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Toronto
Terence Dick
Yonder at Koffler Gallery & Crossing the Line at Critical Distance
November 16, 2016

On the drive over to the Artscape Youngplace, I listened to Donald Trump announce that he was planning to deport a couple million ("maybe three million") undocumented immigrants as soon as he takes power. I wasn’t surprised that he'd start with this instead of taking on trade deals with China. Both were promised to his supporters, but it’s easier to deal with the powerless. People who move across borders out of necessity get to see the worst of both worlds; however, in doing so, they also often reveal something greater. The overlap between artists and displaced people has a long history. They were called exiles or expats in the past and created art that reflected a nomadic existence. “Immigrant” has become the common epithet for the present and it is routinely used as a term of condemnation. Exhibitions that address this identity-in-transition set themselves up against the racism and xenophobia that has become more and more unapologetic in recent years. Two are currently on display in this former school located deep in the heart of a multicultural city that has long been home to wave upon wave of newcomers.



José Luis Torres, à fleur de peau, 2016, faux fur, fabric (from Yonder at Koffler Gallery)

To do justice to each of the particular narratives behind each of the sixteen artists, duos, and collectives in Koffler Gallery’s Yonder exhibition would require lessons in history, biography, politics, religion, and plumbing. Part of the process of navigating the gallery (and the parts of the exhibition that extend throughout the building into staircases, onto windows, and up to the ceiling) involves getting to know the context for each work. This weighs the exhibition down in didactic panels that explain the specifics of language, reference, and props, but it also makes things more personal as it reveals each of the artists’ own stories. Rafael Goldchain’s photographs are the story of his journey to Toronto as much as they are a document of similarity and difference across three continents. Brendan Fernandes’ videos are about his past as a dancer as much as they are about deforming ourselves to alien traditions. Divya Mehra’s text panels hint at her own politics as much as they play semiotic games. Once you accept the required intimacy, any assessment of the art on display takes a back seat to getting to know where it’s coming from, which makes for a far more compelling lesson on how to fight the forces of hate than any account of the merits of individual works.



Luis Jacob, The Lookout, 2016, digital print on vinyl (from Yonder at Koffler Gallery)

The optimism of Yonder is not as evident in Crossing the Line, an exhibition of contemporary Danish art gathered together at Critical Distance by local curator Earl Miller. The European perspective on migration is complicated by starker divisions between purportedly homogeneous nations opening themselves up to people from elsewhere (not to mention former colonial nations dealing with post-colonial realities). Alongside stories of migration (for example, in Jens Hanning’s portrait of a first-generation refugee in Denmark) is the troubling mirror image of the immigrant in the form of the privileged tourist (care of Stine Marie Jaocbsen’s clothes swapping snapshots), but the most assumption-puncturing work on display is one that concerns international adoption. Jane Jin Kaisen was born in South Korea and then adopted by a Danish family. The one photo and accompanying book documenting her fabricated inversion of that convention (whereby an Asian-American couple adopt a Danish girl) cuts right to the heart of the prejudices that terminally divide us. Instead of representing the experience of the person at risk of being deported, it forces us to face our own complicity in allowing such ostracism to occur.


Koffler Gallery: http://kofflerarts.org/koffler-gallery/exhibitions/upcoming/
Yonder continues until November 27.

Critical Distance: https://criticaldistance.ca/
Crossing the Line: Contemporary Art from Denmark continues until December 11.


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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