Persona Volare: Canadian Club

An essay by Corinna Ghaznavi

In Canada, Canadian Club is known to be a rye whisky specific to the country. Most other places understand a Canadian Club to be where expatriates from Canada meet. If the club membership were to reflect a cross-section of nationals, it would be polite but resolute, unaggressive yet firm, and insistent that a Canadian identity is defined by its diversity. Persona Volare is a Toronto-based group of artists linked primarily by its interest and respect for the art productions of its members: a collection of sculptors, new media artists, photographers, painters and video artists. Their media is wide-ranging and their intent just as diverse, from playful to conceptual. For their exhibition in the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris, Persona Volare promised a 'spirited, loaded, tipsy, euphoric, exhilarating, and stimulating intervention'- this very amassing of adjectives reflecting that tricky multicultural Canadian identity that refuses set definitions.

In the 1980s, "Canadian Club" was the premium brand of rye whisky favoured by the bar crowd. Rye and coke, rye and ginger, or rye and dry, all required the addition of sticky soft drinks to mellow the flavour of the slightly harsh whisky. For the premium drinkers, the acquired taste was 'CC and 7' (Canadian Club and Seven-Up), a slick-sounding name for a smoother drink at what may then still have been a smoke-filled bar. Rye can also be enjoyed straight up. Persona Volare stated that its intention in Paris was to 'create an exhibition that contains metaphors of intense conversation, intoxicating highs and resolute instinct.' Canadian Club does just this. A heady mixture of sweet, dry, harsh, and sometimes tipsy images infiltrated the Canadian Cultural Centre and transformed it into a place of play and contemplation filled with concepts, patterns, lights and colour.

A complication of identity begins immediately with Lorna Mills' Greeter, showing a television monitor atop a plinth painted in precise red, white and blue horizontal stripes that are continued on the monitor where a running text scrolls steadily across the bottom. Placed adjacent to the Canadian flag, it opens up a dialogue between nations and the colours of both the American flag, which shares a continent with Canada, and the French flag, which has left a permanent imprint on Canadian identity. Nothing is quite so definitive of this identity as hockey. The failure of the NHL (National Hockey League) to reach an agreement this past season has resulted in a national debate on the sport, the players, the season and the league, and has also involved people of all ages and backgrounds. In these debates, it was often noted that while hockey has many times been pivotal for Canadians, the NHL no longer reflects the original game or culture, giving way instead to corporate politics and big money. Playing on both sides of this debate, Michael Davey's Canadian Club is both a celebration and an ironic nudge at what the sport is supposed to symbolize. Carefully crafted and colourfully emblazoned, the sticks themselves are filled with Canadian Club whisky, suggesting that hockey is also an 'armchair sport' watched more than it is played, and therefore an idea rather than a physical pastime. Further, it is a humorous but definite nudge at that second national pastime involving alcohol. This ironic reworking of symbols is echoed in the window blinds of Carlo Cesta fashioned out of plastic placemats showing images of Niagara Falls. Not only is it possible to buy cheap tourist mats for the decoration of one's kitchen table, it is also possible now to cover one's windows with these functional blinds that show the falls by day and night, depending on which way the blinds are pulled. Like Davey, Cesta gives into an image that is inevitably seeped in "Canadian-ness" and so acknowledges, even celebrates it, while transforming it. The mat, at best a tacky object that is easy to clean, becomes ruptured as the image is sliced into panels for the blind, which in turn becomes the view out of the window. The constructed landscape takes the place of the real and highlights the fictional nature of cultural symbols.

The landscape is a crucial and obstinate factor in discussions of Canadian identity despite the fact that Niagara Falls has become like Disneyland and most Canadians live in urban environments. And yet, like hockey, nature is an ubiquitous experience for many. Weekends at the cottage, canoeing, hiking, and above all road trips, are woven into the common fabric of Canadian life. Reid Diamond's text pieces poetically address this commonality while pointing still to its construction in a way that is lyrical and edgy simultaneously. Awakening at sunset and looking out of the window of the bus, Monique compares the colour of the sky with a #22 Sky Magenta pencil from her pack of Laurentiens. With this, she traces the outline of the Parc des Laurentides hills onto the pages of a book she is reading, knowing that the coloured image will remain long after dark. It is a subtle play on representation, ideas of high and low art, and how we process culture. Diamond beautifully captures the cultural construction of the landscape on the one hand, and the interpretation and re-creation of an experience on the other, demonstrating that art can transcend the real and become a permanent metaphor.

