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Carlos Bunga's Procession, 2020.

toni hafkenscheid/MOCA Toronto

Enter the lobby of Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art these days and you will find yourself in a pleasing space defined by a colonnade of old steel pillars and crossbeams whose pale painted surfaces are peeling artistically. Or maybe not.

Look up and around, and you’ll quickly realize the steel is actually corrugated cardboard masterfully assembled with packing tape while the peeling paint is a trompe l’oeil effect. MOCA’s building in the Lower Junction Triangle is a former auto-parts plant and one of those hip renovations of abandoned industrial spaces, but in this installation by artist Carlos Bunga, the historic architecture is a contemporary illusion. In a place where local workers once made auto parts for a U.S. manufacturer (and before that rolled sheet metal for Alcan), an artist now labours with the discarded packaging of the rich and the housing materials of the poor. The playful colonnade is globalism’s Potemkin village.

Bunga, a Portuguese artist based in Spain, is one of three artists who have created site-specific work at MOCA this month as the contemporary art institution continues to define itself and its new old place. Tower Automotive declared bankruptcy in 2005 and closed its Toronto plant in 2006; MOCA moved into the building in 2018 and, ever since, it has been stumbling about trying to stake out some territory that is both cutting-edge and community-oriented. These current installations form one of its most successful efforts so far: All three artists are showing work that is accessible and smart, satisfyingly engaged with the history, architecture and neighbourhood around them.

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For more background on the building, start on the fourth floor, where the Canadian artist Shelagh Keeley has created a work around her own archival photographs of Tower Automotive during its intervening years as a graffiti-covered squat. She juxtaposes photos of its suffering surfaces of cracked tiles and flaking paint with her own quasi-architectural drawings of green shapes and spaces, displaying these fractured and transitional images in the midst of the sharper, cleaner architecture that has replaced them. The effect of elegy and decay is heightened by some haunting paintings from the 1980s: tarps the colour of dried blood featuring black, biomorphic figures are displayed not on the walls but on the floor.

Shelagh Keeley's Unfinished Traces of Labour, 2020.

toni hafkenscheid/MOCA Toronto

One floor down, Megan Rooney, a Canadian who works in Britain, greets the viewer with sunshine yellow softened by delicate pinks and purples in an abstract mural she has painted over every wall in the gallery. The effect is initially delightful, as though you had been invited into a flower garden on a summer day, but Rooney’s sculptures suggest something less happy is at work.

For an installation titled Hush Sky Murmur Hole, she has taken common bits of street furniture – a shopping cart, oil cans, traffic cones, market umbrellas – and turned them into unusual sculptures. The baby seat on the shopping cart (from No Frills, of course) is encased in a stretchy sleeve of gauze, suggesting a lost or displaced child. She also fits fabric over vertical traffic barriers so they become odd little human figures with their round lights signalling a head but no face. A stuffed snake lies in one corner, curled up in a quilted moving blanket.

Megan Rooney's Hush Sky Murmur Hole, 2020.

toni hafkenscheid/MOCA Toronto

toni hafkenscheid/MOCA Toronto

toni hafkenscheid/MOCA

toni hafkenscheid

There is a lot of humour in these repurposings, but Rooney also creates the atmosphere of an unstable and unsettling dream world just slightly removed from MOCA’s actual urban setting. Dwelling in this space, with its surprising contrast between its easy colours and its uneasy sculptures, you begin to wonder whether you can trust objects. Rooney pours sand over a fuzzy pink bathmat so its fabric fingers are almost unrecognizable as they stick up like some underwater ghoul. If part of MOCA’s mandate is to engage with the developing neighbourhood at its doorstep, Rooney offers a particularly imaginative response.

Bunga also includes found industrial and commercial objects from the neighbourhood – an old glass display case; a metal art cabinet; a dismantled picture frame – to create a handful of sculptures in his main installation on the second floor, but you can be excused if you don’t spot them. The centrepiece of this room is a showstopper: Bunga has carefully filled the whole place with a grid of low packing boxes, part of his international series of site-specific cardboard installations.

Bunga's Occupy, 2020.

toni hafkenscheid/MOCA

You are welcome to take off your shoes and walk gently through the boxes, lifting your feet to cross over each rim. But stepping back for an overview is also interesting because it begins to raise questions of scale: It is as though Bunga has created a miniature city in the gallery – or a church since the boxes also read as pews positioned beneath the gallery’s vault. The work is simultaneously meditative and participatory.

Like his colonnade in the lobby, the cardboard boxes suggest ideas about labour, shelter and garbage but young visitors are unlikely to think much about those implications as they happily pick their paths through the grid. This time around, cutting-edge and community-oriented have discovered co-existence.

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Works by Carlos Bunga and Shelagh Keeley are showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art to May 10; Megan Rooney’s Hush Sky Murmur Hole runs until April 12.

Also on exhibit: Images in Debris

Sarah Sze's Images in Debris, 2018.

toni hafkenscheid/MOCA

Since it reopened on Sterling Road 17 months ago, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto has been inviting artists into its new building to create site-specific installations; they have obliged with everything from cardboard boxes to a felled tree. On the other hand, MOCA has also launched a new program that takes an entirely different approach, coaxing existing artworks out of private collections and into the public gallery.

This month, The City is a Collection program makes an impressive debut with the exhibition of Images in Debris, an installation with video projections by the American artist Sarah Sze that is on loan from collectors Audrey and David Mirvish.

Images in Debris announces itself with a dark but sparkling projection of shimmering water that spills out on to the walls beyond the gallery where it sits. The piece itself, shown in darkness so that its projections are visible, is a wildly cluttered desk inspired by the artist’s own studio. Covered in paper, projectors, paint pots, plants, cups, cables and clips, the desk features an almost indescribable mess from which a fabulous quantity of imagery emerges. A light metal armature on the desktop supports multiple irregular screens, including some that are created from dried latex paint drips. On these jury-rigged surfaces, and on the walls of the gallery, this latter-day Rube Goldberg machine unevenly projects videos of nature that suggest the passage of time: a leopard runs, water flows, clouds float. This fascinating contraption can be read as a metaphor for how we experience our image-saturated world – and yet simultaneously it disrupts that experience.

Sarah Sze’s Images in Debris is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art to May 10.

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