Quantifying Sakoon with Tazeen Qayyum  

Sakoon by Tazeen Qayyum. Installation Views. Courtesy of the artist and Zalucky Contemporary. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid. 2022.

Sakoon by Tazeen Qayyum

Zalucky Contemporary

February 12 to March 19, 2022

By Ignazio Colt Nicastro

Sakoon, Zameer, Brabri/Bartri, Yaqeen, Sabr, Hasil, Zarf, and Fikr are nine Urdu words meticulously drawn out through intensive, repetitive labor by Pakistani-Canadian artist, Tazeen Qayyum. These nine words encompass the walls of the Zalucky Contemporary, each evoking a personal reaction from Qayyum. Visually, the echoing Urdu characters wrap in an annular structure with a calligraphic form on sheets of paper, swirling towards the center like a vortex. In her debut Toronto solo exhibition, Sakoon, Qayyum engages viewers with this series of ink drawings that speak to her relationship with Urdu linguistics and her exploration of these words. 

Qayyum presents the work linearly across the gallery, providing rough translations of these Urdu words that are meant to illustrate something quantifiable. When viewers enter Zalucky Contemporary, they are met with the first work and the title of the show: Sakoon, meaning Peace/Calm/Tranquility, which sets the tone of the exhibition. To truly immerse oneself in this space, it is essential to understand that Urdu is not always meant to be consumed literally. With this in mind, viewers can now see that Qayyum is inviting them to dig deeper within themselves and to seek the quantity of tranquility within and around themselves.

Sakoon by Tazeen Qayyum. Installation Views. Courtesy of the artist and Zalucky Contemporary. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid. 2022.

Next to this introductory piece, viewers are met with a triptych that harnesses a deeper presence thematically and visually in the space. From left to right, viewers stand ahead of Zameer (Conscience)Brabri/Bartri (Equality/Privilege), and Yaqeen (Belief). These three works are synergetic, as sentiments of equality and privilege cannot be discussed without having an underlying conversation of one’s conscience and beliefs. Surprisingly, these works were not made for one another, but over time Qayyum found a shared theme between them. This sequence of drawings forms a dialogue around the centerpiece of Brabri/Bartri

As a woman of colour, Qayyum found herself placed within emotional, personal, and public turmoil during the rise of heightened civil rights movements in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Furthermore, as an artist, Qayyum reflected on the performativity of statements of solidarity that appeared from art institutions across the globe during this time. Screens of text flooded Instagram, Facebook, and arts-based platforms, yet it begged the question, why did these institutions feel the need to prove their core values? Are their values as an institution not visible through their actions? Qayyum began to question her own place in the art community as these statements began to feel more like a checklist rather than a statement of integrity. When connecting with art spaces, she now wondered what was being assessed: her merit or the colour of her skin. As these thoughts came to surface, Qayyum turned to her practice to reflect on these feelings. 

Sakoon by Tazeen Qayyum. Installation Views. Courtesy of the artist and Zalucky Contemporary. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid. 2022.

Out of these experiences, Qayyum pulled out two contradicting words that exist within each other’s opposition, as the unbalance of privilege cannot subsist in an equal world.These words work against but also alongside each other, just as they do in the ink drawing Brabri/Bartri. As she does for almost all of her works, Qayyum began in the middle of the page, drawing Brabri (Equality) in black ink in a circular, clockwise direction. As she reached the end of this section, she then inverted the experience. Now drawing in white ink and counter-clockwise, Qayyum fills the page with Bartri (Privilege). She continues to do this for another five rounds, purely in black ink, filling the page with this new vessel of equality and privilege. It is the laborious act of repetition and rhythm that allowed Qayyum to turn from moments of disparity into a meditative trance. 

As time went on, more world issues were raised or persisted, furthering this claim to Brabri/Bartri. The rampant development of COVID-19 highlighted the disparities within marginalized communities, further exposing how our judicial systems overlook and reinforce structural violence against those who do not fit the quota of cis-gendered, straight, white, able-bodied, men or women. Qayyum pondered on the quantity of Zameer (Conscience) and Yaqeen (Belief) in society while considering this imbalance. In response, she is asking her viewers to consider their Bartri (Privilege) in order to obtain Brabri (Equality).

Sakoon by Tazeen Qayyum. Fikr (concern/thought), 2022 Archival ink on paper 29.5 x 23.25 inches (framed). Courtesy of the artist and Zalucky Contemporary. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid

As these older works of Qayyum’s still resonate with audiences today, her newest piece, Fikr (Concern/thought) continues the series that speaks to her audiences and herself. Looking at this word closely, viewers should consider how deeply they reflect on the world around them. What is interesting about this piece, however, is Qayyum’s execution of the work. As aforementioned, Qayyum’s previous works are created from the center to the exterior. This was because the word choice itself was often a result from the world around her. Although Qayyum’s work often encourages her viewers to contemplate the phrases ahead of them, when she created Fikr she decided to focus inwards on herself. Even after finding solace in her therapeutic practice, Qayyum joins her viewers as we all seek Sakoon. 

A Method of Attunement: In Conversation with Candice Hopkins

Portrait of Candice Hopkins.

Interview by Adi Berardini

The focus and mandate of The Toronto Biennial of Art is to “make contemporary art accessible to everyone.” From March 26 to June 5th, local, national, and international Biennial artists will transform Toronto and its partner regions with free exhibitions, performances, and learning opportunities. Although the Biennial has its roots in diverse local contexts, it sparks global conversations through its exhibitions and city-wide programming. This years’ Biennial has the theme What Water Knows, the Land Remembers, expanding from the inaugural 2019 edition, A Shoreline Dilemma. In this interview, Candice Hopkins discusses her curatorial vision for the 2022 Toronto Biennial of Art and her exhibition ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision at the Textile Museum of Canada. Within the conversation, Hopkins speaks of the importance of the Biennial being place-specific and curatorial practice as a method of attunement.

Candice Hopkins’ writing and curatorial practice explore the intersections of history, contemporary art, and Indigeneity. Originally from Whitehorse, Yukon, Hopkins is a citizen of Carcross/Tagish First Nation. In addition to her role as senior curator for the 2019 and 2021 editions of the Toronto Biennial, she works as the Executive Director of Forge Project in New York. Additionally, she was part of the curatorial team for the Canadian Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale, featuring the work of the media art collective Isuma. She is co-curator of notable exhibitions including Art for New Understanding: Native Voices 1950s to Now; the 2018 SITE Santa Fe Biennial, Casa Tomada; documenta 14 in Athens, Greece and Kassel, Germany; Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada.

Can you explain your curatorial vision for the 2022 Toronto Biennial of Art, with the theme of What Water Knows, The Land Remembers? How does it expand on the last edition focusing on the shoreline? 

We’re a team of three curators myself, Katie Lawson, Tairone Bastien, and we also worked on the first edition. We always knew from the beginning that the curatorial team would carry over. And we always imagined that 2019, and what’s now 2022 because of the six-month delay of the pandemic, [would be] two chapters and two editions of a whole. That means that some of the artists extend their projects over 2019 and 2022 with a thematic extension as well. The title of 2019 was A Shoreline Dilemma, and most of the venues were centered on the shoreline and the shoreline as spaces of imagination, colonial construction, militarization and demilitarization, [and] various kinds of expansion into the lake. Also, shorelines aren’t fixed; they’re constantly shifting and moving, they’re fractal. And because of their fractal nature, they resist any conventional forms of measurement, because they are constantly changing space. We see the 2022 edition as stemming from these initial questions.

The 2019 Biennial was centered around the question of what does it mean to be in relation? In 2022, we thought it was important to think about how in this case, many of the works are situated up the various tributaries of those lost and extant rivers in Toronto. Toronto is located on one of the largest natural watersheds in the world, which means that there were a lot of creeks and there were a lot of rivers that were feeding that lake. We have been thinking collectively together with artists and curators what does it mean to be in relation to the water? And through that, what does it mean to think about the kind of deeper and in some cases, the sediment of history, on this land that we’re on?

In 2022, the title is meant to be a kind of lead into some of the explorations various artists were taking on, what water knows, the land remembers. One of the things that we were struck by when we were meeting and speaking with artists was one, as far as we understand it, water has memory. It contains and remembers anything that has happened to it on a molecular level. So, we can understand water as an archive, but we can understand the land as an archive too. Last fall, I was part of a meeting with a soil scientist who’s at Duke University and he said, certain soils slowly move upwards, like a river, over in some cases thousands of years. In a way then, it’s almost as though the soil is constantly revealing its past to us if it’s left undisturbed.

What does it mean to attune ourselves to these histories that might be located under concrete, underneath our very feet? 

That was a moment of revelation for me and the curatorial team that if the land was always trying to reveal its history to us, what does it mean to attune ourselves to that? What does it mean to attune ourselves to these histories that might be located under concrete, underneath our very feet? I think one of the projects that we first initiated in 2019 that carried towards 2022 is a kind of direct response to this. So, that was what’s called Concepts and Contexts for Toronto and that was authored by Ange Loft with various collaborators. Ange Loft is a Mohawk artist, historian, playwright, and theatre director. And this year in 2022, we have been working together with Camille Turner and Yaniya Lee to add a kind of another layer to this idea of concepts and contexts for Toronto. They’ve been working on, a set of cards, like a deck, that looks at Black histories in Toronto. And one of the things that Yaniya and Camille noted was that these aren’t sedimented histories—that’s kind of an easy way out. They were saying that these pasts and these futures are right here in front of us, but not everyone pays attention to them. Sometimes we think that these histories are obscured, whether it’s the histories of people who are newcomers to these lands, or people who’ve been here for thousands of years, but they’re not for the people who’ve lived those histories.

