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The Globe and Mail

Exploring Collaboration; The Power Plant's Group Show Focusing On The Nature Of Artistic Authorship Has Moments Of Vibrancy, But They Are Too Rare


5 April 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

Most people tend to think of art making as a deeply solitary affair, but, in his new show at The Power Plant in Toronto, curator Reid Shier is presenting a cross-section of work that has collaboration at its core. Titled Dedicated to you, but you weren't listening (the title comes from a song by the band Soft Machine), the exhibition explores collaboration between artists, between artists and audience, and between artists and the workings of chance, bringing together 14 contributors from Canada, the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Britain.

The show takes as its starting point the canonical 1974 conceptual-art piece by Dan Graham titled Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay. Walking into the work, which is set up in a spare, white-walled gallery all its own, the viewer is invited into a game of cat and mouse with time. As with the surveillance video monitor in the corner store, you have the option of watching yourself live in real time on one of the monitors – always a peculiar out-of-body experience. Add to that a second monitor that allows you to observe your actions eight seconds back in time, and the facing mirrors that allow these temporal dislocations to ricochet back and forth, and the sense of disembodiment deepens. Graham sets a perceptual trap for us, but it is the viewer who activates the piece; it is enacted, not observed.

Sometimes the collaboration transpires between man and nature, as is the case in Scottish artist Dave Allen's Mirrored Catalogue d'Oiseaux. Allen has set up a large aviary in the gallery space, into which he has placed two live starlings. They flit about, peck at their birdseed and listen to the sounds of Olivier Messiaen's 1959 piano compositions inspired by – yes – the song of starlings. Messiaen wrote these piano works after careful note-taking out in the fields and forests, faithfully transcribing birdsong. Starlings are notorious mimics, and, if you sit for a while, you can observe the live birds returning the language of 20th-century avant-garde music back to the original vernacular.

Another elegant work here is Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla's Returning a Sound (2004), a DVD projection that documents the use of a moped, modified through the addition of a trumpet affixed to the exhaust pipe. A young man drives the moped around the city streets and country roads of the island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico, with the trumpet emitting earsplitting blasts of randomly created sound as the exhaust fluctuates. At times, this sounds like a simulation of a race car's whine, and at other times like warm-up exercises in the orchestra pit, a cacophonous improvisation between man and machine.

Jonathan Monk's Searching for the Centre of a Piece of A4 Paper has a somewhat similar, appealingly nerdy vibe. Monk asked two people to attempt to identify the centre of a sheet of paper without the help of a ruler, offering them numerous chances to hit the mark. He then documented their two versions, projecting the competing approximations as two dots onto verso recto sides of a suspended sheet of paper via two home-movie film projectors. From their opposing vantage points, the two points jostle and jive for the centre point like two dragonflies mating in midair, never quite achieving a resting point of consensus.

Toronto artist Zin Taylor has contributed an equally quirky work; his DVD projection titled The Allegorical Function of Dirt: A Discussion with Aki Tsuyuko's Ongakushitsu. It is unclear to me what the allegory is here; the work provides an in-depth tour of a tabletop pile of potting soil that has been fashioned by the artist into strange hills and valleys. It doesn't sound like much, but Taylor manages to generate a mood of contemplative wonder.

Much of the effect is achieved through the use of Japanese musician Aki Tsuyuko's digital composition Ongakushitsu, a spacey synthetic soundtrack punctuated with glockenspiel and chiming sounds. Taylor is also presenting a little booklet documenting the correspondence between the two artists, with Taylor making collaborative overtures to Tsuyuko, whose music inspired his video, and Tsuyuko, after an initial flurry of self-deference, admitting that she can't make any sense of Taylor's dirt pile. Still, she consented to his use of her work for his soundtrack. It's a case of unrequited inspiration, with Taylor persisting in his homage despite her indifference.

Other works in the show are less evocative. The collaborative Mexican group Tercerunquinto's Open Access – literally a doorway cut in the gallery wall at the west façade – is playful in a sly sort of way (the glass door looks like it has always been there) and a likable democratic gesture. (Admission is free through this point of entry.) But as an artwork it seems facile. Allora and Calzadilla's Land Mark (Foot Prints), a photo-work documenting footprints in the sand, was strangely flaccid, given the political passions underpinning it. The artists created shoes whose soles were incised with various political slogans relating to (I found out through asking) the environmental contamination of Vieques by the U.S. and NATO military, who used the island for test bombing. Walking on the sand, they leave their ephemeral agitprop wherever they stray. Without the explanation, though, the piece was impossible to decipher. No doubt this was intentional, but in the gallery the piece appeared so cryptic as to be coy.

Toronto sculptor Derek Sullivan is presenting his Endless Kiosk, a vertical sculpture modelled on Brancusi's Endless Column, which the artist has offered up as a signboard for public notices. Currently, it's sporting a poster protesting the policies of the current Toronto police chief, various business cards and a smattering of what appears to be Bruce Mau wallpaper (the Toronto designer whose Massive Change exhibition is currently on show at the Art Gallery of Ontario). Thus Brancusi's modernist masterwork is reborn as a public notice board – an idea I found glib enough to be genuinely depressing. Sullivan has been developing a name for himself as a maker of delicately calibrated constructions of found objects, but this piece fell short of the mark.

The show inspired more general thoughts. I missed the performance of Acid Brass by British artist Jeremy Deller on the exhibition's opening night a few weeks ago, a work that involves the performance of Acid House tunes by a traditional brass marching band. By all accounts it was a raving success, a blast of energy that proclaimed the vitality of working-class British culture, and an experimental hybrid between high art and popular culture. (It will be performed again at The Power Ball fundraiser on June 2.)

But such vibrancy is rare in this show. Like many leading artists of the emerging generation, many of these artists come across as fiddling around on the margins, toying with their synthesizers out in the field (in the case of the Canadian artist collective GLN's sequence of video-recorded improvisations on found sound titled Space Ship Earth) or photographing their dirt piles in melancholy solipsism. These are wry, miniature epiphanies, offered up half-heartedly to the world, not quite witty or inventive enough to evoke Duchamp. One has to wonder; is this enough?

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