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Smiling maniacs and other Stalinist aftershocks

Rearview Mirror at the Power Plant

Until Sept. 5, 231 Queens Quay W., Toronto;

It's probably apocryphal, but Chairman Mao is alleged, when asked in the 1970s about the consequences of the French Revolution, to have replied "It is too early to say." Oh, that Chairman - he killed millions, he cracked wise.

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A new exhibition at the Power Plant, Rearview Mirror, explores the cultural aftershocks of the Soviet era across Eastern Europe. The resounding conclusion of the show is that, as far as art production is concerned, it may well be "too early to tell" what legacy the Soviet revolution left behind.

As curated by Christopher Eamon, Rearview Mirror is nothing if not extensive. There is everything in here from traditional abstract painting to narrative video to obtuse postmodern sculpture - and from countries as far-flung as Serbia, Ukraine, and the newly minted Kosovo. Kudos to Eamon for his sweeping vision and the enriching didactic materials provided. There's enough to chew on here for even the most voracious art hound.

By their very nature, however, such ambitious survey shows appeal, or repel, in two ways: Particular works will find particular audiences, and the overall feel of the show will either engage or annoy.

On the latter front, I found the exhibition somewhat monotone, or, rather, monochrome. The overriding colour and texture of Rearview Mirror is reminiscent of an indoor parking lot - flat, lacking vitality, and slathered in cement grey. At times, it feels like climbing up the side of the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto on a cloudy day.

Could this be helped? The Soviet empire specialized in brutalist, cement and steel infrastructures. And, to be fair, Eamon does wonders to defeat this uninviting tone by giving each set of works plenty of breathing space and dreamy, warm lighting. But cement is cement, and some rooms just leave one cringing for colour, any colour - a dropped parking stub, a shiny nickel, a weed in the cracks.

As for individual works, however, there are some stellar finds. My favourites include Ciprian Muresan's animated remake of Luis Bunuel's 1929 film, Un Chien Andalou; this tribute piece reimagines that seminal Surrealist work performed by the lead characters from Shrek (don't tell DreamWorks). Muresan appears to be both deeply in love with American pop culture and yet deeply suspicious of same. Similarly, Anna Ostoya's beige-painted 1980s furniture, recomposed into haughtily foolish, mockingly arch sculptures, made me laugh out loud - as did Ostoya's tall, high-gloss obelisk topped with a flutteringly abject, fan-caressed white plastic bag.

Ostoya's sad plastic bag on top of a shiny tower is a perfect hybrid of the two primary (and conflicting) tropes embedded in Rearview Mirror - displays of private-made-public intimacy (an expository practice impossible under the Soviets) conflated with (and against) the romance and power of monumentalism (which nobody understood better than Stalinists).

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This intriguing push-pull turns up most illuminatingly in the works of Anetta Mona Chisa and Dusica Drazic.

Chisa's vitrines packed with mundane objects "stolen from private galleries" is cheeky good fun (most private galleries can afford to lose a pair of dollar-store scissors) but also lays bare a neurotic impulse many people living in constrained circumstances act out - the impulse to hoard, conceal, and believe oneself entitled to the property of others. In a way, Chisa's stash is a portrait of a bruised psychology: one convinced that the hammer of authority will come down any second, so grab what you can. And, of course, her collection challenges the very notion of private property. (Communism is a tough ideology to wash off.)

In her video, Young Serbians, Drazic shares this bratty impulse, but enacts it in a very unsecretive way. Working with an unseen collaborator named Sam Hopkins, Drazic stands in the weeds beside a bustling highway, wet from a fading rain. A voice from off-screen (perhaps Hopkins?) gives Drazic a count cue and begins to play David Bowie's hit Young Americans, from what sounds like a very run-down beat box. Drazic dances to the song, and the voice off-screen interrupts Bowie's singing with "Young Serbians, Young Serbians" every time the chorus is repeated.

Dumb? Yes. So dumb it's smart? Yes.

Drazic's sad-sack, wet-dog look and her dreadful dancing are neat counterpoints to the slick rush of the highway, where trucks zip past loaded with fresh new commercial goods. Drazic's performance presents the other side of triumphant capitalism - failure. And the Bowie song, an anti-anthem and warning against supremacist thinking, is a brilliant comic choice. Young Serbians, Drazic clumsily blurts, had better think over the downside of chic clothes and iPod-driven social change. When a culture rushes toward the new, somebody always gets left behind. Drazic is the proverbial cake left out in the rain, to quote another pop song.

But the showstopper among all these ideologically charged offerings is Chisa's video Manifesto of the Futurist Woman (Let's Conclude), made with Lucia Tkacova. Projected large, it captures a team of majorettes dressed in cute red-and-white miniskirt uniforms that include white knee boots. The team assembles on a dank, cement walkway and repeats a pattern of banal movements, over and over, all the while smiling like maniacs.

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I doubt a more succinct depiction of the ridiculous excesses of state-run culture, of its innate falseness, exists. I've certainly never seen a funnier one.


Shen Chao-Liang at Harbourfront Centre

Until Sept. 25, 235 Queens Quay W., Toronto;

Taiwan's "truck theatres" - elaborate mobile cabarets bedecked with all manner of blinking gizmos - are photographed as if they were rare birds, or wedding cakes. So much spectacle, so little parking space.

Andrew Harwood and Keith Cole at Paul Petro Contemporary Art

Until Aug. 13, 980 Queen St. W., Toronto;

Two shows, two provocations. Multimedia artist Harwood reveals all the twinkling, spangled tricks and down-home glamour he's acquired since relocating to Winnipeg. Performance artist Cole assembles a team of "tranny scientists" to CSI the media reaction to the Russell Williams murders.

Sandra Gregson at Loop Gallery

Until July 17, 1273 Dundas St. W., Toronto;

Last chance to catch Gregson's shredded-book wonders - exquisite mobiles, carpets, sculptures and collages made from carefully threaded strips of hapless, grinder-fed books. Best (ab)use of Joyce's Ulysses ever.

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