Landscape as metaphor is prevalent also in the work of Kate Wilson whose tight images, curated for Paris by Toronto curator Wren Jackson, touched often only slightly with colour, spiral and explode across the expanse of paper. Storms, tornadoes and wildly coiling botanicals are juxtaposed with numerous heads that both attract and repel. Wilson's landscapes stem both from the observed and interior world, her careful eye capturing anomalies that take on a strange and eerie life of their own. The landscape becomes a mere starting point for her reflections on cultural and technological creations and fictions as observed in urban infrastructures, science fiction, and a world that appears on the brink of disaster. It is at this juncture that John Dickson's City connects: a dense cityscape of skyscrapers is crafted from cardboard and appears sprawling yet toylike, smoke emitting from the installation at regular intervals. The piece evokes B-movie special effects, science fiction, and, inevitably, the events of September 11. The precarious nature of the cardboard serves to underline both a certain playfulness and the fragility of our advanced society.

A double-edged playfulness is also apparent in Lyla Rye's video piece Young Girl at an Open Window. The piece and the stills show Rye's daughter playing with her dollhouse, described as "her own idealistic sphere where animals and humans coexist peacefully," yet anomalies like dirty dishes in the sink and a lone doll shoe are given room as well. The flattened space of the projected dollhouse, hinged open, creates an inversion of the interior and exterior, and the displayed video enlarges the gap between private domestic play and the public realm. Integrating experiences, both of the observed world, as well as her imaginary interior world, the child plays with a miniature construction, appearing both as creative being and strangely monstrous in scale as her large figure manipulates the tiny system.

Play and inversions are apparent too in a sandbox created by Brian Hobbs. In a framed playing field filled with sand, Hobbs has placed carved wooden objects that can be manipulated by the viewer to create patterns in the sand. Beautifully crafted, the objects are sculptures that leave unique and evolving patterns in the sand only to be erased by the next viewer interaction. Both the lyrical aspect of play and image, as well as the fragile and fleeting impact of making a mark, are apparent in this work: the installation acting like a kaleidoscope, creating lilting patterns, only to disappear with the next turn.

A play with pattern and subtle signs emerges in the digital photographs of Rebecca Diederichs, as well. Each piece in the series of large-scale works contains a word existing both in French and English, for instance, "brute", "alliance" and "cyclone". The text is in stencil so that the viewer needs to take time to find its outline and differentiate the word from the background. This is made up of juxtaposed found and photographed images that Diederichs has manipulated by enlarging or splicing. Each image is daunting in it size, made more so by the prominence of colours and patterns that have been juxtaposed to create a kind of digital landscape that moves beyond photography to emphasize the new medium. This furthers the notion of unfixed signs and open language since each word, becoming itself part of the landscape, is the same and yet diverges from its specific definition depending on the language in which it is read. Each image is ruptured in the center by a vertical splice that further denies a linear reading of the imagery that references both the natural and found, pieced together in a way that requires the viewer to stop and peruse and participate themselves in the reenactment of the image.

The vertical rupture is echoed in what Carlo Cesta refers to as windows entitled Macho Prison or, on occasion, Deep Space. The opaque coloured squares appear to swim lushly within their metallic frameworks, held into place by curved metal bars. The texture of the colours deny entrance while suggesting depth. The framework acts as both display and barrier. The rhythm of the six pieces create a patterned installation that creates an opening into and beyond the wall. They are sculptural forms that reference both architecture and painting. The insistent vibrance and hard material mark a space that nonetheless bars the viewer from entering beyond the surface. A similar effect is found in the buckets suspended below the blinds. Jutting out of the wall are six metal bars that each hold a silver bucket reminiscent perhaps of an industrial reenactment of the maple sugar bush where trees are tapped and buckets inserted to catch the sap that will be boiled into the famous syrup. The hard texture and glint of the buckets draws the viewer to peer inside and discover luminescent pools of different colours seemingly suspended at the bottom of each: some a rich but artificial red, others green, then blue. The inexplicable nature of the material calls for touch since it appears both translucent and merely suggestive. There is a play between absence and presence. The tangible object and the unreliability of representation are all played out in a persistent rhythm of colour and texture.

Luminosity is at the very core of Lisa Neighbour's installation of lights that are suspended from the ceiling of the staircase. Single lights made of different found elements, including glass and porcelain adorned with different coloured bulbs hang gorgeously from the ceiling. The amassing of different pieces into one concludes in an object that is at once lush and exaggerated, while also gathered tightly around a single principle. Each piece serves to both illuminate space and itself. This self-referentiality is furthered in a large piece mounted on the wall where Neighbour has macramed the actual wires together to connect the different bulbs to each other and create a closed system where the functional becomes decorative and the sum of the whole serves to define space by both its presence (as sculpture) and function (light).