We’ve also been very inspired by the fugitivity of water. The fact that even though something like Taddle Creek or Garrison Creek has been covered over, water still always finds a way home. It flows underneath houses, underneath real estate developments, it erodes concrete, it continues to flow. We thought of that fugitivity of water and what it carries with it and its insistence on its path. And I think that’s what we can learn, not only as curators but as artists too.

Jeffrey Gibson, I AM YOUR RELATIVE, 2022. Installation views, MOCA Toronto. Courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio, Kavi Gupta Gallery, Roberts Projects, Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Stephen Friedman Gallery. I AM YOUR RELATIVE is co-commissioned by MOCA and the Toronto Biennial of Art.

What are some considerations you have curating a biennial that’s place-specific, such as the Toronto Biennial? And a place that’s so diverse too. Do you have specific aspects you look for in artists and work and how it connects to place?

We knew that on embarking on the Toronto Biennial from the beginning, it needed to be place-specific. It couldn’t feel like an exhibition that could take place anywhere, it had to be done in relation to place. Whether that’s thinking about histories or various ways that we might shape the narrative of a place for ourselves. When we started in 2019, we brought artists together, especially those who were coming from outside of Toronto together with artists that were here. They met with Ange Loft, who generously shared some of the research she had done. And that Toronto context from Concepts brief was shared with all the artists who were working with the Toronto Biennial of Art as a kind of primary document. I think it’s really important to share histories, knowledge, and tools about a place. The pandemic shifted working models; we all went online like many teams. We worked with artists remotely, of course, some are still based here. A big part of that was being in dialogue.

Many of the artists that we worked with have created responsive works to this place or the Great Lakes, more in general, or to other narratives of lakes such as Great Bear Lake in Northwest Territories is one good example of work by Ts̱ēmā Igharas and Erin Siddall. Other projects looked very far into the future, such as part two of Syrus Marcus Ware’s Antarctica piece. I think every artist took it from their own perspective, but I think [most of the] work is grounded here. Part of that idea though was because a lot of biennials operate almost like a parachuting model that let’s say emerged in the 1990s with the proliferation of biennials around the world. What started with less than a hundred, is now I believe over 400 around the world. And there needs to be specificity to those, they can’t feel like there’s very little relation. I think audiences feel that too. One of our methods as well is that we are primarily a commissioning biennial, which differentiates us from some others.

Installation view of ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision: Jessie Oonark, Janet Kigusiuq, and Victoria Mamnguqsualuk. Photo by Darren Rigo.

Can you discuss the Biennial exhibition ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision that you curated at the Textile Museum of Canada and its focus on sharing Inuit histories?

In early 2013, I did travel to different communities in Nunavut, including Baker Lake. And I had already known, of course about ᔭᓯ ᐆᓇᖅ Jessie Oonark’s work, ᔮᓂᑦ ᑭᒍᓯᐅᖅ Janet [Kigusiuq]’s work, and ᕕᒃᑐᕆᔭ ᒪᒻᖑᖅᓱᐊᓗᒃ Victoria Mamnguqsualuk’s work. What I found when I was in Baker Lake was this matriarchy—The way that a lot of artistic production in Nunavut is done through mentorship, artist to artist, family member to family member, sometimes with the support of the co-op system, sometimes not. And the co-op in Baker Lake kind of operated in fits and starts. It was really production led by artists themselves. Jessie Oonark began making work only after she and her family relocated to Baker Lake. Baker Lake, as far as I know, is the only inland community in Nunavut so it’s not on a major water body, like other communities. And I was interested in how women’s perspectives were shaping the content of their work and how they made the work itself.

Installation view of ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision: Jessie Oonark, Janet Kigusiuq, and Victoria Mamnguqsualuk. Photo by Darren Rigo.

Jessie is primarily known for her textile work. She’s the only artist from Baker Lake to be included in the Cape Dorset print collection and she had her first prints included in 1960. They’ve all worked across media, drawing, prints, textiles, some sculpture even. What I was interested in was how pattern is both a tool and a technique for all of them. Janet later in her life, when arthritis didn’t allow her to make the kind of very high detailed drawings that she was known for began a different kind of practice. It began through a workshop in 1998 I think, with someone who was up there for a time teaching, making these paper collages. They are extraordinary because people might see them immediately as pure abstraction, but they’re not. Many of Janet’s collages are made to reference very specific places that they would visit, places where they’ve fished, for example.

Then Victoria Mamnguqsualuk, Jessie’s other daughter, was known for her narrative works. A figure that recurs in her practice is a migrant traveler–Kiviuq. He occurs a lot in her work and even intervened at certain moments like in the cold war. He’s a figurative legend, let’s say. [What is] fascinating to me about that was that Janet said in an interview that Victoria would stay up late at night, listening to their grandmother, Natak, tell stories. In a way, she became a chronicler through her prints and drawings, and textiles, of this oral history, which is fascinating. And then their mother, Jessie Oonark, is one of the best-known Inuk artists to have lived. What really struck me was the repeated representations of women, the tools of women, including the ᐅᓗ Ulu women’s knife, ᐊᑯᖅ amauti, ᖃᒧᑏᒃ qamutiik; and how pattern for her, again, became a kind of tool and technique, particularly in her textile works. But the title of the exhibition, in general, comes from, and I believe it was Jack Butler who said this, he described Jessie Oonark’s work as “double vision” because she used a lot of symmetry, but it was, I think quite deliberately, not perfect symmetries, so each side might look slightly different. In a way, what that does is it makes you pay attention to the variation of form. I feel like as the central point of the Biennial, we have a lot of matriarchal and matrilineal narratives. And I think that’s why Double Vision is one of the centerpiece exhibitions of the 2022 Biennial.

I also feel like personally, the work of Inuit artists isn’t always contextualized in this way, although increasingly more now. I wanted the audience to focus not just on the content of the work, but the kind of conditions of production in Baker Lake, who is teaching who, how they are communicating it, and seeing these pieces as a conceptual marker of art history.

Installation view of ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision: Jessie Oonark, Janet Kigusiuq, and Victoria Mamnguqsualuk. Photo by Darren Rigo.

Can you speak more about the practice of collaboration and listening in your curatorial practice and its significance while showcasing work by Indigenous artists and artists whose histories have been underrepresented?

I think sometimes curatorial practice is about resonances. We can understand resonances as part of an auditory experience, but also in many ways, curatorial practice can be a method of attunement. You’re attuned to not only what is taking place in society at any given moment, but [you are also] attuned to what artists are interested in communicating with their work. I think that you’re attuned to what ideas are forming and your potential audiences for an exhibition too. As well as the kind of practicalities of putting together a show in multiple venues where there’s different relations being formed in each of the spaces.

I think as well, and this happens very distinctly in the first edition of the Biennial too, we wanted to work directly with artists whose practices we were most excited about, of course. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the artists that we worked with had a kind of corresponding place within what we might consider the larger artistic ecosystem. So, sometimes they might not have any commercial representation, for example, or maybe they’re just starting in their career. I think these kinds of exhibitions can be platforms for artists to make something new, for artists to make something responsive and I think for myself, paying attention to people who are making good, challenging work. We can use the exhibition as a kind of stage or a platform for what they’re making and doing. I think as well, curatorial practice is inherently dialogical. It’s in relationship to the ethos of our time, working in tandem with an artist as they develop something new.

Do you have any advice for emerging Indigenous artists or curators starting off their careers?

There are two different answers depending on whether you’re looking to pursue more of a curatorial track or an artist track. And that’s not to say that the two aren’t contingent or that people do both, because often people do both. I started out as an artist, for example.

I would say that for emerging curators, mentors have been the most important figures in my life and they sometimes come to you in expected ways. When I was very early in my career, I was grateful to have been mentored by folks like Lee-Ann Martin or Anthony Kiendl, or Sylvie Gilbert . I was able to work alongside them through my work at the Banff Centre. And I started at the Banff Centre as a work-study, that’s essentially like an intern. I think that we all start in various ways. I was incredibly lucky to have received a grant through the Canada Council for the Arts at the time. It was a grant that was for emerging Aboriginal curators, that was the terminology then.

I worked directly with Lee-Ann, and I learned so much from her, you know, she was one of the co-curators of Indigena, which is still a watershed exhibition. It was kind of like the political foil to Land, Spirit, Power that was on at the same time at the National Gallery of Canada, just across the river from one another.  She was both the person who was one of the Project Coordinators for the Task Force on Museums and First Peoples that was in the 1990s that emerged out of the kind of conflicts and direct open protests around the exhibition The Spirits Sings in 1988, which was one of the first publicly protested exhibitions. So, she was one of the people at the forefront of trying to negotiate a different relationship between Native people and museums and our representation.

Choose your mentors and work with them, and these relationships are always reciprocal, right? What can you give in exchange or provide as an exchange? I’m not implying monetary of course. Developing relationships with artists is incredibly important as a young curator, because those are your peers, and they might be people that you work with for the rest of your life in various ways. That’s definitely been the case for me.

I would say as well, understanding if you do want to work with museums or artist-run centers, or other alternative or commercial spaces, trying to find out how they function is important too. I think that these institutions are not always transparent, they don’t always speak from that subject position at all. I think any experience you can get within those places is always beneficial.

If you’re an emerging Native artist, do whatever you can to make sure that you can maintain a dedicated studio practice, even if your studio is your desk. It’s important to put a lot of energy into your work. Find out what kinds of funding opportunities are out there if you’re living and working in Canada, which is a very different funding landscape that the United States. I would say, think of your peers as you’re sounding board.

I always encourage people, and this might be intimidating for younger artists, to reach out to a curator. If there’s a curator you like, send them your work, and see if they’ll do a studio visit with you, with no expectation. What you’re trying to do is develop a dialogue and a relationship. As a young artist, I think it’s incredibly important to see as much work by others as you can, especially those artists that you respect so that you can learn from how work is installed. You can learn from one another, including other ways other [artists] might be contextualizing their work. This is your field. Spend as much time looking and watching as learning as you can.

