Across Ontario this summer, the theme in the art galleries is water. In the wake of Walkerton, the Ontario Society of Artists sent out a call for dealers and curators to turn their thoughts to this theme, posing the question: Precisely what is our relationship these days to this essential element of life on Earth?
Well, it's complicated, as the current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art makes plain. The Toronto show is the strongest of the current provincewide efforts, bringing together new work by emerging artists Paul Butler (from Winnipeg) and Montrealer Michel de Broin, and a classic earlier piece by Toronto's Noel Harding, a work titled scenic events on a path of upheaval. The results are, well, refreshing.
The mood of scenic events sets the tone for the show as a whole: eccentric, ramshackle and appealing, in a forlorn sort of way. Entering the space, you discover a small flat of bright green lettuces fresh from the nursery, still in their soil. This little miniature Eden makes its way intently along the gallery floor on a tiny flatbed wagon powered by a bungee-cord pulley system. Reaching the end of its trajectory, it stops with a bump, and then begins its journey back again only to stop with another bump and begin again -- shunting forever back and forth, a comic exercise in futility.
Above it, suspended from the same pulley system, a tiny speaker dangles overhead, broadcasting the sounds of screaming bombs, rattling artillery and the occasional thud -- but all of it in the tinny voice of a cheap arcade game.
To this tableau of fake war and technologically circumscribed nature, Harding adds a third element: a transparent wraparound fish tank made from plastic sheeting folded over and tacked to the wall, in which we discover little goldfish swimming -- a hundred of them, to be precise. They mill about, innocent of their fate as we ponder the dichotomy between their confinement and the life nature intended for them. (Aeration machines make the water habitable, so animal-rights types can contemplate without qualms.)
The work was first shown in 1980, when it no doubt expressed a certain ironic levity. Now, 23 years later -- as we consider the repercussions of sustained industrial contamination, terrorist threats and the growing inevitability of international struggles over the control of this resource -- it triggers a greater sense of urgency.
Originally made in response to the Russian incursion into Afghanistan, it has been restaged by MoCCA to mark the current instability in the Middle East. The idea of a toy war that we can barely hear, tinkling away in the distance, is a chilling one, a vision of mankind tottering toward apocalypse in little misguided baby steps.
But scenic events speaks even more powerfully of the shift in our relationship with nature, where global warming's freak storms and unseasonably hot days are no longer experienced as works of God but of man. Harding makes us smile, but it's a melancholy smile, tinged with a sense of loss.
The other works here strike a lighter note. Paul Butler has been getting a lot of attention in the past few years for his collages of text and colour-magazine photography coupled with patches of electrician's tape. Butler then photographs these and presents them as colour prints, in frames on the wall.
These works are fun -- such as his image of a huge tropical wave breaking over a tiny wooden rowboat with the words "What a Good Time" laid down over top -- and he does have a knack for placement and materials. (Those blunt patches suggest our clumsy intrusions into Mother Nature's domain.)
Also, his works fit perfectly here -- a suite of collage images of oceans, sunsets and megawaves topped with text fragments such as "You Can Do Anything" and "Getting There is Half the Fun!" ironically mocking the way in which we turn to nature for inspiration. Still, a little humour goes a short way. I find these just a trifle underdone, even for Generation Y Bother.
Michel de Broin's sculpture Blue Monochrome feels more assured. The artist has placed a battered blue dumpster in the middle of the upstairs gallery, fitting it with an aquamarine lining, a side ladder and all the bells and whistles of a functioning Jacuzzi. (You can hear the jets and smell the chlorine from downstairs.)
It's a little startling, this incongruity between refuse management and spa-services hygiene, and you find yourself thinking about the way in which urban spas attempt to replicate nature in prepackaged high-cost versions (the seaweed wrap, the salt rub, the mud bath).
In this urban spa, however, the public is invited to jump in for free -- a far cry for the customary look-but-don't-touch decorum of gallery-going. (At the opening, gallery director David Liss hired a pair of professionals to get the ball rolling.) Indulging a quirky "what if" idea, de Broin has followed through with faultless fabrication, thereby rescuing the piece from a fate of shallow glibness.
In the end, it's his evident devotion to the act of making that catches your eye and holds your attention.
Scenic events on a path of upheaval (Noel Harding) and Damage Control (Michel de Broin and Paul Butler) continue at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art until Aug. 24. For information, call 416-395-0067.