Johannes Zits too is interested in allowing light to mark the space. One installation shows the entire room lit blue. The displayed video projection further emphasizes the space and colour because all that one sees is a blue space. At the edge of the screen, there is a suggestion of a figure about to enter the blue, but never actually does so. Tension is created by failure of the figure to act or complete what the viewer expects to see. The pervasive empty space highlights the blue void and marks out a physical and virtual space that waits for content to fill it. The blue that Zits is interested in is "Yves Klein Blue", as is demonstrated in his reenactment of Klein's body paintings. Shown on the exterior of the men's and women's washrooms are collaged body paintings that Zits has made on the adhesive that his models applied to the doors with their bodies. This performance, beginning in the washroom and culminating in the ritual pressing of figure to door, is played on a video monitor adjacent to the final piece. The use of one male and one female figure and the gay imagery that is always close to the surface of Zits' work transforms Klein's use of the female body for the male masterpiece into a playful and subversive act.

Sub- and inversion is also apparent in Lorna Mills' kiosks. The striped pedestals and monitors with crawling text initially referenced racetracks and horses. The names scrolling at the bottom of the monitor are all racehorses culled for various reasons by Mills, not least of all for their absurdity and outrageousness. Where does the name "Autumnal Umbrella" originate and what does it have to do with the animal or the sport? Mills refers to the pacing of the text and the rhythm of the stripes as a 'visual information compression'. The imagery mimics the tension, speed, regularity and circularity of the race and track. The text for Paris has been broadened to include references to war, shopping and greeting, a move that further disorients language and its meaning. Without a clear guideline or decoder, the viewer cannot enter into a dialogue or understanding with this language that remains firmly closed to interpretation. The mutability and removal of text from language is also demonstrated in Mill's work English, a video piece that includes a physical amassing of miniature book covers that have been printed and laminated and heaped upon a large viewing table. The video is an ongoing project that shows each book that Mills has ever read. Shot and edited to fit into the screen precisely the same way, each cover hovers and then is replaced in an endless succession of book covers. Each image is shown only for two seconds so that the format and the speed begin to create a visual pace that allows only for registration of an image and a quick association with a text. While on the one hand Mills addresses the fact that our sources of knowledge are varied and ultimately non-hierarchical, she also refers to the powers of contemporary culture that relies almost solely on visual impact knowing that viewer attention spans are increasingly short. Nonetheless, the array of information suggested by this incredibly large collection of text, (currently the work holds some 2,300 titles) is daunting and immeasurable.

It is, therefore, all the more calming to stand before Chantal Rousseau's projection of a sapling tree. Projected to human scale, the branches quiver slightly and the leaves flutter as one watches. The concentration on a single subject allows both for simplicity and complexity. The focus on an entity that implies a complex organic system, ever evolving, allows both for beauty and a structural inquiry.

Rousseau's piece is an animated drawing, connecting back to constructed landscapes and technology. Except Lyla Rye, although she includes stills from her video, the projections included in this exhibition are all connected with objects. Rousseau shows a second projection on a tiny DVD laptop hidden below stairs. Mills includes plinths and replicas of her book covers. Zits' performance is both screened and tangible on the doors of the washrooms. The tangibility of the object is therefore strongly maintained and not lost in a purely digital world. Conversely, Diederichs' montages are firmly removed from photography and aligned with digital manipulation. Still, the varying objects culled for her visual investigations resurface strangely in parts where one recognizes things like wrought iron and then pushed into a conceptual realm when the stenciled text emerges for the viewer. Text is transformed into pattern in Brian Hobbs' Untitled (Sandbox) where the process of writing and erasure become a cyclical and ephemeral interpretation unique to each participant. And while this writing is fleeting, the objects that make the mark are solid. The elusive quality of Cesta's colours, both in the buckets and behind his windows, is counterbalanced by the presence of solidity in the metal, just as the core of Neighbour's installations, light, is made material through the fixtures themselves. The smoke that threatens to burn down Dickson's city dissipates and allows the cardboard to remain erect, though possibly just on the brink of destruction, as the landscape in Wilson's works appears to be. Underlining all is the persistence of material and image.

Pulling and pushing modes of representation, ranging from identity, nature and culture, art history, popular culture, patterns and light, Persona Volare leads the viewer into a powerful romp as s/he traverses the Canadian Cultural Centre. Sweet and potent, the Canadian Club in Michael Davey's hockey sticks does not evaporate but rather offers a spirited, tipsy and intoxicating look at art that invites participation, reflection, contemplation and play.

Corinna Ghaznavi

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