Check out the Toronto Biennial of Art from March 26 to June 5 at the 9+ Biennial sites across Toronto and Mississauga.

Tough Conversations: (un)happy objects at Artcite Inc.

(un)happy objects Installation photo, ArtCite Inc. Photo by Adrienne Crossman.

(un)happy objects

Artcite Inc. Windsor, ON

October 15th – Nov 20th, 2021

By Adi Berardini

How one approaches tough conversations can be telling of who one truly is. When I first came out to my parents, I blurted out that I was queer while in the passenger seat of the car. I think that my reasoning behind this was that if there was a negative reaction, I could quickly escape after we had arrived. I worked up the scenarios in my head beforehand and often let the anxiety get the best of me. It’s a common desire to want to avoid difficult conversations for fear of rejection. Strategies, such as humour, can be used as a deflection for these anxiety-ridden conversations that are difficult to put into words.

Humour, intentional opacity, and inclusion versus exclusion, are demonstrated as themes in the exhibition (un)happy objects at Artcite Inc. featuring artists Madelyne Beckles, Vida Beyer, Kaythi, and Shellie Zhang, curated by Adrienne Crossman. Through the framework of Sara Ahmed’s Happy Objects, which claims that we value an object based on how it affects us, orienting us towards what makes us happy and away from those that don’t,[1] the artists encourage viewers to face their anxieties around potentially “unhappy” topics relating to homophobia, racism, and white supremacy. As Édouard Glissant advocates for the “right to opacity” in Poetics of Relation, the oppressed, and those historically labelled as the “Other” should be allowed to be opaque, to not be completely understood, and to simply exist as different, challenging the reductive transparencies that classify others using dominant structures of worth.[1] Often referencing pop culture and focusing on text, the artists use accessible media such as textiles, video, and neon signs to address these topics.

Kaythi. Our Lady of Profound Failure. Photo by Adrienne Crossman.

Walking into the exhibition, the first work I encounter is Kaythi’s Our Lady of Profound Failure, a brightly coloured rug that reads “DYKES ONLY.” The rug was created as part of a workshop on ‘Unwelcome Mats’ by artist and curator Lauren Cullen that introduced artists to rug hooking, featured in the exhibition Productive Discomfort at Xpace Cultural Centre. The piece features a figure in orange bent over with the text in black letters overlayed. At first glance, the rug reads as humorous, like a comment on how few lesbian spaces there are still surviving, carving out a specific queer-only space in a largely heteronormative world. The bent-over figure alludes to either prayer or oral sex. However, Kaythi is also interested in the politics behind lesbian-only spaces and how they have been exclusive to trans women through Trans Exclusionary Radical “Feminists” (TERFS) throughout history. Although the word dyke has been reclaimed, it’s also still a loaded term that resonates differently for everyone. As a femme, it also brings up some of my past feelings of discomfort in queer spaces, afraid that I seem out of place or simply not “queer enough.” The piece references the queer failures of the past, evoking potential feelings of inclusion and exclusion the phrase implies.

On the screen in the back left corner, the pastel aesthetic of Theory of The Young Girl by Madelyne Beckles brought me back to my teenage years, like a time machine back to my teenage bedroom. A large pink dice sits on the table and Beckles’ hand reaches out to touch a pink book with “theory” across the cover. While spraying her hair with hairspray, Beckles rehearses lines in response to the text Theory of the Young Girl by Tiqqun,[2] such as “When I was twelve, I decided to be beautiful.”[3] The film evokes the archetype of femininity as a cultural construction and its connection to heteronormative whiteness. In the panel discussion corresponding with the exhibition, Beckles explains how this work is connected to figuring out her place in femininity, particularly being mixed-race in her small town growing up.[4] The film juxtaposes the vapidness that one might attribute to sexist stereotypes of femininity with theory, commonly attributed to seriousness. Using humour, Beckles critiques how womanhood is prefabricated and marketed in a neoliberal society.

Vida Beyer. Nightmoves: Too Many Windows Open Feeling. Photo by Nadja Pelkey.

Vida Beyer’s adjacent textile work Nightmoves: Too Many Windows Open Feeling, mimics the overloaded sense of scrolling through the internet. Reminiscent of a karaoke night at a bar, the imagery spans from sensual lesbian hookups to song lyrics embroidered in the style of a karaoke sing-along. Beyer uses a mix of pop culture and more personal references, relying on intentional opacity which creates a sense of interest and intrigue. I couldn’t pinpoint the lyrics referenced at first, but after a google search, I determined that they are from “Head over Heels” by Tears for Fears and an Alice Cooper song. Many queer people who have grown up in the digital age can relate to looking things up on the internet as a means of finding some connection, especially while growing up in the 90s and early 2000s when queerness was not as represented in mainstream media. This piece connects to Beckles’ Search Herstory work on the far back wall, which exposes her past search history in an act of vulnerability, bringing the personal into the public sphere. These media references connect communities that can otherwise feel disparate.

(Un)happy Objects Installation photo, ArtCite Inc. Photo by Adrienne Crossman.
Shellie Zhang. I am Terrified /我担心. Photo by Adrienne Crossman.

Shellie Zhang’s piece, I am Terrified /我担心 consisting of a bright orange neon sign, addresses diaspora and intergenerational cultural erasure in western society. The piece reads: “I AM TERRIFIED THAT MY MOTHER WILL SEEM FOREIGN TO MY CHILDREN,” although there are two parts to this piece: one in Mandarin and the other part in English. The piece addresses white supremacy and cultural assimilation, and the anxiety of losing culture and shared understanding. Since they are displayed on two different walls, they also draw upon a sense of intentional opacity to some viewers because only viewers who understand Mandarin will understand the phrasing of the first sign.

In the exhibition panel, Zhang also explained how she was interested in how diasporic communities also use this sense of intentional opacity through shared experiences or jokes.[5] Her second work, It’s Complicated, reads “DIASPORAHAHA” In gigantic, gold lettering. If this seems like it’s something you’d view at an event, then you’ve guessed correctly since it was originally displayed at an event hosted by the queer Asian art collective, New Ho Queen.[6] Causing small rainbows to ricochet off the concrete, the glittery letters address using humour to relate through shared diasporic experiences and the sense of inclusion, and exclusion, this can bring.

By using culturally familiar and accessible methods such as neon signs and rug hooking, un(happy) objects encourages the audience to face their anxieties and difficult concepts head-on. The exhibition proposes the idea that working through discomfort can bring us closer together and forge new connections and healing. There won’t always be a clear escape plan and social isolation can’t be solved through a mere google search or doom scroll through an app. Sometimes it’s necessary to face what’s uncomfortable, even if it’s with the aid of an awkward laugh.


 [1] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997). (p.190).

[2] Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke University Press, 2010.(p. 42).

[3] Formed in 1999, Tiqqun is a French collective of authors and activists.

[4] Beckles, Madelyne. “Theory of The Young Girl.” 2017.

[5] un(Happy) objects online panel discussion. Nov 6, 2021.

[6] Crossman, Adrienne. “un(Happy) objects exhibition essay,” ArtCite Inc. 2021.

Clay Bodies: Interview with Olivia Turchyniak

Olivia Turchyniak studio portrait by Oriana Confente.

By Oriana Confente

Olivia Turchyniak is a ceramicist based in Tiohtià:ke / Montréal, Canada. As a newcomer to the city who wanted to support local artists during the pandemic, I started a growing collection of mugs by Olivia. I was drawn to the materiality of her pieces, like the organic and grounding qualities of the clay she uses which connect to deeper themes present throughout her work.

While she makes vessels for hot beverages, Olivia’s conceptual projects concern vessels of another kind. I learned her ceramic practice began with abstract representations of bodies – hollow sculptures that take shape as folded, dimpled mounds of flesh. In her artist statement, she declares that the body itself is also a vessel, one we need to “mold into a home.” Olivia’s artworks have been featured in group exhibitions at the FOFA Gallery and most recently, at the Montréal Art Centre.

Curious about her interpretations of human anatomy and the lumpy forms she creates, I wanted to know more. Olivia and I chatted over coffee and cannoli before visiting her studio, our discussion spanning flesh, functionality, and fine arts. The conversation that follows has been edited for clarity by us.

Olivia Turchyniak studio portrait by Oriana Confente.

Oriana: I’d like to start by learning more about your choice of medium. Can you tell me about the materials you work with?

Olivia: Ceramics has been my main medium for about five years now. I work mostly with stoneware clay because I prefer a mid-to high-fire clay with structure to it – I’ve found a clay body that I like.

Oriana: They’re called clay bodies?

Olivia: Yeah! A clay body is a mixture of different materials to make it workable. It’s a man-made product, versus clay, which is a natural resource.

Photograph of Olivia Turchyniak’s studio by Oriana Confente.

Oriana: You’ve drawn striking comparisons between human bodies as fleshy vessels and the organic aging of clay bodies. Can you go into more detail about the themes of your work?

Olivia: I’m primarily working with themes that have to do with the body and the earth, with permanence and impermanence. My most recent project, “SEED/SOIL,” is a self-portrait. The forms are abstract figures that have my tattoos to make them identifiable. It’s a lifelong project. Each sculpture features a different body part, and I’ll keep creating them until I stop getting tattoos.

We tend to view tattoos as permanent but in the grand scheme of things, our bodies aren’t that permanent. Clay is technically one of the most permanent mediums you can work with, it can last thousands of years. I’m playing with that idea of im/permanence. Clay also ages in stages, it matures with time. While clay is sourced from the ground, our bodies also end up in the earth when we die. There are so many parallels between clay and bodies and there’s a quality of clay that inherently reflects the body.

