Review of Imaginary Homelands & Is Toronto Burning
Black Dog Publishing, London, UK,
174 pp., illus, 171 b/w. Paper, £19.95
Black Dog Publishing, London, UK,
256 pp., illus. 70 b/w. Trade, £ 29.95
These are two handsome Black Dog books on cultural phenomena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. One is the rich catalog of a recent transnational exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU); the other, a scholarly contemplative memoir of its fun, arty scene forty years ago by the Gallery's current Director.
Imaginary Homelands was a multi-artist 2012 exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University. Curator Emelie Chhangur appreciates these artists "writing on water." Artists from Bogotá and Toronto worked in an environment of flux and instability using fiction, mapping, fantasy and lived experience, manifested in diverse materials and strategies throughout the Gallery.
Above the gallery door, Nicolás Consuegra created a glowing EXILE sign, while Carlos Bonil, denied a visa to enter Canada, designed odd audio electronic devices. Viewers observed documentation of Daniel Santiago as he dropped a chest full of memorabilia into Bark Lake, accompanied in his boat by an indigenous First Peoples' elder. Angélica Teuta constructed and installation with an antique birdcage and projections upon wall. Mateo Lopez thought architecturally, about decaying picturesque homes in Colombia, and small models. Maria Isabel Rueda made a visual record from beneath Niagara Falls, and of a decaying reinforced concrete pier in the Caribbean, and projected it in a loop.
Mateo Rivano created the most ambitious piece, a grand creature seeming to be leaping through the wall, his front half a lizard and his back half a fish or whale, ornately covered with a motif suggesting northwestern First Peoples' decoration. Credit must also go to fabricator Brian Davis, elegantly realizing these artists' ambitious plans.
Philip Monk's introduction to his Is Toronto Burning? is chatty, like an eager recount of a round of parties told in Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, immediately making us envious we weren't there. The book begins with a performance by General Idea, where the trio claimed "The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion" had burned. Or maybe it was just a found photograph of smoke on a construction site; it's unclear exactly how tangible its existence was. And that's exactly what these shape-shifting Dada pranksters want us to feel.
General Idea—AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal—was a trio of conceptual artists, irreverent and celebratory and gay in both senses of the word. I remember being impressed to read about their FILE magazine in the Dartmouth College Carpenter Art Library about 1976. Co-conspirators in the vital Toronto scene included The Body Politic Gay Liberation Journal, the women's performance art troupe VideoCabaret, and David Buchan, who created critical "Fashion Burn" runway events. His unprepossessing, average-nerd body was the model in parodies of contemporary shirt and other resonant men's wear advertisements. University of Toronto's Marshall McLuhan had taught, in The Mechanical Bride (1951) and later, how to unbutton the assumptions behind mainstream media.
Carol Condé and Carl Beveridge created posters, performances, and painstakingly self-critical photo installations, and pedagogical tract It's Still Privileged Art, in a Maoist-influenced illustrated style. A Toronto-organized interaction with Joseph Beuys and dancer Lily Eng at Documenta 1977 had leftist overtones, and provocative publication STRIKE often wore grisly cover photos of bourgeois European victims executed by the Red Brigades. On slow news days, the Toronto Sun newspaper excoriated such outrages by recipients of arts grants from the Province of Ontario, which resulted in the Center for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC) losing its funding. CEAC had also housed the Crash n' Burn Punk club, which like the Hotel Spadina—hosting twist parties!—provided a venue for bands like the Diodes, the Dishes, and the pugnacious women in the Curse.
The interaction between artists and performers is reminiscent of 1970s San Francisco Punk, whose nexus was probably that city's Art Institute, though Toronto's ongoing interchange was with the New York Punk scene. Youth, energy, cheap real estate in a part of town that generally didn't worry, performance and installation art, the ad hoc 1970s Do-It-Yourself ethic of Punk, plus a Siracha-squirt of Camp in the recipe made the hearty stew that Philip Monk serves us. Monk's book inspires me as a model for writing about scenes I've been involved in, whose tales I regale (read: bore) students, Ann Arbor in the early 1970s, San Francisco and Silicon Valley in the 1980s.