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William Wood

Dark / Light [James Coleman, Judith Barry and Rebecca Garrett]
at Mercer Union and YYZ, Toronto, November 11 - December 13 1986

Vanguard, Vol. 16 #1, March 1987.
[ 918 words ]


It is all too confirming of the urban rivalry we have heard of before . . . . Just after Lumieres goes out in Montreal, Toronto comes up with Dark / Light, another exhibition of light-based imagery. It is not the reprise that is striking, but how two essentially similar exhibitions could project such different characters. Hence, CIAC's extravaganza of 42 artists is reduced to curator Elke Town's selection of three, and the variety of media available in Montreal is likewise reduced to cinematic and photographic projections of films and slides. With this, the tone changes as well: from high-technology sublime to narrational fantasy, from carnival-like contemporaneity to nostalgic meandering.

The sombre duality of the Dark / Light title was further inflected by a 'projection schedule' that made viewing the pieces into a 90-minute investment. Only James Coleman's piece, Living and Presumed Dead, required a full half-hour to see, but the galleries held out for time so that machines could cool down, projector lamps be replaced, tapes rewound. This choreographed viewing — artificially heightening the importance of spending time with the pieces — perhaps had the aim of insuring that each projection became internalized and reflected upon. Yet such a system proposes a potential disruption, for the projector switch can easily become the on / off switch of the pernicious spectator's attention.

The Coleman piece was definitely on, for he provided a fair entertainment where script and image continually reflect and deflect from each other in a texture of lost grandeur woven with comic flair. The slide images portray a cast of characters from historical and popular sources lined up across a stage, periodically acting out parts of the audio text and periodically changing places in no particular order. This proved a stunning tableau, even as the compositional alterations merely excited the eye so that one felt a multi-media experience was taking place. The text is the meat of the piece, a crumpled tale of epic potential, of lost loves and gruesome murders, sword tricks and massive betrayals, all read in a melodramatic Irish lilt broken up by a plaintive, resigned flute and the narrator's shattered rendition of Greensleeves. The richness of the language and Coleman's deft control of the narrative — breaking parts up, splitting recognition so that the whole becomes misconstrued — led to saddening as well as comic effect. For the tale is structured to lead the spectator gently but repeatedly towards that projected edge where narrative emerges as an erasable product of desire's fleeting mis-recognition of its object — whether that object be father, rival, lover or imposter.

In contrast to such control, Judith Barry's and Rebecca Garrett's contributions belied their purposes. Barry's In the Shadow of the City...vampry...reflects a number of concerns with built and tabulated environments through slides, film and audio loops projected on a double-sided screen. Concepts of interior space and 'empty' spaces, and empty actions as well, are brought together, but with no particular emphasis. Filmed 'windows' interrupt slide backdrops, industrial ambient sound is overlaid with choric refrains, actions repeat and slides shift — yet all this noise remains noise articulated through the spectacular relation. Equivalence seems all-encompassing, determining a desiccated space where only compulsion is lacking (when the compelling seems to be what is pertinently under question in the spectacle). This may reproduce a lethargy in reception, but it does so at the cost of appearing complicit with the dullness of its conceits.

Plain indifference towards the projected imagery dogged Garrett's Crazy Jane and the Torrent Men. Where Barry used a double-sided screen to imply equivalence, Garrett constructed a thin corridor for viewers, with rear-projections on either side. This placed us in the action, and the gist of the piece concerned illustrating three variations on the position. Thus we are in a river at the Heraclitean moment of watching the flow approach and recede; we see a fairytale castle from the same view at dusk and daylight; we see Garrett lip-syncing to Patsi Kline and Kline reacting self-consciously to the country tune. Each scene went on for about four minutes, with the viewer reduced to watching the grainy patterns of the film once the simplistic point was made. Even if one thought deeply about the development — from nature to culture through wishy-washy fantasy — the time-scale and intrinsic disinterest of the representations sank the work to murky depths.

As a curatorial venture, Dark / Light eludes consideration. The small selection and the required separate viewing worked against a complex understanding of relations between the installations, and between the 'high' art use and mass culture's investments in projection. Similarly, the works did not lend themselves to fascinatory involvement, but dealt with discontinuous and reified narratives, with effects that demand reflection rather than projection on the spectator's part. This demand provoked desire for more ambitious projects, for different spaces for viewing and for stronger curatorial direction in the enterprise. A larger grouping of works, and one of consistent quality, might have delivered such a perspective. As it stands, the dark was but slightly invaded by the light, and the exhibit was hard to see as a result.


Vanguard, Vol. 16 #1, March 1987.


Text: © William Wood. All rights reserved.

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