Vague Terrain: Thoughts on “Formerly Exit Five: Portable Monuments to Recent History”

Kenderdine Gallery, Sept 17 – Dec 17, 2010

Late September I traveled to Saskatoon to meet with the city’s cultural and urban planners about public art; from the air, the land around the city was drowned in rain and the area looked more like a paddy field than a wheat field. Downtown I stood with the city workers in the rain, looking at an artwork under the Traffic Bridge, a rusting hulk of a truss structure, which spans the South Saskatchewan River. It is over one hundred years old, and as the first vehicular bridge in the city, it is now closed and subject to the clouds of civic debate. How do you, or should you memorialize a bridge, and the millions who have made the crossing over the river? Should the next structure be a replicant, to give an illusion of immortality to the urban realm? What room is left to give to the unfunctional in our cities? It was an interesting time to be there; with water, weather, and time, the city is finally old enough to decay in on itself.

It was the bridge that I thought of when I went to the University of Saskatoon campus and visited the Kenderdine’s latest exhibition, curated by Dr. Shauna McCabe, pedantically entitled Formerly Exit Five: Portable Monuments to Recent History. The gallery space was an underground bunker-like space in a beautifully conserved College Building, which you appropriately reach by passing under carved gargoyles and terracotta plaques listing deceased war alumni. Reaching the gallery and surveying the work, I noted that each artist approached the concept in a vastly different way, but independently asked the natural question, can you accurately plan for and visualize anything beyond your own lifetime?

I was familiar with David Rokeby’s Seen from a presentation in Amsterdam for his seminal 2002 submission to the Venice Biennial for Architecture. It was exhibited originally as part of Next Memory City, curated by architect and fellow public-space photographer Michael Awad as a digital projection. Within the context of McCabe’s exhibition, and with the quotidian onslaught of modern technology, the work is more ominous than future-positive. The artwork’s RGB digital surface resembles a 3D airport x- ray body scan image of a public square and the visual technology is so common the artwork now seems more dated than it is. It tracks the physical shapes of pedestrians moving in continuity across the time dimension, so you can visualize the space inhabited by the person long after they have left it, the image trailing ghost-like behind them. An image finally given to the idea of apartment walls talking: we are looking at the exact people in this exact place nearly ten years ago. The image appears abstracted and interrupted by frenetic shapes darting through the space, immediately identifying it as Piazzo San Marco to anyone who has suffered the shit and detritus of its numerous fowl, an iconic annoyance of the original sinking city.

Century of Growth is a documentation of sprawl. Sara Graham’s chronological series shows municipal growth as a map: ever expanding, never contracting. Like an embryonic drawing, the lines invite you to consider the time when your own city was just a handful of roads, once conceding only to natural obstacles like rivers and ridges. Man-made construction in this country is still embryonic, and so the works seemed conceptually incomplete to me despite the viral beauty of the images.

The central dominant work of the exhibition, Arc, a painting by Denyse Tomasos, envelops you in both scale and composition. With a colour palette reminiscent of fellow Yale alumnus Jessica Stockholder’s, the forms are instead rendered entirely in paint with pure physicality of gesture evident on the platform of the canvas, creating a psychic portrait and emotional memory of the shadow events which occur within an architectural space.

The most desolate and striking images were from Vahram Aghasyan’s Ghost City series, first exhibited in the artist’s native Armenia, and most prominently in the 2007 Istanbul Biennale. The symmetry of the vacant concrete shells, the Soviet skeletal beginnings of a ghetto to house Armenians displaced by an earthquake, contrasts strongly with their own reflections in the bleak water below. The stark buildings are easily rendered abandoned monolithic islands by nature, and their brutalist construction is eerily familiar to an audience in a Canadian prairie city.

I’ve been a fan of French artist Cyprien Gaillard’s recent site-specific exhibition in the Netherlands, Dunepark, an excavation project on one of Holland’s most prized beach environments, unearthing a colossal bunker below the surface of the earth, considering negative space literally as a medium of the public realm. Yet his work in McCabe’s exhibition focuses sharply on dark matter. Gaillard’s video diptych Pruitt-Igoe Falls presents first the veil of water from Niagara Falls, and then the implosion of a St. Louis building tower in as equal volumes of form, illuminated against the night sky. The pairing and equation of these two segments is what makes the work evocative; it’s dissociative symmetry made me declare a love for video art again: the entropic moment of water and building falling as particles, each in opposition, is suspended for eternity through the artwork.

The exhibition was tightly curated, both visually and its selection of works, and unlike most theme-based exhibitions, the artworks did not serve as redundant evidence to a thesis but had compact chronological syllogism. It was obvious that McCabe had ruminated on each work for years, where the summary of their presentation serves only as an index to an unresolved conversation, the conclusion of which felt dominantly like a warning. Things never stay the same.

It leads you to imagine the city. Architects do not design decay. The carefully rendered streetscapes, engineered structures, and civic flow have transparent layers of figures and shrubbery laid on top, and geographically correct effects of seasonal lighting and shadow. But they forget to add the garbage. The sand piles and dirt left by street-cleaning equipment in the spring. The terrible signage and advertising littering facades, and the indifference of the cumulative millions of vehicles and individuals that inhabit the public spaces of a city repetitively, until its materiality physically decays, until freak ice storms and tornadoes, or even war, will cut swaths through carefully planned street grids. And the future developers, engineers, and architects who lay in wait, to tear everything down and build again. Architects do not design collapse.

The heavy dystopic tone to the exhibition is an unmistakable yet a simplistic deduction. Utopias are individual. Histories are personal. As an artist within a plethora of artists, an individual among many, whose voice will live beyond the physicality of their body, the physicality of their city? Whose perception, whose construction will be preserved when entire civilizations collapse? In this McCabe is clear: the past is only relevant to the present.