Photograph of Olivia Turchyniak’s studio by Oriana Confente.

Oriana: How does it feel to look back on earlier projects? Do you see yourself reflected differently in those artworks?

Olivia: For some reason, I depict myself a lot, maybe unintentionally. My most recent project is the most conscious self-portrait compared to others, which are reflections of subconscious mental states or reflections of my environment. “MAMMARY,” a series from 2019/2020, is a representation of a female form. It’s a grotesque image that’s strangely appealing at the same time. Breasts are really sensitive in our society and I wanted to represent a feeling of being uncomfortable. From the beginning, what’s tied my projects together is my interest in the human body and how I can express that.

Oriana: I want to discuss your functional wares too because, as you know, I’m a big fan. I’m curious about the connection between your functional pieces and your fine arts pieces.

Olivia: The functional wares started about a year ago, mid-COVID. I really wanted to learn a new skill. I think what I like about the functional stuff is that it’s not conceptual at all. It’s something I do when I don’t want to think too hard, and I just want to make something that serves a utilitarian purpose. I do see the practices as separate, but I think I need both practices in my life – I find that I’m not always inspired conceptually and sometimes I need a break from that. The functional wares are easy to go back to and I can produce work without thinking too hard.

Oriana: How does the making process differ between a thematic project and your functional wares?

Olivia: My sculptural works are hand-built using a coiling technique, which is when you roll out cylindrical, tube-shaped pieces of clay and stack them to make a hollow sculpture. My functional wares are made on a wheel which is very different from hand-building. Quicker, too. I can bust out ten mugs in the same amount of time it would take me to do a tiny portion of a sculpture.

Photograph of Olivia Turchyniak’s studio by Oriana Confente.

Oriana: Which process is easier for you, mentally and physically?

Olivia: It’s physically exhausting either way, but mentally, the functional work is easier because I’m repeating something very technical. With the sculptural work, I’m figuring it out as I go, and I have to think about gravity too.

Oriana: Is it messy?

Olivia: It’s very messy. Very dusty.

Oriana: Do you like that?

Olivia: I love the tactility of it. Making sculptures is meditative for me. It’s very grounding and the sensation is something I’m addicted to, I guess. While I’m working, it’s really like a flow state. My mind is just so hyper-focused on what I’m doing. I think that’s beautiful and I’m constantly chasing after it.

To see more of Olivia’s work, visit oliviaturchyniak.com or @_vie_lo and @_vie_pot on Instagram.


Part Two: Adam Barbu and Deirdre Logue in Conversation

Recess, Cultural Production, Checking Out

From Empty History: Deirdre Logue, Home Office, 2017, 03:33 minutes; Lucas Michael, Audentes Fortuna Iuvat,2011, Nickel-plated silver-plated steel, polished steel. Image courtesy of Vlad Lunin and Vtape.

By Adam Barbu

Adam Barbu is a writer and curator based in Ottawa, Ontario. Deirdre Logue is a film, video, and installation artist and cultural worker based in both Toronto and in Brighton, Ontario. They first met during the research phase of the group exhibition Empty History, presented at Vtape from November 20 – December 14, 2019. Curated by Barbu, Vtape’s 2019 Researcher-in-Residence, Empty History explored the ways in which artists use video to interrupt narratives of so-called ‘queer progress.’ Alongside contributions by Paul Wong (Vancouver, BC) and Lucas Michael (New York, NY), the exhibition featured Logue’s Home Office (2017). Shot on location during a residency at The Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson City, the work consists of a single-shot, 3:33 minute recording of the artist attempting to balance on top of a slide-out shelf from a wooden writing desk.

Home Office does not seek to repair the unjust and the uncertain by fashioning new utopias. Offering performances of solitary, inoperative gestures and activities, the works of Empty History construct impossible narratives without purpose or end, carried out at the limits of what is deemed recognizably ‘queer’ or ‘political’ content. In this refusal of resolution and finality, they occupy the difficult space in between meaning and dysfunction, acting out and stepping back, and seeking change and giving up. Within the frame of the screen, life itself is presented in a fixed state.

Barbu and Logue met on August 27, 2021, and again on November 19, 2021, to reconnect for the first time since the presentation of Empty History. In this two-part discussion article, the artist and curator consider personal changes that have taken shape over the past year and a half, including Barbu’s shifting creative practice and Logue’s decision to move away from the city. Together, they discuss feeling stuck, checking out, and moving on.

AB: Rereading part one of our article, it seems that we were both in a different place. At that point, I was on the verge of checking out completely. However, I still believe in creating space for apathy in this conversation about ambition, productivity, and success in the artworld. How can we begin to address these pressures while occupying that space together? What do we do with that stress? How do we make sense of it? These are some of the thoughts I return to today—about three months after that earlier conversation.

DL: A few things happened to me after we hung up the phone. Sometimes, when something truly confuses you, it compels rather than repels you. It brings people closer. My questions are related to the potential of this discourse, as well as our shared interest in various topics that, if manifested in practice, could in theory erase each other. In this mutual commitment to exploring the limits of counterproductivity, we almost set ourselves up for the perfect failure. To begin, we should pool together works that might help us build a larger frame of reference for a kind of working that commits itself to recess, to unworking progress, works that undo themselves or resist a kind of accomplishment. I have a long history of working with futility in subject matter. So, my interest in checking out comes as no surprise. But it also occurs to me that we’re both going through our own transitions. We’re changing as people. Perhaps the most important question for us to consider is one of kinship. What could be gleaned from conversations taking place over a longer period?

From Empty History: Curator’s research materials. Image courtesy of Vlad Lunin and Vtape.

AB: We first connected during my research residency for the exhibition Empty History, which included your video Home Office. As a reflection on solitude, labour, and recess, Home Office raises important questions that mirror life in a pre-post-pandemic world. Nevertheless, Empty History originally sought to address a different set of questions I faced following my graduate studies. Working on the exhibition offered me the chance to grapple with my toxic relationship to curating and publishing. I was so focused on being productive, creating more output, and filling a CV, that I lost touch with my practice. I burnt out. During my residency, I was drawn to Home Office because of how it embraces slowness, repetition, and worklessness, creating space for alternative counterproductive histories to be imagined. What continues to connect us is an interest in doing nothing as a form of something. Or, put differently, doing the action of nothing as an artist or curator. As you can imagine, there’s isn’t a lot of grant money available for this kind of work.

DL: Maybe that’s the problem with curating today—it has more to do with art-ing than living.

AB: I’m ambivalent about the term ‘curator’ because it has come to signify something so operative, so productivist. A few years ago, I invited Feminist Art Gallery (FAG), founded by you and your partner Allyson, to contribute to a discussion article I was writing for Canadian Art. In response to a question about defining the term ‘queer curating,’ FAG argued: “We feel it is important to productively question the authority, economy and adoration of the notion of the curator—lots of people want to be one—we do not. Instead, we concentrate our queer feminist energies on enabling and nurturing queer and feminist art and ideas…”[1] When you’re an anxious graduate student, trying to construct an identity at once personal and professional, it’s difficult to hear that. At that point in my life, I was living and working inside the artworld machine.

DL: I’ve been championing cultural production for a long time. Still, I believe in a regenerative approach. Sometimes you’ve got to burn it to the ground and rebuild the house you want to live in. That’s true for a lot of things, including our sexual politics, our relationships, and some of our artworld definitions. For example, in a recent interview, I proposed the idea that artists choose their curators and collectors, thus inverting the pyramid. They would make a choice to form a relationship that suits them. I said no to a commission during the first summer of COVID. There were very few restrictions—the work could have been anything I wanted. So, I must ask myself: Where does checking out really lead? What does recess do to reset the spirit?

Sometimes you’ve got to burn it to the ground and rebuild the house you want to live in.  

AB: As a graduate student trying to find their way, I remember the thrill of an accepted proposal. It tickles the ego. Recognition is comforting as hell—it’s an affirmation of identity. But the relationship I built with that ‘yes’ was frenetic, if not totally destructive. So, I’m touched by your gesture of refusal. That ‘no’ exists so far outside the realm of where I used to be.

DL: Here, we can’t lose sight of the effects of the public funding system. Say I apply for a grant and receive the money, after which I change my mind. Well, I can’t. I’ve got to do the thing that I said I was going to do. Then I must show my work to prove that the work exists. These transactional relationships don’t just make problematic the relationship between artist and curator. They make problematic all our relationships with institutions, funding bodies, and consequently, each other. These problems are more systematic than they are simply individual. Oftentimes, we find ourselves operating within frameworks that don’t serve the goals we have. When it comes to the question of a living wage, for example, we’re looking at a system that is struggling. You and I have deeply individual responses to that system, which are specific to several different conditions under which we live. We’ll call it a combination of situation and circumstance.

AB: Preparing for our talk today, I thought we would finally understand why it is that we find recess, or, checking out, so compelling. Art doesn’t always have to be about changing the world. Sometimes, it’s simply an antidote that reduces suffering. These conversations are records of our attempt to reconnect and work on ourselves, together. As a result, we’re proposing a mode of workless collaboration in which we are connected by pure means, as opposed to ends or means-to-ends. This sense of connection, of mutual commitment, might allow us to rethink the kind of working relationships artists and curators are supposed to uphold within the system.

From Empty History: Lucas Michael, Fixed Kilometer, 2018. 46:35 minutes. Image courtesy of Vlad Lunin and Vtape.

