Uriel Orlow at Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art Until April 21, No. 124, 401 Richmond St. W.
Mieke Bal at WARC Until March 17 No. 122, 401 Richmond St. W.
Xiaojing Yan at Red Head Gallery Until March 24, No. 115, 401 Richmond St. W.
Toronto's unofficial art mall, 401 Richmond, continues to flourish even while the glitzier end of the gallery trade fights over potholes and broom closets around Ossington Avenue. West Queen West is flashy and flirty, 401 is reliable and smart. And, this being St. Patrick's Day, the multipurpose building is conveniently located next to the Overdrinking District.
At Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art, London-based mixed-media artist Uriel Orlow offers a shy, sideways glance at an event that once grabbed the world's attention. The Short and the Long of It is a meditation, via an impressive collection of archival photographs, handmade recreations (of postage stamps, flags, and maps), personal documents and found films, of the aftermath of 1967's Six Day War – a war that left the Suez Canal closed until 1975, thus stranding an international fleet of cargo ships.
Stuck on board their vessels, the sailors on the various ships created a unique trans-national subculture; one that looks, at least in the documents arranged by Orlow, rather merry. As displayed in long, flat (ship-like?) vitrines and projected onto the gallery walls, the anchored life included a mini-Olympics, sexy weightlifting competitions, cheap and cheerful drag (where there are sailors, there is drag), and plenty of sun-burnt bottle passing.
While bigwigs from Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Syria held meeting after meeting, talks after talks, the crews discovered the joys of multiculturalism. It's telling that the ramifications of the Six Day War are still being felt today, but this life-affirming, equally global (on a minute scale) event, this coming together of disparate peoples, is almost wholly forgotten. Orlow invests these sunny days of shipboard shenanigans with as much weight, and an equal volume of information, as a History Channel documentary.
A few more historical signposts in the exhibition, however, would make it that much stronger. If you're going to revivify a supposedly forgotten moment in history, why skimp on a few didactic panels?
Down the hall at Women's Art Resource Centre (WARC), in the exhibition Psychoanalysis on Trial, a more abstract form of history is investigated – the history of, you can guess, psychoanalysis.
In a matched pair of wall-projected videos, each filmed from different viewpoints inside the same theatre (the audience's view on one wall, the performers' view opposite), Amsterdam-based cultural theorist Mieke Bal stages a mock trial of a middle-aged woman who represents the always contentious practice of psychoanalysis.
The woman, called Françoise in the film(s), is tried by a collection of tumbling medieval jesters, sans-culottes-style revolutionaries, a man who is apparently Dr. Freud, another who is perhaps Wittgenstein, and an assortment of debauched, ribald poet-madmen straight out of Euro-cine central casting. The main accusation, under all the relentless verbiage Bal scripts, is that psychoanalysis has robbed us of a connection to our primal selves, replacing that inner primate with too many words. This is news?
If anything suffers from too many words, it is Bal's split film. There is never a quiet moment to reflect on what is actually being argued in this enterprise, and the howling, mewling, perfectly awful acting hardly helps matters. It's a thin line between clever clowning and irritating buffoonery, and Bal's film tramps so thoroughly back and forth across that line, in muddy, hobnail boots, that the result is less an investigation of psychoanalysis's purported crimes and more a monotone, very loud harangue, a too-long parade of Pierrots spilling out of bumper cars.
Call it a pet peeve, but if you are going to make a film wherein people play characters, characters who speak assigned texts (which is very different from a film that documents a performance, because performance artists do not claim to be actors), hire actors. Good actors. Otherwise, whatever point you have to make, no matter how thoroughly schooled, or over-schooled (and Psychoanalysis on Trial is about as joyful to listen to as Lacan is to read), will be lost in the mannered, amateurish delivery.
After these heady shows, you'll need a bit of freshening up. Go straight to Xiaojing Yan's A Grasp of Shadows, on display at Red Head Gallery. In a matter of seconds, your nose will tell you I mean "freshening" literally.
The bulk of Yan's show is an evocative set of wall-mounted bent reed and paper sculptures, forms that resemble opened umbrellas, pointy pond lilies, wafting jellyfish, and rubbery amoebas. Given her inflexible materials, brittle reed and tissue thin paper, Yan's sculptures seem surprisingly mobile. The careful lighting, designed to pass through the sculptures and create waves of shadow underneath, further adds to the burbling pond illusion.
And, that strange, clean yet too sweet, off-kilter smell (if you're close enough to see Yan's sculptures, you're in the tingling midst of the aroma)? It's coming from the star anise pods Yan has pinned directly to the gallery walls. Star anise is that pointy, dark brown spice that smells, strongly, of licorice. Yan arranges the stars in sloping lines that mimic, casually but gracefully, classical Chinese paintings of mountains.
Nothing clears the head like anise, or unpretentious beauty.
IN OTHER VENUES
Monitor 8 at Innis Town Hall 7:30 p.m., March 22, 2 Sussex Ave., Toronto
This year's survey of new documentaries, photo-works and experimental film from South Asia (and its diasporic communities) offers a glimpse the human challenges of rapidly changing economies.
Tadeusz Biernot at Engine Gallery Until March 25, 37 Mill St., Toronto
Beirnot's enormous, occluded portraits emerge from the canvas like half-awake ghosts, the flitting remains of dreams. If he was a film director, he'd be smearing his lens with Vaseline. Or spider webs.
Ron Martin at Christopher Cutts Gallery Until April 11, 21 Morrow Ave.
A 2012 Governor-General's Award winner (40 years of stretching the limits of paint oughtta get you a medal), Martin still has lots of surprises up his smock sleeve.