the proof of dissent? Will we be able to access that proof some time in the future?”
The question of what is worth remembering and preserving for posterity is central to New York-based artist Moyra Davey’s practice. Her exhibition The Faithful at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, on view to Jan. 3, collects 54 photographs and six films – including a new work, i confess – that commemorate the detritus of daily life and chronicle everyday activities of ordinary people. The name of the show comes from a graphic T-shirt worn by a longhaired record collector photographed in one of her signature mail art works, and pays homage to the passion we have for surrounding ourselves with objects and people we hold dear. Nearly all of her works bear the trace of physical touch – a study of marks gouged into soft copper pennies from heavy use, folds and tape remnants left from photographs sent through the postal service – and remind us of the joy of being around strangers. Most commuters probably never thought they’d miss public transportation, but spend some time with Subway Writers, a series of people scribbling in notebooks while in transit, and prepare to feel nostalgic.
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