At the 53rd Venice Biennale this summer, Canada is represented by the London-based artist Mark Lewis, and his show of four short films about modern urban life and the nature of the moving image was a favourite among the international pavilions during the opening days last month.
In some ways, it's a quintessentially Canadian exhibition, revealing the dual legacy of the structuralist cinema tradition pioneered by Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland and others (Snow's films such as Wavelength and La région centrale drew the viewer's attention to the mechanics of camera work) and the socially engaged photographic production of Vancouver's Jeff Wall, whose large scale Cibachromes and photographs often present scenes of social rupture.
As well, Lewis's show, titled Cold Morning - which was organized by the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery's Barbara Fischer - was thematically very much of its international moment, resonating with a number of other key works at the Biennale. The British artist Steve McQueen, for example, is showing a two-screen projection that takes a long, patient look at the Giardini di Biennale in the misty off-season, revealing the abandoned modernist pavilions interrogated by the slow creep of snails and earthworms. In the nearby Arsenale exhibition, Ulla von Brandenburg is showing a fantasy with singing characters set in Le Corbusier's landmark living complex Villa Savoye, a fanciful and somewhat eerie revisitation of one of the 20th century's most iconic buildings. The meditative contemplation of our modernist near-history seems to be in the air.
Three of Lewis's new films were shot in downtown Toronto. The first and most formally complex is a four-minute rear-projection film of a man and woman skating, apparently at Nathan Phillips Square, in front of the Viljo Revell-designed Toronto City Hall. (In fact, the two were filmed on a revolving stage in California, with the skating rink scene rear-projected behind them.) Closer examination reveals that the two lovers twirl and glide out of sync with the background view, which has been shot from a dolly that intermittently glides and stalls in its lazy tour of the rink. The movements of camera and skaters mimic one another.
As the work unfolds, things get weirder and weirder. While the camera moves it also appears to subtly zoom in and out, further undermining our spatial bearings. This is a synthetic spectacle that the natural human eye could never experience, relying on a somewhat antique technique that has now largely been replaced by digital effects. To the initiated eye, background and foreground fail to sync up, which can look cheesy (in your low-budget cop show) or eerily dreamlike in the hands of, say, Alfred Hitchcock, who has used it to suggest the otherworldliness of romance, as it does here.
As Lewis has said, "By putting a flat image of itself inside of itself, [rear projection]unwittingly participated in the great tradition of montage and self-reference that had already enveloped the pictorial arts." Rear projection can thus be understood as the cinematic great-grandchild of Picasso's collages.
The film Cold Morning, by contrast, is all straightforward, deliberate seeing. For seven minutes, the camera remains static and grounded at sidewalk level, fixed on documenting the activities of a homeless man on the winter streets in Toronto's downtown business district. We watch as this man fastidiously organizes his belongings (sleeping bags, clothing, etc.) beside two steaming grates which he shares with some pigeons, his face never visible to the camera - an artistic decision that somehow rescues the work from voyeurism. Lewis's camera follows his doings, capturing also the intermittent appearance and disappearance of several more privileged pedestrians, presumably office workers, who move in and out of our line of vision en route to their private spaces of work and play. Stepping back, we can read this as a document revealing the fundamental human impulse to create order, and to mark out a territory to call our own, with Lewis's respectful gaze seeming more sociological than philanthropic. He studies his subject, and so do we along with him.
On the wall between these two, Lewis is showing TD Centre, 54th Floor: simply a vertiginous, downward-looking travelling shot from a bank of windows high atop the landmark Mies van der Rohe-designed office tower. As we glide horizontally past the downward-plunging girders, our eye plunges with them to the pavement below, tracking slowly to the right, pausing and then returning again to its starting point. In its simplicity, its deliberate pacing, its use of the unified single take, and its air of stealthy surveillance, this seven-minute piece is formally consistent with the short films that have made Lewis's reputation for the past decade or so, slow-moving investigations of the urban or natural environment that give us the chance to think about the places we inhabit.
Taken together, these films suggest a meditation on how we share (or fail to share) urban space, from the towers of power to the mean streets below, as well as the designated public zones that we engineer for recreation and diversion. Like the movie theatre, the skating rink gathers all walks of life into a compressed social situation, where social hierarchies and racial distinctions are erased. (I found myself thinking about Degas's spatially complex opera-house paintings.) As a trio, they form a satisfying whole.
Unfortunately, Lewis has also included a fourth, earlier work, The Fight (2008), which, although related thematically, threatens to break the spell. A group of men and women are having it out in what looks like a European street. (It seems French, with the word " hier," or "yesterday," appearing on an ad hoarding in the background, but that word also means "here" in German, a nice coincidence.) The figures shove and shout and jostle each other in ever-changing combatant groupings, with no apparent resolution or climax. In the background, pedestrians pass by obliviously. ( The Fight, too, is a rear-projection work.) As in the photographs of Wall, these players seem almost like allegorical figures, representing diverse ethnic groups - there's even a blonde wearing a "pink is the new black" T-shirt and a craft vendor's stand decorated with a Bob Marley flag. Their unending tussle is a metaphor for urban life and the gritty, unresolvable confrontations that arise when colliding cultures are crammed into close quarters.
Canada's nautilus-shaped, modernist tepee pavilion has been the bane of many a Canadian artist over the years, and this year, alas, is no different. Lewis is projecting the four short films simultaneously on four walls, with considerable ambient light intruding, deliberately permitted through a series of graduated light filter skins applied to the pavilion's many floor-to-ceiling windows. (More and more light is occluded as you work your way into the pavilion.) But, to my eye, the images suffer, their lustre diluted. As well, as is Lewis's wish, they have been projected in such a fashion that they can be viewed simultaneously, which also seems like a mistake. Each of these films blooms when viewed in isolation, and duration is a key ingredient to their effectiveness. Showing them side by side, however, encourages a kind of promiscuous jumping between films. Having nowhere to sit down makes the challenge of audience absorption and focus even more steep.
Still, even if viewing conditions are not optimal, the meat in the sandwich remains the same. Lewis is one of Canada's most interesting artists, with an important place in our country's story of art, and, it seems, in the world's too. His films are well worth the long, slow look that they demand.
The Venice Biennale remains on view until Nov. 22. A retrospective exhibition of Mark Lewis's works shot in Toronto will be on view at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at Hart House, University of Toronto, in an exhibition curated by Barbara Fischer, opening Sept. 8.