DL: I’ve experienced how the relationship between an artist and a curator can verge on the therapeutic. Inside those therapeutic moments, we face an intimacy that is not necessarily well defined. I’ve had powerful curatorial relationships marked by very un-curatorial moments. They’ve been emotional, they’ve been fraught, but they’ve been real. In a word, they’ve been tender. Certain works I have made bring up a lot of difficult feelings in the viewer. And they can create real discomfort for curators who choose to show the work. So, as artists and curators, we take on these difficult feelings together. But it’s also important to state that not many people think about what is happening to the curator personally—what brings them, in other words, to follow certain ideas or create certain exhibitions. You and I feel compelled to disrupt the conventional relationship between artist and curator because it appears to be completely un-feeling. I believe there is something our work shares that goes beyond mere subject matter. If we were to continue to explore this, we would have to do so knowing that it could lead to a bit of an undoing, right? It could be unintentionally upsetting.

AB: Speaking of means and mutual commitment, I can’t help but think of the new Jasper Johns retrospective, Mind/Mirror, co-produced by the Whitney Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. According to one New York Times article, during the planning phase of the two exhibitions, Johns maintained an “Olympian detachment from the preparations.”[2] In response to the project, Johns himself stated, “These are not my ideas. The show is not my idea.”[3] On the one hand, we see two exhibitions so stoic in their neutrality, so preoccupied with tired questions about what art is. On the other hand, we see the total fracturing of the relationship between the artist and the curator. And with this project, there are two curators, each with different creative visions, who also happen to be fighting. So, nobody’s listening, nobody’s talking, and somehow, a blockbuster show is created.

DL: I would struggle to think of an artist more collected or exhibited than Johns. What heights must one reach to be able to say no, and still keep going? However, I do appreciate that he made the statement and maintained a relationship to the actualization of the exhibition, instead of pulling out entirely. I’m interested in how that gesture serves the audiences that will interact with the exhibition. Further, what does it mean to the curators?

AB: This reading of intimacy, of kinship between artists and curators, is oftentimes overlooked in contemporary discourses on curating. I’m currently working on remaking an exhibition that was originally presented at Videofag when I first moved to Toronto and began graduate school. Recently, I lost the hard drive that contained all the images and documentation for the project. This is quite a private, personal endeavour. I doubt many will come to see the re-made exhibition. I’d like to use it as an opportunity to reconnect with the artists after more than seven years.

DL: I am drawn to the idea of curating for no one. Peeling back the layers, we begin to see how the activity of curating feeds the system. A museum is built upon various organized economies. In fact, museums are some of the most capitalist systems of all. You and I have tried to work ourselves back through the coat check, through the kitchen door, right at the restaurant. Suddenly, it happens that we’re out by the garbage. We’re redefining where we can feel comfortable in this system based on the choices we’ve already made. Because, in truth, neither one of us would be here, right now, if we weren’t invested in the system. We’re troubled by it, yet we’ve also been privileged by it. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t need to be seen by each other as troubling the system, because goddess forbid we do it alone. We are finding kinship in the complication of trying to get back to something we’ve lost. And that’s not necessarily about recovering the hard drive, for instance. It’s about memory and friendship. It seems we’re both looking for something that we think we can find through each other.

Read part one of Barbu and Logue’s discussion here.

Notes:


[1] Barbu, Adam, Queer Curating, from Definition to Deconstruction, Canadian Art, April 4, 2018, https://canadianart.ca/features/queer-curating/

[2] Solomon, Deborah, Seeing Double with Jasper Johns, New York Times, September 13, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/13/arts/design/jasper-johns-mind-mirror.html

[3] Ibid.

Talking to Myself: On the Occult

The Star Card display. Photo courtesy of Emme Lund.

By Emme Lund

In 2015, in the shed behind the Small Press Distribution warehouse in Berkeley, CA, I had a tarot reading with CA Conrad during Halloween weekend. The shed was warm. Christmas lights lined the crease where the walls met the ceiling. The poet’s painted fingernails bent over the edge of the deck, bracelets dangling from their wrists. “What would you like to ask the cards?” they said.

            “I’m stuck. How do I unstick?”

            I’d had a terrible week, month, whole year, actually. My partner and I were moving to Portland, OR in a couple of weeks. When I first moved to Oakland, I thought I would live there forever, eventually dying in the Bay Area, but capitalism ruins all and the tech industry had pushed rents far past what we could afford.

            CA Conrad shuffled the cards, their eyes closed.

            They laid out three cards on the table in front of me. One for the past, one for the present, and one for the future. I don’t remember the exact cards, but I remember the story they told.

            The first card was a jumbled mess, a forest burning to the ground. They tapped the card. “You’ve had a hard time. Your past was difficult.”

            There’s a feeling I get when something rings true for me, a feeling that I’ve chased for much of my life because, for a long time, most things did not ring true. Everything felt wrong, even things that felt right to others. This feeling comes up in my chest, catches in my throat, and a burning finds the backs of my eyes. I have always been quick to tears. I was reckoning with a lot then. My drinking was out of hand. Queerness was bubbling inside of me but right beside it was bubbles of shame. I had been thinking a lot about that feeling of wrongness I’d felt my whole life, the thing that made it so that many things did not ring true.

The Death Card display. Photo Courtesy of Emme Lund.

            They moved on to the next card. Someone walked among the burnt forest, assessing the damage, a card later in the same series. “Here you are now,” they said, “going over your past, understanding how hard it was for you.”

            This rang less true for me. I wasn’t dealing with my past. I was looking to the future, looking for a way to happiness.

I must have made a face, because CA Conrad smiled and then tapped the next card, a star exploding. “This is a very good card,” they said. “In this card, you are surrounded by people who love you. Life feels like a party. This is your future, but you won’t get there until you’ve reckoned with your difficult past and figured out who you are.”


I felt a kinship to these people and so I let them read tarot for me, I looked up my natal chart, and over and over again, I experienced that feeling of something ringing true, a feeling I had not felt in some time.

It took me a long time to find a home in reading tarot and following astrology. I was raised in a devoutly Evangelical Christian home, a household so strict that I was once forbidden from owning anything related to aliens after my grandfather walked in one day and claimed all things outer space to be the work of Satan. My aversion to the occult was based on the false dichotomy that if tarot and astrology were the work of the Devil, the opposite to Christianity, then it was also a religion, the opposite side of the same coin. I didn’t want anything to do with any religion. I’m a queer trans girl who asks questions about everything around her. All I ever heard was that I was either born wrong or choosing a path that led to my own destruction, all in the name of religion.

            I must admit that when I first left Christianity, I swung too hard into the world of logic and reason. I abandoned any search for magic out of fear that I would find myself trapped in another religion. But I quickly found that something deep inside of me wanted me to explore my depths. My gravitation towards the occult grew out of a desire to know myself.

            And some magic cannot be denied.

            In 2005, I met the person who later became my wife. I fell in love. Early on in our relationship, they said something to the tune of, “Magic is simply science we can’t explain yet.” We moved to the Bay Area together and quickly fell in with a crowd of witchy poets, the kind of friends who throw parties where someone is reading tarot in the corner and new acquaintances ask what your sun, moon, and rising sign is as soon as they learn your name.

I felt a kinship to these people and so I let them read tarot for me, I looked up my natal chart, and over and over again, I experienced that feeling of something ringing true, a feeling I had not felt in some time.

The High Priestess Card display. Photo courtesy of Emme Lund.

           


I don’t think astrology or tarot can predict the future.

I believe astrology lays out a blueprint for the kind of person we may become and the challenges we may face within ourselves, but I don’t believe it is absolute nor is it the totality of our person. We are also our genetics and our social status and where we were born and who raised us and so much more. We have been watching the stars for thousands of years and astrology is a collection of our observations.

For me, tarot offers an opportunity to inquire how I feel about something, a chance to convene with my intuition. In 2017, exactly two years after CA Conrad read tarot for me in the shed, I got sober. I don’t think the cards or the stars could predict I would get sober, but I think I knew, deep down, that sobriety was something I wanted and astrology and tarot gave me the power to tell my story in a way that led to sobriety. For humans, stories help us make sense of the world. Astrology and tarot are a way for our intuitions to apply form and structure to the chaos of this life on earth. They lead us to what we want.

If you do A and B, eventually you will find C.


What I like about astrology and tarot, about magic in general, is that it does not care if you believe in it. It is not like the religion of my youth, full of absolutes. A refrain I hear often when I listen to horoscopes or teachings on tarot is “Take what you will and leave the rest.”

Nearly every morning begins with me seated at my altar, lighting a candle, and drawing a card from my tarot deck. In the quietness of the room and the space between my dreams and the emerging day, I can find a stillness that lets me consider what I’m feeling. Some mornings the card I draw feels exciting. Sometimes it is harder for me to understand what a particular card could mean in the context of the day. Often a card will only make sense later when I look back at what I was doing at the time I drew it, when the details of what my intuition was working on become clear.

             When I look back on my life now, it seems inevitable. Like, of course, I would end up here, a sober trans woman who knows herself better than she ever thought possible. I often think about that time in the shed with CA Conrad, when they told me I would not find happiness until I came to terms with my difficult past and got to who I truly was. I don’t know. Maybe my life was inevitable, but really, I can’t help but look back at all those times I’ve shuffled a tarot deck or read about what the stars were doing, trying to apply both to the context of my life. There’s no doubt in my mind that astrology and tarot gave me the space to convene with myself, to speak with my own intuition, and to choose which way I wanted my life to go. But as with all things: Take what you will and leave the rest.


The Boy with a Bird in His Chest by Emme Lund.

Check out Emme Lund’s debut novel, THE BOY WITH A BIRD IN HIS CHEST, out from Atria Books on February 15, 2022.

Part One: Adam Barbu and Deirdre Logue in Conversation

Recess, Cultural Production, Checking Out

Deirdre Logue, Home Office, 2017, 03:33 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist and Vtape.

