Authors expressing institutional or cultural critique usually approach this blog. This time, we experienced a surprising euphoria from a writer reporting from overseas. A review on Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989 and Theaster Gates: How to Build a House Museum at the AGO, Toronto.
Invisible People in Focus
A business trip to seal the deal on my company’s branch-out to Canada (thanks to CETA pre-negotiations) has brought me to Toronto, the business hub just north of the US-Canadian border. With the success all wrapped up and a good chunk of profit on our (European) side, I was fortunate to spend some quality time – my favorite kind – with cultural activities down town.
I knew that the political climate has changed in Canada since the election of Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party in 2015. But I was very surprised how quickly the ripples of the political rise of socialists over conservatives took an effect on cultural institutions and even more important, on the diversity of their audiences.
With delay, Europe is now experiencing an urgent need for serious questions on integration, while North America and especially Canada, already exemplify societies in which the cultural mix, or melting pot if you will, is actually lived.
For a long time, there was only one exceptional sphere: that of cultural institutions. They remained white and male over decades despite the many protests and initiatives that already sparked in the 1960s and 70s. The privileged cultures of the West dominated the holy halls of post-war and post-modern representation. We can still see this hegemony in today’s discourses led by post digital „natives” celebrating trans-human ideologies. It’s actually a lot about exclusion.
But this is even disappointing to somebody, who is lucky enough to be born into that social class and with that gender. I travel much in the world and encounter talented and engaged people from Africa to the South Pacific and I am tired of artworks cooked in their own canonical juice. It’s as if having a microwave dinner, whereas the mind is actually capable of a lot more.
For this reason I was very excited to discover the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to show two examples of overdue exhibitions that draw attention to the invisible people and their important contributions in culture and to society: Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989 and Theaster Gates: How to Build a House Museum.
Tributes + Tributaries
Tributes + Tributaries is a group show of political and artistically influential, yet unseen or unrecognized artists from the 1970s and 80s. It lists 100 names and pictures the political and social vibrancy of a city, which brought forth such big names as Marshal McLuhan or the artist collective and early activists General Idea.
Forty years later, we finally get a glimpse of the works by this mass of “others” and a chance to understand which obstacles they were facing to take a stand in the art world back in the days. Many works are completed with short statements like this one by the First Nations artist Robert Houle on his piece In Memoriam, 1987.
„In Memoriam is about the aesthetics of disappearance. Language and text are used to reference power, violence and colonization. It is a visual citation identifying seven extinct nations as an act of vigilance against the pernicious indifference and cognitive discrimination towards First Nations.“
Canada is currently dealing with its heritage as colonizer and dispossessor of First Nations estate and culture. Over the past 10 years several native initiatives have addressed the government with land claims and restitution. The election of Justin Trudeau has made these more probable as he, for the first time in the history of the country, actually lists this issue on his agenda. Still, the realization faces structural problems and still calls for critique. Nonetheless, the awareness and actions in this matter are rising.
(I never came across such a direct statement inside an institution as Houle’s, that clearly addresses the excluding powers of the languages of art and art critique.)
How to Build a House Museum
My second spotlight turns to the exhibition How to Build a House Museum by US American artist Theaster Gates who attempts to channel the facts and figures of black lives and the influence of Afro American pop culture into the white cube. It’s all about music and I loved being embraced by warm house tunes in the usually silent white halls.
Much of this exhibition’s context circles the memory of house music legends such as Frankie Knuckles or Muddy Waters. But music clubs were not the main subject or reference point in this presentation. The root of house music lies in spirituals and gospel and the importance of religion was placed more prominent in the show than the more fashionable clubbing discourse. Especially this aspect revealed very personal perspectives onto the lives of the dance floor superstars.
Visitors would enter the installation Progress Palace through the doorframe of a chapel, which turned the exhibition space into a dance cathedral. Inside, I was engaged with a music video playing live gospels and house music from a ghostly DJ booth. Sprinkling lights reflected from a rotating mirror-crystal illuminated the dark room – a divine and hypnotizing experience.
A small chapel (Reel House) in the second large hall sheltered a stereo system and turntables. Frankie Knuckles was playing in the background of what at first glance appeared as classical hanging of abstract paintings. Only by exploring the cabinets on the side of the room did I understand that the graphic shapes on the canvas relate to empirical data on the economic and social improvement of Afro Americans. These are graphs of Negro Progress (to paraphrase the artist). The reference to Malevich’s abstract painting is evident, but the works gain in symbolic power with recent historic investigations on The Black Square and the discovery of a hidden racist joke.
The “house of house” is obviously the dance floor. The spiritual nucleus of any cultural movement is the community with its supporters and single active members. I guess the communities in musics are a lot more approachable than the exclusive circles in visual arts. This exhibition makes a mark in the otherwise still segregated landscape of institutions by opening its doors to invisible forms of expression without dissecting the experience of these still living cultures. Most importantly, Theaster Gates emphasizes on the liberation from victim roles and focuses on the progress and success of Afro Americans which is a sustainable message to following generations.
I wish the holy halls of representation in Europe were less like tombs but more like living temples for art and the many invisible people involved.
Header Image: Ron Brenner, Anthro-Apologies (And the Trees Grew Inwards for Manuel Scorza), 1970-1980. His statement, „I guess the first work that specifically deals with food crops, and the politics of food crops, was And the Trees Grew Inwards – for Manuel Scorza… I realized later, as soon as I got back home, that I had all this information, and that there were very few other people who knew about this diversity and that it came from all Native people.“