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Reviews / June 25, 2009

Universal Code: Solar System Symphony

Josiah McElheny Island Universe 2008 Video still

Take the entire cosmos as your theme, and you might end up with “Universal Code,” the Power Plant’s latest exhibition. Curated by gallery director Gregory Burke, the exhibit features 23 international artists and their reflections on ideas of the universal, the infinite and the everlasting.

The contrasting responses offered by this exhibition’s artists—who reference everything from far-reaching stars to our own planet’s overlooked wonders—are poetic, often beguiling and sometimes even heartbreaking. All explore the difficult implications of what it means to be human in an increasingly complex world. Yet the universe is also refreshingly rendered here with circumspect optimism, carving out a pluralistic space that is suffused with myriad possibilities—even if, as the exhibition text states, it is also “riddled by elision and enigma.”

Katie Paterson’s Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) is downright remarkable, and it’s easily the most affecting work in the show. Standing alone in a low-lit corner of the gallery, a programmable piano performs Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It takes a moment, but one soon realizes that the composition is off, that there are notes missing and that the melody at times is fractured. A text panel informs that the notes are indeed lost—lost in outer space. What one actually hears, thanks to a radio technique known as earth-moon-earth communication, is an imperfect variation of Moonlight Sonata as relayed via the lunar surface. Paterson sent the original sonata to the moon in morse code form, received it back and then retranslated it into a traditional score for a musical journey traversing some 770,000 kilometres. The incompleteness of this translation prompts one to ponder the limits of communication, of not being understood as originally intended. And it’s enough to elicit a certain degree of sadness. As Paterson acknowledges in an email, “I sent this piece of music to the moon, and the moon gave it back in pieces … there is a certain melancholy about this.”

Equally impressive is Henrik Håkansson’s 35mm film, Monarch – The Eternal, which features hundreds of luminous, amber-orange Monarch butterflies. These creatures flutter across a soft blue sky in chaotic rhythm—a wondrous unfolding that challenges human comprehension more so than Håkansson’s camera. Played in an unending loop, the projected image has the mesmerizing quality of a great expressionist painting. Josiah McElheny’s 16mm film installation Island Universe similarly evokes the “can’t take my eyes off of you” effect; it features the intricate chandeliers of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Through the aid of an ethereal soundscape, commissioned by McElheny from artist Paul Schütze, one is taken on an odyssey that feels at once familiar and ancient, scientific and spiritual.

Finally, Tania Mouraud’s confrontational video and film installation La Fabrique deserves mention. On four projections and 12 monitors, workers in a Kerala carpet-weaving facility engage in laborious monotony. The sound, coming from 16 sources, assaults from all angles. It’s a cacophony that fades from consciousness, however, when the workers unexpectedly raise their heads and look to the camera, self-possessed; the monitors, situated wisely atop black plinths, have one face the workers’ bold gazes at eye level, forcing a startling if magical moment of recognition between screen and viewer—a sudden awakening to the fact that we are somehow a part of this harsh reality, however geographically severed we might seem from it.

In many of these works, though, a curious tension becomes apparent. There is a return to the singular and the individual—to the fact that billions of us are, simultaneously, engaged in this cosmic drama together. (231 Queens Quay W, Toronto ON)