Canadian Club, or, A Cocktail of Canadians for
by Catherine Bédard
'Club' may mean a special society - usually closed - or an association of like-minded people who discuss and debate shared ideas. Or it may mean a group of regulars who get together to chat, read, play a game or sport. The word's connotations resonate across a broad spectrum ranging from elitist privilege to popular enthusiasm. Whatever the case, it implies the notion of selective access or distinctive sign. Hence the Canadian Club in the title of this exhibition refers simultaneously to a place of access - the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, comprising public areas and restricted zones - and an association of artists, Persona Volare, who have gathered here in a kind of symposium. Personal Volare is a club of friends who work in differing ways yet who share a desire to adopt a collective approach - sensitive yet invasive - to sites that have a special symbolic charge. Group and site therefore interact like mutually distorting mirrors. This phenomenon makes it possible to raise the question, liberated from conventional notions, of the relationship between individual identity and collective identity as it appears in the specific framework of 'Canadian distinctiveness'.
Although addressing these serious issues more or less head on, our Canadian Club is nevertheless a festive affair that some informed visitors will immediately associate with a golden whisky of the same name, savoured by several generations of Canadians. It is no coincidence that this brand name has been re-appropriated here, given its ability to evoke good old British tradition and the idea of a civilized ritual imported from abroad yet adapted to local tastes. It goes without saying that this particular alcoholic beverage, along with its name (and perhaps because of that name), is viewed with a certain reserve by inveterate skeptics and connoisseurs of refined elixirs. After all, it's an item likely to convey a particular idea of Canada with a very particular flavour and impact. Once transformed into the title of an exhibition, then, this name triggers certain questions about what it means to be Canadian, especially in representative premises such as the Canadian Cultural Centre, regardless of how the image is presented. Now, the reason for 'importing' this name into the realm of art and art criticism is that Canadian Club incarnates the gap between one generation's imaginative universe and its perception of previous generations, becoming a quasi-anthropological item (as Michael Davey demonstrates by pouring it into the body of sculptures in the form of club-like hockey sticks, which are then hung on the wall like pathetic modern weapons over the entrance to a space that calls for a certain respect - in this instance, a library).
Canadian Club shows how a certain number of popular beliefs and images deeply rooted in the national imagination (or in foreign perceptions of that imagination) can become the substance of art, a springboard for critical reflection, or even a malleable object that can be used to reshape a visual identity. And it also shows off the place in which it occurs - an elegant former private mansion in the grandest Parisian architectural tradition, devoid of any connotations of a private club or a Canadian setting - by urging us to explore every nook and cranny of the public zones: in the shadows of a stairway leading to the basement is a tiny screen, modestly installed near a banal coffee machine; in the anteroom to the toilets, where no one wants to be particularly noticed, is a strange interactive machine (which, given its location, requires a certain bravado to operate publicly); on the top floor of the Canadian Cultural Centre, where few people tend to go since the stairs lead to a door with 'restricted access', one finds a hovering, smoke-shrouded city; and perched on top of one of the shelves of the Library is a monitor silently displaying countless images of book covers... The artists are playing here on the borderline between everything public, permissible, predictable - and its opposite. This is a multidisciplinary exhibition in which surprise is the norm.
Despite the relatively ironic dimension to the work in Canadian Club - given the evocative charge of imagery of, say, Niagara Falls (in the form of vestiges of souvenir placemats in a work by Carlo Cesta), or snow (a long way from the idea of landscape, just a sticky substance assuming various sculpture-like forms on the tip of a shoe in Michael Davey's Snow Cones), or the blades of hockey sticks (transformed into veritable semi-precious objets d'art through superbly lacquered imagery evoking the idea of speed, borrowed from conventional, unsophisticated imagery painted on the side of trucks), or even a box of Laurentien-brand colour pencils (notably number 22, Sky Magenta, that Reid Diamond uses as inspiration for a 'page of history' on the Laurentide mountain chain) - what the artists in this group share is neither imagery nor a doctrine, but rather a way of working and a spirit that are reflected in, or described by, the set of works on show. If pressed to point out a few shared features, I'd mention the tendency to conceive or devise composite, heterogeneous, arrhythmic objects, to indulge in jarring humour or visual wit, and to play on relationships of familiarity and disproportion.
