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Terence Dick
Annie MacDonell at the Art Gallery of Mississauga
May 31, 2017

The camera circles the fracas with a steady gaze. The video begins moments after the police line is broken, so it’s difficult to discern whose side anyone is on. There’s a sidewalk and a grassy area beyond it. Men in suits rush across the street and attack another group. The police are caught in the middle. The camera keeps moving, only revealing glimpses of fists being thrown or bodies being pushed back. To make any sense of it, you have to watch the short segment over and over. Eventually you can identify certain figures, realize a bunch of the suits push down a woman and kick her, see the man who later wanders by with a bloody head first get punched. There isn’t any commentary, just a collection of bodies in motion, crashing together, punctuated by violent gestures and then physical restraint. The first time I see this footage of Turkish President Erdogan’s bodyguards attack protestors outside the Turkish embassy in Washington, DC, the comment thread immediately compares it to Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave. There’s something about the visuals that turns the incident into more than a random skirmish, something that makes it into art.

Annie MacDonell, Untitled collage, 2017, paper collage on board

Toronto-based artist Annie MacDonell’s solo exhibition The Levellers, currently on display at the Art Gallery of Mississauga, is also concerned with protests. Her series of collages splice together photographs of public demonstrations with Op Art insertions, taking these frozen moments of struggle out of their particular political contexts to draw them into the realm of historical painting. Her multi-channel video Holding Still/Holding Together makes a similar transition through a group of dancers who work out a choreography inspired by documentary images of those moments in a demonstration when the bodies of the protestors go limp and have to be lugged away by police. It’s a strange instance of agreed resistance where both sides acknowledge the other’s opposition. The protestor becomes passive and relies on gravity and their limp limbs to communicate their dissent as they allow the law officers to do their job. In the more humane demonstrations depicted here, the cops don’t beat up the protestors, they don’t attack them, but contain, restrain, and remove them. This carefully administered state violence (unlike the explicit violence of the Turkish government thugs) is isolated at points of contact in MacDonell’s casts of body parts being held back by disembodied hands. They only add to the sense of forensic analysis that is evoked by the exhibition as a whole. The Levellers is reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s step-by-step dissections of car accidents and political assassinations. The artist takes on the clinical distance of the scientist and turns a tumultuous clash into a series of discrete interactions.

Annie MacDonell, The Levellers, 2017, gypsum cement

In doing so, MacDonell turns current events into art history. Her framing of these interactions at critical points of conflict evokes similar scenes that appear in paintings of battles from the past. Deller’s recreation of a 1980s miner’s riot by a historical recreation society that usually deals with much older war stories is a good reference point here as well. He put his players (many of whom had participated in the original strike) in the context of a longer tradition of resistance and, in doing so, validates their actions as part of history. MacDonell takes a more general approach (though the specific reference in her exhibition title is worth noting) and heightens our appreciation of the meaning of these moments of social discontent. By removing them from the immediate context (a strategy that can be problematic as Sam Durant recently found out), she doesn’t merely aestheticize them; she makes them iconic. A protest is a demonstration of freedom as much as it is an expression of belief. It should be isolated, analyzed, understood, and celebrated.

Art Gallery of Mississauga:
Annie MacDonell: The Levellers continues until June 18.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.



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