“Scene Otherwise,” an exhibition of recent work, is the artists’ first solo show since the retrospective “Working Culture,” curated by Jan Allen at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in 2008 and on tour until 2010. It is comprised of six photographic works produced in the artists’ established format of carefully staged digitally manipulated tableaux, and one video. However, the size of the show belies the impact of these stunning and intricate pieces.
Along one wall of the gallery is Multiple Exposures: A pre- to post-colonial landscape (2011), a series of eight images depicting the same location over 600 years. Each image features a form of labour (such as the fur trade or industrial production) and the resulting compositions highlight the impact of such production on the environment and workers. In The Plague (2010), which links the current global financial crisis to environmental degradation, the artists suggest connections between present and historical financial disasters in a complex, multi-layered image. Set in an airport, the work is populated by figures symbolizing historic downturns from the 1500s to 1980s, as well as key environmentalists and economists, while a wave of frogs (a gauge of environmental devastation) bisects the surreal scene. The 2010 work Liberty Lost (G20, Toronto) is a composed scene of the recent protest, specifically pointing to police repression and corporate-political collusion. The composition quotes Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, updating this canonical work through the inclusion of those typically marginalized in contemporary art. This revisionist technique was first used by the artists in a work at the turn of the millennium, and it is a strategy gaining prominence in their oeuvre, as demonstrated by its successful employment in several other works in “Scene Otherwise.”
The exhibition also features a group of works based on the four elements. The Fall of Water (2007) is a fantastical multi-layered piece based on Pieter Bruegel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels. In this detailed composite, water activists, corporate offenders and hybrid creatures tussle amongst references to historic water conflicts from Cochabamba, Bolivia, to Canada. Salt of the Earth (2008) is an equally powerful series of four large images on the topic of migrant farm labour in southern Ontario. Here, Condé and Beveridge reveal the exploitation of these workers, from the significant health risks associated with their labour to the lack of legal recourse available to them while in Canada. Produced through extensive consultation with the labourers, their support centres and industry, the black and white images make an eloquent case for the workers’ perspective. Under Fire (2008) is a project undertaken with and featuring Toronto members of Greenpeace. The composition is based on Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, and the image references both environmentally destructive and clean sources of energy. One of the most striking works in the exhibition is AIRwave (2008). The artists’ first foray into video, AIRwave plays upon Michael Snow’s seminal film Wavelength, taking as its subject the controversial Nanticoke coal-fired generating station in Ontario.
“Scene Otherwise” comes at an important moment for the artists in Toronto. They are speaking on February 9 at OCADU as part of Art Creates Change: The Kym Pruesse Speaker Series. They are also the subjects of the documentary Portrait of Resistance: The Art and Activism of Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge, directed by Roz Owen and screening at the Reel Artists Film Festival on February 24. Charting the breadth of the artists’ practice, the film provides an in-depth examination of the artists’ methods of collaboration. Most significant is the visually arresting manner in which the filmmakers have engaged with the oeuvre; in the film, figures within the artists’ tableaux come alive to reveal insights, giving voice to those within the image in a manner analogous with the artists’ ethos. Furthermore, the production of many of the works in “Scene Otherwise” is documented in the film, making the two a great pairing.
In creating images that foreground the contradictions and inequalities elided by the current socio-political order, Condé and Beveridge’s work is central to a reconsideration of the status quo. As such, this renewed attention to their practice is a welcome change, and the opportunity to view their most recent exhibition should not be missed.