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Contact 2012: Going Public

Issues from the surveillance society to armed conflict get the spotlight in the Contact Photography Festival’s 2012 outing, which is themed on ideas of the public. As usual, there’s lots to see, making the festival difficult to navigate even for people familiar with it. (Disclosure: I’m one of these people, as a close friend of mine works at Contact.) With more than 200 exhibitions and events on the go, here’s what I’m planning to see.

Street View and Public at MOCCA and UTAC, April 28 to June 30

Each year, Contact does some primary exhibitions meant to sum up its themes and bring out the famed names, operating almost like a Coles Notes of the fest’s intent. This year the big thematic shows include “Street View” and “Public: Collective Identity / Occupied Space” at MOCCA and UTAC. Featuring black and white street-based work by photographic greats Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and Weegee, “Street View” is on in the National Gallery’s space at MOCCA. “Public,” for its part, updates the public-scene tradition by showing off prints from Ai Weiwei, Richard Mosse, Bill Sullivan and 13 other artists at MOCCA’s mainspace, as well as at UTAC.

Berenice Abbott at the AGO, May 23 to August 19

Pitched as another primary exhibition for Contact, “Berenice Abbott: Photographs” will provide the first major Canadian exhibition of the work of this prominent American photographer. Known for bridging elegant formal concerns with social documentary content, Abbott’s work spans Man Ray–style surrealism in the 1920s through to Works Progress Administration projects in the 1930s and beyond. Co-organized by Paris’ Jeu de Paume and Toronto’s Ryerson Image Centre, this is one show photo aficionados will not want to miss.

Public Installations across Toronto and Canada, April 25 to September 9

Contact’s public installations program, which brings fine art to billboards and murals across Toronto (and, since last year, across Canada) is a consistent highlight of the festival. This year, a couple of projects—like Melanie Manchot’s The Continuous Still, which contrasts archival photos of the Distillery neighbourhood with present-day recreations, and Max Dean’s Album, which redistributes abandoned photo albums–speak to the deep meaning of supposedly “everyday” photographic forms, investing private photographs with public weightiness. Some other projects—like Scott McFarland’s mural of a repatriation procession for a fallen Canadian soldier and Tim Hetherington’s billboards of sleeping American airmen—suggest the intimate, private experiences behind the publicly funded conflicts in Afghanistan. These contrasting pairings of mood and strategy promise to be potent.

Suzy Lake at Georgia Scherman Projects, April 20 to May 26

Suzy Lake’s survey at UTAC was one of the high points of Contact 2011 (and possibly the year), spotlighting a practice that is at once conceptually tight and romantically lush, politically engaged and personally vulnerable. Though this commercial-show follow-up at Georgia Scherman can’t promise the same scope of production, it does bring out two never-before-shown early series of work: Imitations of Myself and Suzy Lake as Françoise Sullivan. And that should be enough for Lake’s growing (and well-deserved) fan base.

Jon Rafman at Angell Gallery, May 3 to June 2

In the past few years, the trajectory of many young Canadian artists has begun to rise with the premise of using the Internet as a camera. Jon Rafman is one of these increasingly well-recognized practitioners, and for good reason. For his incredible project The Nine Eyes of Google Street View—which has excerpts showing at MOCCA as well—Rafman spent years scouring millions of Google Street View images from across the globe, using a commercially developed app to frame very unofficial views of life as it exists today. In one still, uniformed South African children run after the Google camera; in another, men line up for police officers, hands along a wall; in another, a reindeer runs on a Finnish highway. The magic of Rafman’s project lies partly in the effort of his edit (a mega-enactment of a traditional photographic endeavor), partly in the quotidian poignance of a number of his images, and partly in the eerie fact that we allow ourselves to be filmed so extensively to uncertain ends. Strong stuff.

Mark Boulos at Gallery TPW, April 13 to May 26

Mark Boulos’ All That is Solid Melts into Air was one of the most memorable experiences of Nuit Blanche 2011, juxtaposing footage of American commodities traders with clips of Nigerian rebels fighting for control of local oil resources. It was a work that was deeply troubling—each group would seem to prefer the other doesn’t exist—as well as refreshingly, enlighteningly frank about the complexities and conflicts of our world today. One would expect that mood continues in Boulos’ No Permanent Address, which is a video portrait of the People’s Army, a Maoist guerrilla group in the Philippines. Co-presented with the Images Festival, it promises to destabilize mainstream ideas about terrorism and militancy.

Adi Nes at Koffler Gallery Off-Site at Olga Korper Gallery, May 3 to June 2

This first Canadian survey of the work of Adi Nes tempts with intensely painterly (and sometimes downright sexy) imagery while bristling with potentially critical views on war and religious dogma. The Israeli photographer became known in the 1990s for his Soldiers series, which portrayed Israeli soldiers as fetishized objects of desire, among other imagistic tropes. He is also known for his Biblical Stories series, where contemporary Tel Aviv residents stand in for Old Testament figures like Hagar, Job and Abel. Selections from both series will be on display in this exhibition, which also includes his recreation of the Last Supper.

Photographie at Arsenal Toronto, April 20 to June 9

The Montreal-based Arsenal organization recently raised the stakes of the commercial gallery game in Toronto by opening a branch near the rising Bloor and Lansdowne arts district. This Contact show (Arsenal Toronto’s first) kicks off its programming with a selection of strong belle province talent: Nicholas Baier, Gwenaël Bélanger, Michel de Broin, Alain Paiement, Manon de Pauw, Pascal Grandmaison and Isabelle Hayeur. Quebec tends to dominate our nation’s cinematic accolades, and an argument can be made that they could dominate its photographic ones in future as well. Decide for yourself by checking out this show.

Sanaz Mazinani at Stephen Bulger Gallery, May 5 to June 9

There’s always some unexpected names that turn up among the feature exhibitions at Contact, and this showing of Toronto’s Sanaz Mazinani falls into that category. The Iranian Canadian artist and curator was previously known to many locals as a staffer at Stephen Bulger Gallery rather than as one of its artists. But since returning to Hogtown following MFA studies at Stanford University, things have changed. It looks like Mazinani’s studies have served her well; this show offers works that repeat images in complex, textile-like patterns, weaving disparate images and meanings—indeed, cultural clash-points—into an impressively unified whole. Her practice has also won notice of late from New York’s recent SPRING/BREAK fair and Creative Time. Definitely one to watch.

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