The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery's current exhibition is called Auto Emotion; Autobiography, emotion and self-fashioning, but it could equally be called Self-Portraiture as Extreme Sport. Curators Gregory Burke and Helena Reckitt have pulled together a lineup of international contemporary work that dives deep into the raw spaces of the self, selecting artists who share a prodigious capacity for personal revelation. How much joy can you feel? How much pain? And how much can you share with another person? This exhibition gives us a tour of the outer edges of that envelope.
Not surprisingly, the legendary veteran performance artist Marina Abramovic is included in the show, an artist from the former Yugoslavia who is noted for her endurance-based performances that explore both personal and political trauma. In the current Toronto exhibition, she is showing a nude self-portrait photograph in which she presents her naked, bloodied self, her abdomen incised with the Communist star (photo-documentation from her 1975 performance Lips of Thomas). The image reads as a metaphor for how political tumult (here, literally) leaves its mark on the self.
As well, Abramovic is showing a projection of herself eating a raw onion, biting into it like an apple and devouring it as the tears stream down her face. Asked once to explain the piece, Abramovic said: "Do you know how many men come home and the woman is crying and they say I'm just cutting the onions?" Instead of Eve biting the tempting apple of knowledge, we see the artist subjecting herself to a relentless act of self-excoriation. Brutally direct and economical, this is the best work in the show.
Knowledge and revelation are also at the heart of Sophie Calle's 2000 work Exquisite Pain (Countdown), a multipart work that serves as a kind of three-dimensional diary of personal calamity. Along one wall in the gallery are arranged a series of images - some found, some her own self-portraits - that document the days leading up to her unforeseen breakup with a lover. (They had arranged to meet in a hotel in Delhi, but when she arrived from her travels she found a note explaining that he had fallen in love with someone else.) Each item in this touristic inventory (a self-portrait in a Japanese tea house, a movie poster, a photograph of a bowl of fish soup) is stamped with a countdown (for example, "32 Days to Unhappiness"), underscoring the horror of her own ignorance and misplaced trust as she moved toward her unforeseen romantic catastrophe.
On the adjacent wall, Calle documents her self-repair in a series of textile and photo works. Each panel records her recollection of the fateful day as she moves farther and farther in time from it - the hotel room number, the worn grey carpet, the hollow excuses - presented along with a photograph of the red telephone on her hotel bedspread, taken on the day of disaster. Beside each of these, Calle has placed an account of some other person's misfortune (the loss of a beloved father, the suicide of a brother). In each successive pairing, the details of her own trauma are pared down. Bits are lost, and the text grows shorter and shorter as she gains perspective on her own suffering, letting it go.
Albanian-born artist Adrian Paci is also showing work that grapples with traumatic loss - in his case, the loss of his homeland. (He left his mother country in 1997 during the period of political anarchy following the end of communist rule, resettling in Italy, where he remains today.) In his DVD titled The Mourner (2002), Paci stages his own symbolic funeral, marking the death of an identity and a way of life. Donning his best attire, he solemnly lays himself out in burial mode in a Spartan room. A hired female mourner keens over his body: "How can I go on living? I beg thee speak, for my crying needs to cease." Once her dirge is done, however, Paci swerves startlingly toward comedy: He leaps to his feet and, to the accompaniment of a jaunty soundtrack, bids the mourner farewell and gets on with his life.
Canadian artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay also provides some rare moments of levity here, showing two DVD works that feature himself in the role of performer. The first, his much exhibited 2002 work Live to Tell, shows the artist in a multiscreen a cappella performance of the famous Madonna pop song, with the artist performing all the vocal parts himself. Nemerofsky Ramsay is graced with the voice of an angel, so the work offers a certain among of pleasure just by virtue of his singing alone. But Live to Tell also captures the feeling of all-obliterating euphoria that accompanies the experience of falling in love. One does not sense here the ice-cold calipers of irony.
Instead, the artist allows himself (and us) to luxuriate in an experience that feels so unique yet is demonstrably so universal. In his more recent work, titled Lyric, he samples fragments from pop songs in comically swift progression, describing the arc of love from anticipation, to exaltation, to quivering doubt, to pathetic, snot-dribbling idiocy and home again to hope. Love makes fools of us all.
Several of the works in this show deal with altered states of consciousness, whether artificially achieved (like Rodney Graham's projection Halcion Sleep, which records the artist's conveyance, under sedation, through the night streets of Vancouver in the back seat of a car) or Matt Mullican's performance under hypnosis in front of an audience at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre a few weeks ago, an unsettling event that was captured on DVD by the gallery staff and is being presented on a monitor in the gallery. (His behaviours fluctuate disturbingly between what looks like Alzheimer's disease, autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder, demonstrating along the way an often heartbreaking human vulnerability and confusion.) The curators are also showing the drawings that Mullican executed while under hypnosis, crude geometric shapes that read like signs, diagrams or emblems extracted from the unconscious. Is this what happens when the onion is peeled back one layer too many?
The five short narrative DVDs by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila also reveal the self at the brink of dissolution. Titled The Present, the works document the enactment of different episodes of women's psychoses, tales that the artist has drawn from interviews with patients in a psychiatric hospital. In one, titled Ground Control, a young blond teenage girl lies down, facing upwards, in a mud puddle.
In another, a woman crawls across a bridge on her hands and knees, brooding on the dangerous impulses she feels toward herself and her children. Each performance reads as a deeply intimate revelation of the soul as it seeks to soothe itself. At the end of each, we read on the screen: "Give yourself a present; forgive yourself."
This show has a few flaws. What Johannes Wohnseifer's painting and video have to do with the rest of the show is anyone's guess. And it seems like slacking off to present the same work by L.A. artist Andrea Fraser that we have already seen at the Power Plant earlier this season, in a different exhibition. (This would be the case no matter how great the work, and this one is admittedly terrific, with the artist performing the various roles of artist, curator, patron and museum director at the opening of an exhibition while systematically peeling off her clothes.) Over all, this is a strong show, worth seeing for any person compelled by the psyche's darker motives, irrational compulsions and intuitive acts of self-healing. Rated four-and-a-half stars, but grown-ups only, please.
Auto Emotion continues at the Power Plant in Toronto until Aug. 19 (416-973-4949).