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Toronto
Terence Dick
Canada On Screen Installations at TIFF Bell Lightbox
July 05, 2017

Word on the street is that Canada on Screen Installations is the last exhibition to be held in the TIFF Bell Lightbox gallery space. That’s a shame because the mutual inspiration between cinema and contemporary art has been a vibrant one. Though, to be honest, the influence of the latter on the former has been limited to stylistic riffs (from Dali’s set design in Hitchcock’s Spellbound to Hirst-inspired props in Tarsem Singh’s The Cell) and forgettable directorial efforts (Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer, for example). A more engaging body of work has emerged over the decades from artists taking film into their own hands. One obvious, local, and essential example is Michael Snow’s film work. His Two Sides to Every Story makes up one part of a loose trio of installations (supplemented by screenings of Rodney Graham’s 1984 piece Two Generators and Roman Kroiter, Colin Low and Hugh O'Connor’s In the Labyrinth from 1967). Snow’s two-projector mirror-image film is from 1974, which puts it after his better known Wavelengths and La Région Centrale, but it makes a similar systematic interrogation into what film as a medium can do while dismantling the illusions it relies on. The focus is on perception, and its images and variations are explored in a non-narrative manner, though there is evidence of a story here. Snow plays the director giving instructions from his chair, two male technicians operate the cameras, and a pretty young girl dressed in white performs the tasks designed to obstruct and reveal the intersection of the two cameras set in opposition to each other. Beneath its conceptual surface, the underlying politics of filmmaking are also exposed.



Stan Douglas, Overture, 1986, black and white film

Moving ahead chronologically, Stan Douglas’s film loop Overture from 1986 directs our attention to both the mechanics of the medium by linking railroad technology to the development of the motion picture camera/projector and the manner in which film has shaped our sense of the past. He combines passages from Proust that refer to night time, sleep, dreams, disorientation, and loss of identity with subtly manipulated archival footage of trains passing in and out of tunnels along the mountain passes of the Rockies. The aged and degraded film circles around and shifts from dark to light. Both train and film strip chug along on their tracks; the steam engine’s light piercing the darkness like the movie projector’s beam. They reveal a moment of transition from the old way of being in the world to an era of mass migration and mass communication. Douglas manages to condense the whole of the burgeoning 20th Century into a seven-minute sequence that captures the North American frontier spirit in both its vertiginous glory and nightmarish effects.



Vera Frankel, The Blue Train, 2012, multi-channel video installation

The most recent installation is the first one you see when you pass through the Lightbox lobby. Vera Frenkel's The Blue Train maintains the railroad theme, but updates the medium to video and multiplies it by 34 channels. She’s in the middle of the century and back in Europe, revisiting the vagueness of memory, the way our stories are assembled out of fragments, the way history is constructed. Looking back on the past she folds technology (more trains and now typewriters) into metaphors and piles up names and narratives to emphasize the uncertainty of evidence. Faint memories, discarded letters, forgotten photographs, and found footage only help to approximate what has happened to us. Film is one among many elements in this dense work, but our familiarity with it makes it central to our visual understanding. Contemporary artists can’t help but continue to work under its influence and test its limits, so let’s hope that other curators (like Laurel Saint-Pierre here) continue to exhibit their responses.


TIFF Bell Lightbox: http://www.tiff.net/events/canada-on-screen-installations/
Canada On Screen Installations continue until August 13.


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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