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Marshall McLuhan’s most radical idea was that everything we make also remakes us. Two new exhibitions at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain grapple with this proposition from very different perspectives. Liz Magor, who was born in 1948, works with what McLuhan called the material extensions of the body – clothes especially, but also shelters and implements. Ryan Trecartin, who was born in 1981, is all about electronic extensions, particularly cellphone cameras, social media and reality TV.

Magor’s pieces typically juxtapose a ready-made – a manufactured thing such as cigarettes or liquor bottles, or a dead bird – with cast replicas of other ordinary things – gloves, towels or cardboard boxes. The cast item is often the container or concealment device for the ready-made. What looks like two piles of folded towels in Double Cabinet (Blue) is actually a hollow space packed with cases of beer. Aside from the failed deception, the use of the laboriously handmade things as the frame for the manufactured objects tells you something about how this Vancouver artist sees their relative importance in her work.

“Racoon” from the Liz Magor: Habitude exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. (Scott Massey)

“Through some mysterious operation,” she says in an interview published in the exhibition catalogue, “the found things become really alive when set against the sculptural representation of something ordinary. … Even a dead bird is more alive than the replica of a cardboard box.”

There you have the kernel of what most of the work in the MAC’s four-decade retrospective is about: Magor’s fascination with the mystery through which an artist’s replica gives new meaning to something plucked from the world. I think the mystery has something to do with the felt nature of time, which runs differently for commodities that have “the potential to return to the world and resume their business,” as Magor says, than for a piece made to be walled up in a museum.

We’re talking about a dialogue between objects, and about how we understand and connect with them. That seems an overworked topic in a consumer society, but Magor’s work shows how much terra incognita there still is in our relationship with things.

“Buck (Blanket)” from the Liz Magor: Habitude exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. (SITE Photography)

She is also attuned to changes in status for objects, as they move down the scale from merchandise to cast-off to junk. Being This (2012) is a collection of 78 garments found in thrift stores, which Magor has adorned with sewn overlays, embroidery and other embellishments. Each garment is neatly folded and boxed in a bed of tissue paper, like a gift that has just been opened. It’s easy to see this as part of a feminist practice of using needlecraft as a way to restore power to these discarded objects. For her, there is no such thing as waste, only objects in transformation.

We tend to think that artists should be in control of their materials, and clearly nothing leaves Magor’s studio until she is finished with it. But as she told an interviewer in 2014, “Often I’m experimenting with the idea that the material world governs, uses and directs me, rather than the other way around. … Let novelists imagine the lives of people, and let sculptors imagine the lives of objects.”

“Tweed (Toblerone)” from the Liz Magor: Habitude exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. (SITE Photography)

Nonetheless, critics and curators (including Dan Adler, who put this impressive show together) persist in looking for allegories in Magor’s work, and in musing on what she could be saying about the people who may have used, or been addicted to, her found objects. Essays in the catalogue speak of compassion, human fragility and even prayer as unstated themes. They go on and on about the absent people, while the artist stays focused on the present objects.

Ryan Trecartin sometimes makes objects, but is best known for the riotous claustrophobic videos he produces with Lizzie Fitch and a host of other artists, actors and friends. One of the earliest, and perhaps the only one with a sole performer, is Kitchen Girl (2001), a three-minute short in which Fitch drags a baby carriage upstairs, screaming the whole time, and then cooks a boot for two children who are actually bulbous stuffed toys. It’s a fairy tale gone mad, and its most telling feature is that once Fitch is in the kitchen, she does everything with a microphone in her hand.

One of five unique freestanding sculptural theaters by Ryan Tecartin and Lizzie Fitch, part of the Priority Innfield exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. (Fulvio Orsenigo)

The three group videos from 2013 included in Priority Innfield, a version of which has shown at the Venice Biennale, belong to another era, after the explosion of social media. In these films, the fourth wall that kept Fitch from acknowledging Trecartin’s sneaking hand-held camera in Kitchen Girl has become a picture window, polished to a blinding sheen by the Internet and phone cameras.

Everyone primps and preens for the camera in harsh frontal lighting, while saying things such as, “No one has a name yet,” and “One of the most elegant things about facts is that I believe them.” The cast forms a competitive bitchy fellowship that feels more real than they do individually. Their constant upstaging and photo-bombing often looks like an enactment of Candy Darling’s comment about making films at Warhol’s Factory: “Whichever one of us is the pushiest gets to be the star.”

Futuristic game scenarios and obscure personal beefs dominate the fractured dialogue, in which people sometimes repeat each other’s lines as if auditioning for the same part. Item Falls is largely about auditioning for something, though we never quite know what. It doesn’t matter: TV talent competitions have made the audition a popular fantasy, and a basic premise in vast arenas of social media. Trecartin’s videos make an exaggerated presentation of life as an endless online audition for the world’s attention. Or as Ezra Pound put it nearly a century ago, “The age demanded an image/ Of its accelerated grimace.”

One of five unique freestanding sculptural theaters by Ryan Tecartin and Lizzie Fitch, part of the Priority Innfield exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. (Fulvio Orsenigo)

Trecartin seems to exult in the uninhibited party-time craziness of his imaginary worlds. The fourth film in Priority Innfield is a record of an actual high-school party, in which Trecartin filmed his classmates saying and doing things quite similar to those seen in his art films. “I’ll puke and keep going,” one boy says, neatly summarizing Trecartin’s view of how we consume media.

The four videos of Priority Innfield are installed on screens within sets that resemble areas of suburban outdoor leisure. There’s also an ambient soundtrack, for those moments when you’re drifting from one set of headphones to another. It’s immersive, but I think the videos work as well or better on a smartphone screen, where they can all be streamed here. They belong to online culture, not to the old material treasure house of the museum.

Liz Magor: Habitude and Priority Innfield continue at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain through Sept. 5.

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