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Reviews / July 10, 2008

Not Quite How I Remember It: Rapid Memory Gloss

Gerard Byrne 1984 and Beyond 2005–7 Video still  Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London

The need to examine the past—personal and otherwise—to make sense of the present is a strong, if not innate, human quality. Still, it is important to note that hindsight is not always 20/20. Official and personal histories are often written from perspectives deeply affected by the passing of time and the taint of political or cultural agendas, leaving us with what is, at best, a partial record of what actually happened. Only when the added evidence of missing details is taken in hand with developments since does a true and at times radically divergent picture of history surface.

That is the premise behind much of the work gathered for the group exhibition “Not Quite How I Remember It,” on view this summer at the Power Plant. Featuring a diverse roster of Canadian and international artists—Diane Borsato, Gerard Byrne, Nancy Davenport, Felix Gmelin, Nestor Krüger and Walid Raad among them—the exhibition focuses how we “channel, mediate and memorialize” the past through re-enactment or reconstruction.

References in the exhibition range far and wide, from historical events to iconic artworks, and the results are equally hit and miss. British artist Olivia Plender’s revisitation of a 1960s BBC documentary on up-and-coming artists offers a straightforward parallel to the perennially troublesome issue of artistic success and failure. Performance-based works by American artists Sharon Hayes and Lee Walton deal with memory but struggle to find lasting context in the gallery setting. Even the monumental MONIAC (Monetary National Income Analogue Computer) presented by New Zealand artist Michael Stevenson seems—despite its fascinating social and mechanical history—out of place as an art object, begging a question: is it better suited for a museum of technology or economics than an art gallery?

But, if we consider these as footnotes, the exhibition still delivers some highly relevant and pointed revisionist history.

For his video installation 1984 and Beyond (which was featured in the Irish pavilion at last summer’s Venice Biennale), Irish artist Gerard Byrne reprises a series of discussions between eminent science fiction writers originally published in 1963 in Playboy. Byrne hired actors to play the parts of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and company as they casually prognosticate on the future. Part historical record, part theatre, the work’s dialogue captures the future-past with eerie prescience. Swedish artist Felix Gmelin’s installation Tools and Grammar (another work from Venice, with a related work shown in Berlin) takes its narrative from a recently rediscovered 1926 promotional film that depicts the residents of a German school for the blind in a series of sensory exercises. With overlaid audio tracks that question the roots of human experience and series of complementary paintings, Gmelin poignantly contrasts the optimism of the archival film with the tragic fact that many of its subjects would shortly become victims of the Nazi regime. In Untitled (1982–2007), Beirut/New York Walid Raad departs from the faux documentation of the Atlas Group to display a personal archive of images he photographed as a teenager during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. These pictures resound with a sense of youthful naïveté that is notably refreshing in world weary with images of conflict and destruction.

No less political or historical, though based on precedents set in the art world rather than world events, is Diane Borsato’s Three Performances (After Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovic, Bonnie Sherk). In a set of three videos, Borsato, true to her tendency for museopathy, replays touchstone performances by Beuys, Abramovic and Sherk with a wry twist. Each of the originals featured the artists confined in a space with wild or dangerous animals. Borsato stays true to the original conditions but replaces Beuys’s coyote, Abramovic’s snakes and Sherk’s tigers with her precocious and very tame housecat. The results are not the least bit derivative but instead bring a humorous vitality to important art historical hallmarks that might otherwise remain confined to academic study. (231 Queen’s Quay W, Toronto ON)

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Senior Editor at Canadian Art.