The work of Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak hides out in a dim gallery of the museum, making jokes. “How many city planners does it take to change a lightbulb?” Answer: “None but it takes 15 to prepare the plan for coping in the dark.” City sounds wash up and around their three video projections, Becoming V…, Becoming T… and Becoming B…, all of which quietly issue quips between images of historic buildings enmeshed in urban architecture. It is an alcove of quiet reflection and gentle ribbing.
This summer, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art exhibition “Empire of Dreams” presents a survey of Toronto artists centering on the experience of the “built environment.” The pairing of theme and contributors does not result in a literal reflection of Toronto—the 22 artists instead produce leitmotifs of dystopic futurism, abstract constructivism and, uniquely, an overriding tone of subtraction and absence.
Dan Bergeron shrouds the museum’s exterior entrance with a series of dilapidated Parkdale storefronts, introducing the exhibition’s pervasive trompe l’oeil. His Defunct Front invents a façade of faded adverts and latched doors. Similarly, Samina Mansuri opens the main gallery space with a winking architectural elevation. A metallic city is made virtually phosphorescent beneath an ominous projection that rolls over it like nuclear cloud cover. These, rounded out by David Han’s Margaret Learns to Drive from There to Here—a parked car enveloped in moving images—promote the urban experience as illusion and tableau.
Where works like these build on figuration, others demonstrate a retiring quality, more ruminative than emblematic. Between Josh Thorpe’s Subtractive Mural for MOCCA (after Asher and Huyghe), a stunning exercise in production through removal, and Yvonne Lammerich’s white cube constructivism, a tiny hole marks a shared wall between the artists. Labelled Hole in the Wall, with its media listed as removed paint, drywall, steel and particleboard, Thorpe and Lammerich’s shared aperture alerts us to a deconstruction site. The hole, like Thorpe’s mural, for which he eroded various layers of gallery-wall paint to create a recessed image, is the most incidental and yet needling of this show’s works. It calls attention to the ruin, the architectural palimpsest and the city’s own chasms which, like so many keyholes, provide entrance.
Steele and Tomczak’s joke resonates as one moves through this show’s darker corners. How much of our urban experience consists of coping? How much of it is unseeing? “Empire of Dreams” provides its greatest insights when revealing the spaces between. We are our history, our foundations, it reminds us. We are improvising between them.