By Adam Barbu

Adam Barbu is a writer and curator based in Ottawa, Ontario. Deirdre Logue is a film, video, and installation artist and cultural worker based in both Toronto and Brighton, Ontario. They first met during the research phase of the group exhibition Empty History, presented at Vtape from November 20 – December 14, 2019. Curated by Barbu, Vtape’s 2019 Researcher-in-Residence, Empty History explored the ways in which artists use video to interrupt narratives of so-called ‘queer progress.’ Alongside contributions by Paul Wong (Vancouver, BC) and Lucas Michael (New York, NY), the exhibition featured Logue’s Home Office (2017). Shot on location during a residency at The Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson City, the work consists of a single-shot, 3:33 minute recording of the artist attempting to balance on top of a slide-out shelf from a wooden writing desk.

Home Office does not seek to repair the unjust and the uncertain by fashioning new utopias. Offering performances of solitary, inoperative gestures and activities, the works of Empty History construct impossible narratives without purpose or end, carried out at the limits of what is deemed recognizably ‘queer’ or ‘political’ content. In this refusal of resolution and finality, they occupy the difficult space in between meaning and dysfunction, acting out and stepping back, and seeking change and giving up. Within the frame of the screen, life itself is presented in a fixed state.

Barbu and Logue met on August 27, 2021, and again on November 19, 2021, to reconnect for the first time since the presentation of Empty History. In this two-part discussion article, the artist and curator consider personal changes that have taken shape over the past year and a half, including Barbu’s shifting creative practice and Logue’s decision to move away from the city. Together, they discuss feeling stuck, checking out, and moving on.

Adam Barbu: It’s nice to see you. I know that we planned on meeting earlier this summer. Life got in the way of that. I’m feeling somewhat rested, having just returned from Vancouver.

Deirdre Logue: I don’t know if you know where I am, but I left Toronto. I moved away to a hobby farm just north of Brighton, Ontario. It’s about an hour and a half from the city. My partner Allyson and I sold our house in Parkdale.

AB: I would love to hear about it.

DL: In some ways, what has transpired over the past year and a half will help us continue the conversations we started during your research residency at Vtape. We could continue to talk about doing nothing as a form of something. We could also talk about why no one is doing anything when we need to do more—more about other things other than this preoccupation with the self and the relative notions that surround the self, particularly in the context of an art career or a studio practice.

I love the idea of talking about recess, the kind we are introduced to as elementary students, as a moment of release from a regime known as education. Once we are outside of the classroom, what are those moments of freedom supposed to mean? Are they supposed to help us extend our servitude and fulfill the expectation that we [should] be productive? Or are they moments to teach us that we can be free? I don’t know. But I loved recess. You’re allowed time to experience something other than the system that you are stuck with, or, as is true for most people, perfectly content with in some kind of way. Your trapped-ness can feel good, right? So, during recess, you’re exercising a muscle within this system, asking: Can I move freely between absence and presence? Am I in or am I out?

At my new house, I have wild guinea fowl. There is always one that, when you set it free, just runs back into the cage. It huddles in the corner without any real desire to be free. And then there’s one that’s always fucked off, at risk of being killed. But it’s been in the cage too long. It has no skills for the wild. My desire is to protect them from being wild things because being wild things means they’re part of a system that I can’t control.

What you and I started talking about in 2019 has, in a way, led me to leave the city. It has led me to question the role that artists can play in providing respite for other artists, at a distance from some of the frameworks that both force us into production and expect us to do more with less. Two years ago, we started looking for a place where I could put up a tent and stop freaking out. Allyson and I found a house that had been on the market for a while. We realized that this would be a tectonic move. But being here has bought us a very sweet and extended recess from a routine that we were starting to feel trapped in—both of our commutes to work were becoming more like a demolition derby, with buildings coming down and condos going up all around us. Toronto is in a constant state of destruction. It was starting to affect me. Navigating those stresses within the context of climate change, I just couldn’t reconcile it anymore. I couldn’t live with so many people living in such deep denial.

Since we got the house last August, we’ve set up a bunch of systems. We heat our house with wood. We have water recovery systems. We have chickens and eggs and a giant garden that we eat from almost exclusively. And we renovated and reconstituted a woodshop that acts as the site for an experimental studio program called FAR (Feminist Art Residency). Imagine FAG (Feminist Art Gallery) shifting to feminist land art meets community of care. We’re not totally off the art grid. We’re hybridizing the idea of stepping off the treadmill and stepping onto a different kind of path.

AB: As you know, I have long fantasized about moving on and checking out, too. We share that. When we met at Vtape, I was just coming to terms with my fragmented work life and my decision to walk away from more grad school. We spoke about burnout and queer failure. Today, we’re speaking about choosing recess from the art world. Perhaps we can start to think about recess as a modality, as a means of open experimentation, without any determinate end or outcome—recess as unbecoming.

Deirdre Logue, Home Office, 2017, 03:33 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist and Vtape.

DL: At school, during recess, you’re also in a panic state—you’ve only got a short amount of time. It’s very Pavlovian. The bell rings and you all run outside. The bell rings again and you all run back in. We forget how much we have been trained to be trapped, trained to have difficulty making decisions about freedom.

I think it’s important for us to take time to find forms of recess, not abscess, and try to challenge ourselves as humans, as artists, to examine the systems within which we work and decide whether or not they work for us.

I’m not suggesting that we all need to drop out of the artworld. Nor am I suggesting that we spend any more time deconstructing notions of what art is or can be. What I do think about is our personal accountability to the idea of being a cultural producer and what it is that we allow or ignore in order to see our own cultural productions surface and survive while others are made invisible. I think it’s important for us to take time to find forms of recess, not abscess, and try to challenge ourselves as humans, as artists, to examine the systems within which we work and decide whether or not they work for us.

Oh, I see a fox. It’s actually not a good thing. Hang on one second, please.

AB: Is everyone okay?

DL: Yes. Well, not really. I mean, we had six chickens, now we have two. We had ten guineas, now we have four. We are definitely guests here.

AB: How do you strike a balance with the wildlife?

DL: I suppose you get a dog. Dogs and foxes have a common language. Our friends lent us their dog, and I watched what Clarence did. Now, I’ve been marking territory like he does. Observing and assessing is truly the hard part.

AB: In 2019, we spoke about grant writing in the culture industry as a means to an end. On the farm, life moves with a different rhythm. You are observing minor tragedies, making the decision not to intervene every single time.

DL: I’m distracted by the fox. Can I call you back?

AB: Yeah, why don’t you?

Deirdre calls back in 15 minutes. After reconnecting, she takes me on a virtual tour of her farm using her laptop camera.

DL: I want to invite you to come here and do a writing residency, or non-writing residency, or resting residency, or any number of experimental versions of a residency that would be perfectly suited for you right now in your life. As we develop this program, we’re using people’s experiences of residencies that they didn’t enjoy as a guide.

AB: It’s such a generous invitation.

DL: Look at your calendar. We want to encourage guests to use the farm as an open, unrestricted space. We just did the Witch Institute, an academic conference produced by Queen’s University in collaboration with the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. What is the opposite of an online conference? An outside conference, I suppose. So, we held an opening ceremony and introduced three projects made by people that are part of our ongoing life relationships.

Syrus Marcus Ware is making a garden of future Blackness. With our friend Tracy Tidgwell, we produced a 250-foot-wide meditation walk through the five points of a pentagram (love, connection, grief, accountability, healing, love, etc.). We also invited the FASTWÜRMS, who performed a live raku firing about death and wonder. As senior witches, they had the showstopper. A lot of the people that visited had been working in isolation for a year and a half. It was very moving to see everyone together, outside, reconnecting, as if emerging from a chrysalis or something.

Deirdre Logue, Home Office, 2017, 03:33 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist and Vtape.

AB: I wanted to speak with you about process, non-productivity, and worklessness—in short, how we might begin to reject conventional measures of art world success, choosing something other than desperation and burnout. I think we’ve done that in our own way.

DL: Everything needs a reconnect, and that’s what we did today. How are we doing? What are we doing? Where are we in the world? There are other questions that connect us as well—questions that were revealed to us when we first met during your residency. And to me, that’s a form of kinship. I do find your proposals compelling. I’m also compelled to speak again so that we might manifest something tangible that could be useful to you as a curator, useful to me as an artist, or useful to other curators and artists. Maybe more so than just me running around the house after a fox.

Read part two of the discussion here.

Beyond Binaries: In Conversation with Mahsa Merci


Mahsa Merci, Silent Stars, Mayten’s Projects. 2021. Image courtesy of Amir Sohrabpour / Mayten’s.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Mahsa Merci is interested in challenging society’s traditional concepts of beauty. Through her paintings, sculptures, and mixed media work she expands notions of the gender binary by depicting queer, trans and gender non-conforming individuals using viscous oil paint and building up layered textures. Born in Tehran, Iran, Merci holds a Bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design from Tehran University of Art and a Master of Painting from Azad University. Currently based in Toronto, ON, she has recently completed her Master of Fine Arts at the University of Manitoba, Canada.

In her latest exhibition Silent Stars at Mayten’s Projects, Merci displays two years of work examining the restrictiveness of social norms that affect the LGBTQIA+ community. Merci explains how “painting is one of the best ways to challenge strict binaries.” Through bending the binaries between man and woman, and beauty and the grotesque, she invites the viewer in closer to her work to experience the textures and relate to her subjects.

Along with her queer portraiture, in Silent Stars Merci explores the terrain of sculpture, often referencing Islamic architecture and broader queer culture. For example, her sculpture Find Yourself Through Myself consists of a figure with light teal hair peering into a mirror of another among a shrine of sequins and pastel pink candles, evoking both oral sex and self-reflection. Also referencing Islamic architecture and miniature painting, Merci includes portraits as an homage to the Iranian LGBTQ+ community. Merci’s depiction of identity is not edited or airbrushed, but displays imperfections and flaws, challenging society’s restricting binaries and expectations.

