Perhaps the best place to begin is with a simple metaphor. Imagine you are looking into a broken mirror, not in any dramatic or troubled way, but such that your reflection takes on multiple vantage points: the nape of your neck matched against your ear, a singular eye inset against the cheekbone, the edge of your mouth framed without either a smile or a frown – disembodied, disassociated with the idea of a “whole,” and ultimately transformed by the very nature of fragmentation. This proposal, or mode of thinking, is similar to that of the exhibition David Cronenberg: Transformation, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA). Curated by David Liss (Artistic Director/Curator MOCCA) and Noah Cowan (Artistic Director TIFF Bell Lightbox), the exhibition is branded as the visual-art component of a larger project coproduced as The Cronenberg Project. Essentially, six international artists were invited to respond to Cronenberg, a major if not the preeminent Canadian film director, and his work. And though the concept appears straightforward, the results are intensely intricate, often manifesting in film pieces, but also in sculpture, and installation. Few exhibitions have such a staggering and magnetic effect.
Marcel Dzama, Une danse des bouffons (or A jester’s dance), 2013, Single channel video installation with original soundtrack, Commissioned by TIFF 2013; Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York/London.
In the 19th century, Romantic poets referred to a term dédoublement, or a doubling of the self. The ties to language in this exhibition apply to this term, yet are not limited to that period. In fact, the exhibition simultaneously operates on two different registers of history – one of the intensely floral, captivating, and sensual sensibilities of Romanticism, and the other of myth with regard to high Modernism. From latent references to William S. Burroughs’ writing style (Cronenberg himself having adapted Naked Lunch in 1991), to allusions to Modernist icons Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, the common ground between the director’s influences on the selected artists is neither suffocating, nor oppressive. Upon entering the gallery are two pieces by Marcel Dzama, Even the Ghost of the Past, a life-sized caricatured remake of Étant Donnés from 2008, and the more recently commissioned Une Danse des Bouffons, or A Jester’s Dance, projected on the wall directly across. The film, accurately described as a “Dadaist love story,” orchestrates a brilliant game of framing devices, staging a complicated and fragile narrative of the protagonist, played by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and her lover, seemingly trapped inside a television. The film is absolutely seductive. While incorporating figures from ancient mythologies – the Minotaur, or hybrid chimeras in purposefully crafted costumes on exposed stage sets – the screen itself becomes a subject in the work. Dzama never lets us see more than a few minutes of film before reminding the audience we are watching that very film; the scene shrinks into an aspect of another setting, a frame within a frame, which in other contexts may be too facile, yet not when placed in relation to the sculpture, which is often pictured in the film.
In a smaller, more intimate screening room to the right of this piece is Candice Breitz’s Treatment. Breitz rivals Dzama’s for best in show with a two-channel video installation that adapts Cronenberg’s The Brood. On the left side, when we enter, we see a clinical, cold, nearly heartless narration taking place in a gray sound studio. Running opposite on the right side of the viewing room, the original screenplay plays perfectly synched. A sense of tenuous dissociation is gathered only after viewing both events, which remain surprisingly autonomous upon first glance – the parallel screens placed in the mildly claustrophobic setting are just far enough apart so that they cannot be viewed at the same time. Though it seems impossible to amp up the anxiety and disturbance within the original scenes of the film, Breitz does so. The redubbing is done entirely with female voices, heightening the oddly paternal and sexually charged atmosphere of the film itself, which pictures a young woman and an older man.
James Coupe, Swarm, 2013, Stereo cameras, computers, monitors, Commissioned by TIFF 2013; Courtesy of the artist.
In an adjacent gallery is James Coupe’s site-specific installation Swarm. Viewers walk into a room with four monitors equipped with cameras in the center, facing outward in each direction toward the wall – a live feed of the space. Adopting all the aesthetics of surveillance technology, the piece does not actually reflect the viewer or the space at the time, though it does warn that it is recording. Instead, upon entering the space you see a figure (not yourself) that walks into the frame (as if it was yourself), apprehensively, and cautiously. The figure mimics the natural action of any viewer walking into the space for the first time – there is really only one logical way to walk through. Once the camera detects a slowing in the pace of the viewer, the screen is instantly filled with additional figures, as if there were a green screen in the space. Although the appearance of the figures is likely set to a simple algorithm, your awareness of the possibility of others in the space is overwhelming – reason drops away, the figures on the screen are like ghosts, at once a visceral part of the space and an invisible presence.
Coupe’s piece, in addition to the other artists, captures the spirit of Cronenburg, in the Romantic sense – which is to say, the physical, secular spirit that still has the power to haunt others, though it belongs to the will of the individual. It is, in fact, this individual that manifests throughout the artists’ responses in the exhibition – at once the onlooker and the other, crystalized and multifaceted like a kaleidoscopic self. The work stares into the reflection of its own source and never quite meets its own end. Instead it continues fragmenting, unfolding.
[Image on top: Candice Breitz, Treatment, 2013, dual-channel video, Commissioned by TIFF 2013; Courtesy of the artist, White Cube (London) + Kaufmann Repetto (Milan).]