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Artist Retreats: Making Space for Artist Projects at Art Toronto

Each year, Art Toronto presents select artist projects to complement the commercial booths. These projects often critique or converse with the art fair itself. Last year, for example, Thom Sokoloski’s installation All the Artists are Here adorned the entrance with a portrait of each of the artists exhibited at the fair.

This year’s fair features six artist projects. At the entrance, is a colourful installation of window blinds by the Toronto-based duo Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins, titled Pavilion of the Blind (2013). Referencing kinetic art and interior design, the work consists of an arrangement of various roller and panel blinds controlled by microcomputers and a motion detector. The blinds mechanically roll up and down, pivot open and close, pausing in between to form pleasant abstract compositions. The work’s title brings to mind Michael Snow’s tongue-in-cheek Venetian Blind (1970). In that photograph-based work, Snow also puns on the word “blind” as both obscured vision and a shutter. In Marman and Borins’ work, the blinds move through their choreography and obscure what’s behind them to varying degrees, while offering rare moments of transparency. Placed at the entrance of the fair, Pavilion of the Blind is not a bad metaphor for an event that, for many people, is remembered as a handful of gems scattered amidst a blur.

Not far from Marman and Borin’s “pavilion,” Amalie Atkins’ Three Minute Miracle (2008) offers a more intimate shelter. Here, visitors can duck into a tent and watch a whimsical short film about a girl with a giant cake. This work was featured in 2012’s “Oh, Canada” exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The space inside the tent extends the magical wintry world of the film–white glass beads covering the floor approximate crunchy snow, and the felt tent muffles outside noise while a piano soundtrack fills the cocoon inside. Only a layer of fabric separates inside and outside, but Atkins’ tent transported me somewhere a little more distant.

The fair’s Feature Exhibition, Canada de Fantaisie/Canada Fancy (2014) by Montreal’s BGL, is another work that in a prior edition was part of the “Oh, Canada” exhibition. This large-scale installation is certainly also whimsical: a life-size functioning carousel, the structure is made almost entirely from metal crowd barriers and decorated with colourful flags. This work continues the three-piece collective’s practice of repurposing commonplace materials and critically interrogating their social significance in the process. According to the artists, this carousel transforms an “object that was intended to reduce delinquency into something that inspires delirium.” While the man-powered carousel might not literally induced delirium, it does let in much-welcomed, embodied play into the confines of the art fair.

Alternatively, fair-goers looking for a more restful place can find retreat in Thrush Holmes’ Break Room (2014). Inside the bare-bones structure, Holmes has resurrected the workers’ spaces that he spent ample time in while working as a carpenter in his early twenties. The room is wholly a man’s space, reeking of machismo. The walls are adorned with fetishized photographs of cars in action, guitar-wielding men and provocatively posed women in various states of undress. The artist has also brought in a few of his recognizable paintings that channel the virile fervour of Abstract Expressionism and the raw immediacy of street art. But the visual and artistic tropes here aren’t made to work in any novel ways and feel more trite than transgressive. Instead of a space of “introspection” where workers could “bro-down” and expose their vulnerabilities, as Holmes claims, the Break Room, to this viewer, exposed only the problematic aspects of bro culture.

A more welcoming retreat is Nap Room (2014), a three-level bunk bed set up by the Toronto-based collective VSVSVS. The seven-person group has a proclivity for interactive, site- and event-specific works, from their coat check stand at Art Athina to the hotline service answering audience questions at Nuit Blanche. Their installation here responds to the physically and mentally taxing experience of attending art fairs. Visitors are invited to take a respite within the curtained bunk bed, and afterwards are offered freshly made pancakes for refuelling.

Works like Nap Room that respond to the site are the most effective projects at the fair. The curatorial intention behind some of the other feature projects is less clear. Greg Curnoe’s vibrant triptych Three Pieces (1965) would have astonished in a more uncluttered context, but at the fair, my attention was stolen by a Kent Monkman painting across the aisle instead. Likewise, Xiaojing Yan’s Cloud Cell (2014) is a dazzling work made from twelve thousand pearls, but here it drones in the same tenor as the other sculptures in the booths.

To summarize this year’s artist projects, a fitting word would be “respite.” The most impressionable ones engender a context for visitors to slip into a different mental mode, whether reflective or playful. In doing so, they also implicitly comment on art fair experience as a sensorial deluge, both potentially fruitful and often overwhelming.



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