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Reviews / November 25, 2010

Journeys: Migration, Mythologized

Pulling a house across the ice at Cook’s Harbour, Great Northern Peninsula, Newfoundland 1953 Courtesy Resettlement Collection, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

A banner hanging on Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture promises over a dozen “stories” in “Journeys”—its excellent new exhibit exploring notions of migration by people, objects and concepts. Stories, or, if you will, investigations of narrative structure, are indeed what “Journeys” imparts, so much so that it seems as much an exercise in contemporary aesthetics as in sociology or anthropology. One sees, for instance, the representation of migratory phenomena by art photographers like Edward Burtynsky, Martin Parr, Max Belcher and Ian Chodikoff; one sees, moreover, real-life there-and-back-again tales of hybridity that call to mind conceptualist practices from Robert Smithson to Simon Starling.

Typical for a CCA exhibition, “Journeys,” organized by the institution’s curator of contemporary architecture Giovanna Borasi and assistants Anders Bell, Lev Bratishenko, Meredith Carruthers and Peter Sealy, unfolds like a book. Text is everywhere, and time—for meandering and processing—is vital. Each section stands individually, and is characterized by sets and subsets of themes, such as “Drift,” “Expertise” and “Value.” (A flaw of the show is that, at times, a theme extends around a corner, necessitated by the limitations of the CCA’s elongated exhibition space.) Objects attached to each theme are fascinatingly myriad, ranging from periodicals to memory sketches, from esoteric objects, such as an embalmed sacred ibis from Egypt, to prosaic to-scale reproductions.

For the “Definitions” section, a highlight, Borasi and her team explore the etymology (and, in turn, typology) of “bungalow” to compelling effect. A series of framed definitions—a masterstroke of curation and a work of art in its own right—demonstrates the inevitable perversion of a term born from a colonialist culture-clash (originally Bengali, it referred to the thatched cottages used by Europeans) that eventually come to signify class anxiety (late-20th-century critical coinages include “bungaloid growths” and “bungalow blight”).

The legacies of classicism and modernism are shown to have undergone similar, often gleeful, perversions. In “Inheritance,” Belcher’s black-and-white photographs of folk architecture in Liberia are moving and multilayered, an indication not only of the way that its settlers—African-American freed slaves—internalized and appropriated neo-classical plantation architecture when settling the country, but also of Belcher’s own mixed-race heritage. Many similar examples of subversion characterize “Journeys”: the Senegalese immigration to and transformation of parts of Italy, documented by Chodikoff; the influx of Surinamese to Amsterdam’s failed 1970s housing project, Bijlmermeer.

Little-known Canadian stories are told in “Configuration” and “Opportunity.” The first is about the astounding relocation, from 1954 to 1975, of houses in small, struggling fishing villages in Newfoundland to more prosperous “growth centres.” Called a “[rearrangement] of an established urban grid” by the curators, it’s also a feat of sheer heroism and sacrifice, with the houses literally floated on the water and tugged across the ice to their new homes. (Again, Starling and his ShedBoatShed project, though not in the exhibition, is evoked.) The second is about the forced relocation of the town of Iroquois to make way for St. Lawrence Seaway developments. In response to this, Anglo-Canadian modernist Wells Coates offered a proposal for an entirely new Iroquois community; the proposal never transpired, as many displayed documents indicate, but it stands as a provocative example of Canuck design utopianism. As part of their display, the curators have created a purple neon sign with the name of the town—a testament to the endless imaginative journeys provoked by recorded, material ones.

David Balzer

David Balzer is the author of two books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, winner of ICA London's 2015 Book of the Year, and the short-fiction collection Contrivances. He has written about art and culture for the Globe and Mail, the GuardianFrieze, Artforum, The Believer and others, and from 2016 to 2019 was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Canadian Art.