In this context, Lorna Mills' Jeunesse Yukon and Greeter (droll, impertinent streams of words contrived from unusual conflations of written and spoken language and from names and expressions) entertain a close relationship to John Dickson's City (a superb collection of generic cardboard buildings whose apparent homogeneity masks the stifling effect of a compact block) and to Lisa Neighbour's luminous pendants and necklaces (whose elegant refinement is actually the product of a combination of non-precious materials that, when studied closely, shatter the overall effect and convey a dream-like strangeness and disproportion). A play on scale and disproportion - along with a relative discomfiture of the body and frustration of the gaze - are also at the core of Lyla Rye's silent videotape (in which a little girl appears, in freakish contrast, at the windows of a doll's house), of Brian Hobbs' giant sandbox (where the visitor is encouraged to play with giant hard-to-handle wooden sculptures that create ephemeral patterns in the sand), and works by Johannes Zits (notably Body Print, an homage to Yves Klein shot in a small uncomfortable space where the distinction between gents' and ladies' toilets serves as a truly prosaic basis for an artistic operation that involves divesting the erotic dimension of its female content; Klein is symbolically reframed in an uncomfortable cranny while a video documentary shows the subjects of the piece exercising their choice of conventional representations of erotic male and female imagery by cutting out magazine pictures that will cover their body prints). Meanwhile, in another work by Zits, In and Out of the Void, we see the artist approach without entering, a blue square associated not only with the colour 'Klein blue' but also with the videographic void, thus exploring the fictive density of a place depicted in a video image (and thereby establishing a link to one major aspect of Rye's work, where the little girl struggles to look at what is happening on the side visible to viewers and to intervene within the still image of the doll's house). This density - not spacious, indeed every bit as slim as it is charged - also resides at the very core of canvases by Rebecca Diederichs; her impressive patchworks of bright wallpaper patterns weave tapestries around a camouflaged word that constitutes the anchor of the visual field and an indicator of its density. Stretched rather than hung, Diederichs' substanceless canvases with their magnificent flat patches contrast with the spatial convolutions that occupy the centre of each of Kate Wilson's single sheets. Yet Wilson is working on nothing other than a fictive density that contradicts its material substrate as she develops all her whirling forms, one by one, like cyclones or other metamorphosing masses.
Whereas Lorna Mills' video installations represent, in a way, the expressive extreme of all the works included in Canadian Club - with jarring quips that resound with the linguistic and cultural heterogeneity streaming across the top of banner-plinths that function like delightful caricatures of information kiosks - those by Chantal Rousseau represent an extreme state of discretion. In both Tree and BirdLove, the very idea of temporal stream and flow vanishes in a unique, spare, almost still image whose simple and repetitive movement produces a strangely old-fashioned technical effect. The picture assumes the features of an animated drawing of a tiny event that alludes, in fact, to the shudder and flicker inherent in any videographic image, and therefore to the immaterial whiteness that here functions as the support for the drawing; by appearing to emphasize linearity, these works emphasize reserve.
As a multidisciplinary show, Canadian Club brings together pieces that transform everyday objects into supports for artworks, pieces that refurnish a stately, ceremonial residence with out-of-place, unusual, accessories. Its projections shed light on the theme of encounter, while its light-weight configurations (paper, sand, cardboard) draw attention to instability and imminence. Its efforts are aimed at creating a private, amazing encounter there where you'd least expect it. All these subversions, surprises, breaches - whether based on solid, fluid or electronic supports - invite visitors to experience a less official encounter with the site, one where the thin line separating public from private invites reflection on the frontier between individual and collective imagination.
Translated from the French by Deke Dusinberre