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Yvonne Lammerich

Montréal: Shirin Neshat, Yan Pei Ming, Ange Leccio, Pierrick Sorin, Koo Jeong-a, Pipilotti Rist, Mies van der Rohe, Ammar Elouiene and Rober Racine.

Contemporary, April 2002.
[ 698 words ]


Columns are like dispatches from the Front, and consequently share an investment in documenting shades of the exotic. With this in mind, several exhibitions in Montréal and Ottawa suggest a brief examination.

Shirin Neshat's first major North American solo exhibition, curated by Paulette Gagnon at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal until 31 January, included fifteen photographs and six installations. Disappointingly, her most powerful work is still the 1999 piece Turbulent, whose succinct critique of Iran's social hierarchy nonetheless touches a chord of common humanity that reminds us of the continuing debt owed to Western feminist politics. Other works are not so incisive. Pulse (2000) offers merely a coy theatrical trope, while Passage (2001) veers towards National Geographic-style images whose exoticism reinforces a sense of the remote in its depiction of arcane Islamic role-playing. Neshat, it seems, hovers uncertainly between banal visual poetics and a social archaeology that undermines intimate contact with her viewing subject, let alone the universal audience claimed by the Museum's interpretive text.

Also at the Musée d'art contemporain, until 31 March, the exhibition Intersecting Views presents eighteen artists from the Collection du Fonds regional d'art contemporain des Pays de la Loire, France. Several works stood out. Yan Pei Ming's Au bord de l'eau, 108 brigands (1993-94), a multi-tiered painting installation of 120 large black-and-white portraits, reminds us how generalisations have the power to divest us of individuality — a kind of anti-portrait gesture. Occupying the some space — in a nice curatorial gesture — Ange Leccio's Arrangement (1985) of 100 identical black chairs set up in lecture-hall style emits a generalised inaudible murmur suggesting a sly postmodern betrayal of language's defining purpose to generate meaning. Pierrick Sorin's Un spectacle de qualité (1996) provides a delightful miniature theatre of interactive illusionism in which Sorin himself acts out one hilarious mini-psychodrama after another. Equally playful, Koo Jeong-a's Maisons flottantes (1994), small interventions of wood, stone and sugar cube constructions peripherally located throughout the gallery's spaces, managed to simultaneously diminish and monumentalise the museum's architecture. The exhibition itself was interesting for the range and quality of work represented in a collection which reflects the role the French state has played, at least until recently, in making France an important player in the international scene.

If the exotic can be simply playful, until December 2002 there is the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal's recent acquisition, Pipilotti Rist's video installation Rainwoman (I am called a plant), 1999. In a set reminiscent of a surrealist collage organised between damp Swiss meadows and suburban arborite, Rist spins a tale one might call a necrophiliac's wet-dream: a Duchampian Etant Donnée stripped bare on a kitchen counter...

Meanwhile, in the sober realm of the document, The Canadian Centre for Architecture presented Phyllis Lambert's respectful Mies in America, an intimately scaled exhibition on Mies van der Rohe with a massively researched catalogue. The entrance to the gallery quotes the architect on architecture's promise: 'If you are good at that, you speak a wonderful prose. And if you are really good, you can be a poet.' It is unfortunate, then, that this exhibition seemed not so much poetry as prose, though inevitably there was much to admire — especially two superb computer animations by Ammar Elouiene which took the viewer through several of the architect's buildings, including two that were never realised.

Part document, part quixotism, the work of Canadian artist Rober Racine received an important two-decade survey tribute at The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (until 24 February). Racine's fascination with phenomenology's apprehensions is evident in Le Terrain du dictionnaire A/Z (1980-81), conceived as a park dedicated to the French language, the entire Dictionnaire Petit Robert 'planted' in a project suggestive of a Borges story. Similarly, his Escalier Salammbo (1979-80), a monumental staircase and performance proportioned according to the statistics of words, paragraphs and chapters in Gustave Flaubert's novels, seems a haunting evocation of the Cabaret Voltaire's evasions of directed meaning.


Contemporary, April 2002.


Text: © Yvonne Lammerich. All rights reserved.

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