You depict the queer community, particularly drag queens, gender non-conforming, and transgender people in your work. How did you first decide on depicting the queer community as your subject matter?

I always worked on gender identity, beauty, and sexuality as a subject in my country [for] more than 10 years. In 2017, I was watching a documentary about a transgender [individual] in Iran who had to leave for Turkey since they could not live in our country. That documentary was like a hammer on my mind. I could see beauty, grotesque, sadness, all of these things. I started to work on this subject in 2018 and one year later, I understood my sexuality when I was 28 years old. After that, I understood why I decided to work on this subject in my art career. My subconscious knew about it, but my conscious mind didn’t know about it at all. We don’t have any education or educational materials, living in a religious country. When the educational materials don’t exist, how can you understand your sexuality soon and in a good way? In 2018, I understood my sexuality, but it was so hard for me until now.

I can relate in a way. I felt like I was late coming into my sexuality as well. It took me until my early 20s to clue in that this is who I am, and this is who I’ve always been. But because of religion or compulsory heterosexuality, you lose that.

Exactly. It’s hard to know that you are part of this community when you don’t see anyone, or you don’t hear anything, it takes so much time to find it. It is not easy.

Mahsa Merci, Stay, Oil on Canvas. 30 x 40 cm. 2020.

Can you talk further about how you use painting to challenge binaries such as masculinity/femininity, beauty/ugliness, etc.? In what ways are interested in redefining societal beauty standards through painting?

I can say I am multidisciplinary [since] I’m working with so many materials—I’m working with painting, sculpture, animation, collage, so many things. But with painting I [can] find something so special. I never had an academic background with painting, I never had an apple on a table that I had to paint. When I’m painting, it’s like I print the portrait—I start to build up the materials and textures. I find painting as a material that I can show myself [through]. I’ve always really liked to share the spectrum of everything: softness and harshness, beauty and grotesque, femininity and masculinity and I find that painting can help me to do it. Every stroke with my brush that I do I feel myself in it.

I want to make an atmosphere that the audience wants to come closer to the portrait. Heterosexual [people] may not want to come closer to our community. I don’t want to have two categories, heterosexual and homosexual, I want to see more friendship together.

Your work uses a great amount of texture through the building up of paint. Can you explain more about your use of texture and its significance?

I work with oil colours which help me get the textures that I use. I like working with oil on small portraits that invite the audience in closer to see the portraits. When paintings are larger, physically the viewers need to go far to view it. I want to make an atmosphere that the audience wants to come closer to the portrait. Heterosexual [people] may not want to come closer to our community. I don’t want to have two categories, heterosexual and homosexual, I want to see more friendship together. I want them to come and see the portrait and see the details, the textures, the beauty, and the grotesque of the characters. Some parts come out of the canvas, like nose, lips, hairs, and jewellery—they are 3D works and not flat works. It’s kind of a metaphor for me to show that these are real people. I want to show the feeling that they are coming out of the canvas.

Mahsa Merci, Silent Stars, Mayten’s Projects. 2021. Image courtesy of Amir Sohrabpour / Mayten’s..

Can you explain your inspiration for your latest show, Silent Stars at Maytens?

The main inspiration is myself and the challenges and concerns that I am facing as a queer person. I always look at the other LGBTQIA+ people all over the world. I feel all of us have the same problems living in a patriarchal society, but the level is just a bit higher or lower. Sometimes when I see my friends and some portraits on social media or the website, they are an inspiration to me—their clothes and the queer culture. Then, I reach out to them and paint them. I am inspired by two books, Gender Trouble by Judith Butler and Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards written by Afsaneh Najmabadi, an Iranian writer.

Mahsa Merci, Silent Stars, Mayten’s Projects. 2021. Image courtesy of Amir Sohrabpour / Mayten’s.

Your work featured in Silent Stars also plays upon sculptural and Islamic architectural elements. Can you speak further about these elements in your work?

The inspiration is from the book I mentioned, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards written by Afsaneh Najmabadi. She is an Iranian professor from Harvard working on gender, sexual identity, and beauty in ancient Iran. Through reading this book, I found that there was no heterosexuality or homosexuality in ancient Iran. It was surprising to me that two men or two women could have love or a relationship together without judging or explaining it to anyone. You can see in the paintings that the male and female clothing was the same. But when the Europeans came, they changed the culture little by little. They enforced the idea that men and women should be together. Now, if you are part of the LGBTQ+ community in Iran, you [may wish to] escape from the country or not say it too loudly since your life can be threatened by your family or your government. Although it is not us, it was brought to us.

The portraits inside the mirror frame are all Iranian LGBTQ+ [people]: one of them is queer, one is bisexual, and in the middle two portraits; one of them is lesbian, and one is non-binary. I wanted to [display] Iranian LGBTQ+ people as monumental. I get the shape of the mirrors from a very old and traditional Iranian art called miniature. Miniatures are very old paintings that Iranians and Persians painted of a building, spaces, or narratives with very, very small brushes. It is very special.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to speak further about or things you’re working on?

I just moved from Winnipeg to Toronto. I still don’t have a studio, so I don’t have any big project or exhibition planned. Although, a project I’d really like to start is to make more sculptures. I found that sculpture can show very different things than painting can, so I’d like to continue that. I also want to take more photography from the background of drag shows. I have so many ideas from quarantine that I’d like to do.

You can view more of Mahsa Merci’s work on her website and social media. The Silent Stars exhibition is on display at Mayten’s Projects until January 15, 2022.

Outdoor School Edited by Diane Borsato and Amish Morrell

Outdoor School: Contemporary Environmental Art Edited by Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato cover image. Photo courtesy of Douglas and McIntyre.

By Ashley Culver

In the past year or so due to the ongoing covid pandemic many of us, myself included, have found pleasure in being in nature[1]; yet, social distancing has meant this is often a solo activity. While Outdoor School: Contemporary Environmental Art was likely not written to address our current lack of collective engagement within nature, it does just that by gathering a multitude of artists, farmers, writers, facilitators, collaborators, and thinkers. Outdoor School offers dialogue around ways to be outside together and connect with the natural environment. This book is edited by Diane Borsato, a visual artist with a relational, interventionist and performance practice, and Amish Morrell, an editor, curator, and writer. It is a collection of 150 photographs and fifteen contributions including a foreword by Ann MacDonald, director and curator of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, along with Alana Bartol, Jacqueline Bell, Diane Borsato, Bill Burns, Carolina Caycedo, Jen Delos Reyes, Sameer Farooq, FASTWÜRMS, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Ayumi Goto, Maggie Groat, Karen Houle, Hannah Jickling and Reed H. Reed, Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Rita McKeough, Peter Morin, Amish Morrell, Public Studio, Genevieve Robertson, Jamie Ross, Aislinn Thomas, Vibrant Matter, Georgiana Uhlyarik, Jay White, Tania Willard, Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, and D’Arcy Wilson. With all of these voices meeting within the pages of Outdoor School, the book offers a complex conversation of art and nature.

Ayumi Goto, Rinrigaku, 2016. Photo: Yuula Benivolski.
Ayumi Goto Artist and organizer Ayumi Goto’s project focused on the idea of “passing through” the land as temporary occupants, and the responsibility that this entails. She ran the areas around the University of Toronto Scarborough campus for three days as a practice that aimed to honour and become better acquainted with traditional Indigenous territories and passages. Goto posits that running is a means of “passing through” and a practice by which we can develop a more respectful relationship with the land beneath our feet. The public was invited to join the artist as she ran each day, beginning at the Doris McCarthy Gallery. Scarborough, Ontario, 2016. Photo courtesy of Douglas and McIntyre.

I admit to feeling a high level of FOMO (fear of missing out) when flipping through the large publication for the first time. The cover image shows dozens of artists and mathematicians in bathing suits venturing into a glacier-fed river surrounded by evergreen trees – everyone including plants and humans bathed in golden sunlight. Another image near the beginning shows Diane Borsato and Amish Morrell holding hands with a young boy facing a gallery full of mushroom foray participants outfitted in rubber boots, and waterproof jackets, some holding red Tim Hortons coffee cups and wicker baskets.[2] Another of people congregating around two glowing points: a beach fire and LED light. The circles of faces lit by warm and blue glow respectively are engulfed by darkness with a couple stars and whiffs of clouds visible in the sky above the outline of treetops[3]. Further in on page 86, there is an image of about a dozen people sitting cross-legged on pebbly ground. There are charts of flowers and mushrooms as well as guidebooks, water bottles, and backpacks strewn in-between their knees. My knee-jerk FOMO stems from having missed out on the specific exhibitions, residencies, outings, walks and such described in Outdoor School or even more so from the lack of togetherness these days. These gatherings are a long way from anything I have experienced this year. I live in Toronto, where many of the contributors also reside, and Toronto residents experienced the longest lockdown in North America[4] this year – the same year Outdoor School was published.

Deirdre Fraser-Gudrunas/Vibrant Matter, Plant Identification Workshop, Scarborough ON. 2016. PHOTO: Natalie Logan.
In this workshop, artist-forager Deirdre Fraser-Gudrunas/Vibrant Matter led sensorial and experiential field identification in the University of Toronto Scarborough campus woods and invited participants to contribute to a subjective field guide. Scarborough, Ontario, 2016. Photo courtesy of Douglas and McIntyre.

It’s easy to feel some FOMO when reading Outdoor School; yet, when read with the same tone of curiosity, attentiveness, and openness the book takes and the artists included bring to their work, it is the opposite of the sensation of lacking. It points to possibilities. It is a guidebook for new ways of being in relation to each other and nature. As Borsato said, “We were looking for projects that reimagine our relationship to the outdoors, to nature and the land, that are rooted in performance and site-specificity. And also to teaching and learning.”[5]

My interactions with or into nature are much less spectacular than the ones highlighted in Outdoor School.  The insights shared in Outdoor School can be applied to our solitary activities at home and in our neighbourhoods. For instance, I can ponder Karen Houle’s ‘Farm as Ethics’[6] as I tend to my balcony garden of herbs: rosemary, two variations of mint, sage, and oregano that didn’t last the entire summer. I can think of the ‘Slow Walkers of Whycocomagh’[7] when I walk the railpath in the west end of Toronto. I can recall Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson with Public Studio’s words in ‘The Earth’s Covenant’[8] when I speak to my mother, who lives on the West Coast, on the phone about the recent floods or what are now referred to as atmospheric rivers.[9]

Scarborough Mycological Foray, 2016. Photo: Natalie Logan. Photo courtesy of Douglas and McIntyre.

Even without partaking in any outdoorsy activities, I can contemplate Morrell’s land acknowledgment and consider my residence here. In ‘We Always Begin with an Acknowledgement of the Land’ Morrell recognizes “the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee and the Huron-Wendat, and the land agreements, like the Dish with One Spoon treaty.”[10]  However, he goes further than simply speaking their names by exploring how one connects to place and community as well as some of the problematic aspects of outdoor culture and education. This is not a land acknowledgement spoken out of obligation but thoughtful practice.

By shifting from feeling left out to joining in through participating in this new iteration of Outdoor School in the form of a book by reading, I find a new understanding of my relationship to the earth. In a period where many of us are seeking solace in nature, Outdoor School encourages us to consider our presence and the practices we have. Gathering almost thirty artists, the book activates the conversation of art and nature and how we fit into it.


[1] “Nature walks helping many relieve anxiety during COVID-19,” CBC, January 31, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-nature-conservatory-1.5895421.

[2] Diane Borsato and Amish Morrell (with Feliz Morrell), “Mushroom Foray,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 16.

[3] BUSH Gallery with Lisa Myers, Akwesasne Women Singers, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, “Beach(fire) Blanket Bingo Biennial,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 32.

[4] Robin Levinson-King, “Toronto lockdown – one of the world’s longest?,” BBC, May 24, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-57079577.

[5] Diane Borsato and Amish Morrell, “Artist Spotlight: Contemporary art goes outdoors,” AGO Insider, May 26, 2021, https://ago.ca/agoinsider/contemporary-art-goes-outdoors.

[6] Karen Houle, “Farm as Ethics,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 88-99.

[7] Aislinn Thomas, “Slow Walker of Whycocomagh and Mountains Used to Be Ugl,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 120-123.

[8] Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson with Public Studio, “The Rights of Nature,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 166-169.

[9] “What are atmospheric rivers, and how are they affecting the B.C. floods?,” CBC radio, November 18, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/whatonearth/what-are-atmospheric-rivers-and-how-are-they-affecting-the-b-c-floods-1.6253763.

[10] Amish Morrell, “We Always Begin with an Acknowledgement of the Land,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 19.

Can’t Buy Me Love: A Review of Sara Cwynar’s Source

Remai Modern, Saskatoon, SK

January 30- August 22, 2021


Sara Cwynar, Source, 2021, digital prints, Plexiglas, custom frame structure. Courtesy of the artist; Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto; and Foxy Production, New York. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

By Madeline Bogoch

            “Beauty is a currency system like the gold standard,” claimed writer Naomi Wolf in her 1990 bestseller The Beauty Myth. I hesitate to open with this quote, as much of the book has not aged well, and Wolf’s recent gleeful tirades against vaccination and public health measures have further discredited any cultural authority the text still held. Despite these detractions, the notion of beauty as a political ideal has endured and is the conceptual terrain explored by artist Sara Cwynar in her recent exhibition, Source. Those familiar with Cwynar’s prior work will recognize the artist’s signature mix of vintage props and feminist-inflected pop-culture critique, tropes which are instrumentalized in Source to examine how late capitalism dictates our collective visual language.


Sara Cwynar, Red Film, 2018, 16mm film transferred to video, 13:00 minutes. Courtesy of the artist; Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto; and Foxy Production, New York. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

            At the beginning of Red Film, the narrator states: “I am talking about American patterns and French painters” as a variety of cosmetics named for the painter Cézanne are displayed. Red Film is the third installment in a trilogy exploring how beauty and desirability are quantified and is featured here as part of the exhibition. The film is presented alongside two other works by Cwynar: Guide, a series of large-scale photographs, and an installation (also titled) Source, comprising a double-layered glass partition stretching across the length of the gallery. Within the plexiglass, Cwynar displays a collection of found images and texts that broadly elicit the themes synthesized in the rest of the show. The materials include a selection of critical theory texts (highlighted and underlined, evoking a lived-in quality), fashion and nature photography, and reproductions of historical paintings. Marilyn Monroe appears in paper doll form, a recurring figure in Cwynar’s work, and an icon of beauty reinforced by endless reproduction. Monroe’s presence acts as a foil to Cwynar’s textual sources, highlighting the cognitive dissonance between the desire for beauty and an awareness of its most toxic machinations, a tension palpably felt throughout the exhibition.

As feminist discourse has entered the mainstream, it’s an idea that has been exploited for profit by mobilizing the language of empowerment to sell consumer goods.

            Trained as a graphic designer, Cwynar’s visually seductive works demonstrate a honed fluency in commercial aesthetics. Her design background is most apparent in Guide, a selection of vinyl photographs plastered across the gallery walls, with smaller monitors embedded in them. If Source reflects Cwynar’s studio process of gathering materials, then Guide represents the intermediary phase, during which the synaptic nodes between the sources begin to take shape. This sense of provisionality is emphasized by Cwynar’s use of a green screen in several photos, one of which features her mid-scream, wearing Air Pods and a t-shirt printed with a portrait of Bernie Sanders alongside text reading “Rage Against the Machine.” With a degree of embarrassment, I’ll admit to recognizing the shirt, which was well-publicized after being worn by model Emily Ratajkowski last year—more on her later. Socialism, like feminism, could be said to be having a moment, as evidenced by the cult popularity of the shirt and Sanders himself. Yet Cwynar’s expression of inner conflict suggests an awareness of the limitation of consumerism as a form of political consciousness. While not mutually exclusive, the image evokes a timely consideration of the representation of politics versus the practice of one.


Sara Cwynar, Guide (detail),2021,vinyl print and videos on monitors. Courtesy of the artist; Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto; and Foxy Production, New York. Photo: Blaine Campbell.
 
 

            Included in the plexiglass partition is an essay by the aforementioned Ratajkowski titled “Buying Myself Back: When Does a Model Own Her Own Image.”[1]The essay details the author’s experience being dispossessed of her visual likeness and the challenge of regaining control in an era of rampant image proliferation and commodification. The piece received considerable attention, garnering both praise, for Ratajkowski’s frank and engaging writing style, and backlash from those quick to point out the hypocrisy of the author condemning an industry while continuing to profit from it significantly. Ratajkowski is not alone in her conflation of financial success and empowerment, but to follow this suggestion to its logical conclusion leads to a bleak assessment of the potential of feminist politics to serve anyone other than the wealthiest and most privileged women. As feminist discourse has entered the mainstream, it’s an idea that has been exploited for profit by mobilizing the language of empowerment to sell consumer goods. This very phenomenon is parodied in Red Film when the artist declares, “I am speaking now from the inside of power… Woman creates life, man creates art, but not anymore suckers. I can buy anything I want.” But of course, what we want is not immune from politics—beauty, and the allure of that which promises us access to it are both manufactured products. The cheeky and ambivalent tone in which Cwynar delivers the line suggests that she is acutely aware of how easily dissent is co-opted by the systems it seeks to dismantle.

Sara Cwynar, Guide (detail),2021,vinyl print and videos on monitors. Courtesy of the artist; Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto; and Foxy Production, New York. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

            There’s a self-reflexive underpinning to Cwynar’s brand of critique. Implicated in her line of questioning is art itself, particularly its dual function as both a tool of cultural critique and a luxury commodity. Cwynar implicates art (and artists) as part of a system that sustains the symbolic efficiency of desire and beauty. Although this exchange is most explicitly played out in Source through references to Baroque and Impressionist art, this transaction remains relevant to the contemporary landscape in which artists are incentivized to participate in self-branding, and cultural capital is increasingly brokered as a liquid asset.

            Throughout Red Film the narrator offers a barrage of cryptic statements against an ever-changing backdrop of imagery including red-clad dancers, the hypnotic mechanical motions of a cosmetic production line, and a close-up of boldly painted red lips belonging to Cwynar’s frequent collaborator, Tracy Ma. At one point Cwynar appears onscreen, but as she opens her mouth to speak, the voice that comes out is not hers but that of the calm and self-possessed male narrator. Reminiscent of Mark Fisher’s “slow cancellation of the future,”[2] which mourns the cessation of novelty in a culture of endless recirculation, Cwynar evokes the familiar anxiety of inauthenticity, that our ideas and words are not our own but merely poor imitations of sources we’ve absorbed along the way. While Cwynar exposes how both desire and beauty are fraught constructs, she stops short of implying we are powerless in this. We may never fully extricate what we want from what we’re told we ought to want, but detangling the knots which form our desires remains a worthwhile endeavour. As Cwynar says in Red Film, “I am living in the space between pure desire and actual enjoyment, and I don’t mind at all.”


[1] Emily Ratajkowski, “Buying Myself Back When does a model own her own image?” The Cut, September 15, 2020, https://www.thecut.com/article/emily-ratajkowski-owning-my-image-essay.html.

[2] Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures (United Kingdom: Zero Books, 2013).