In an era of unprecedented political and ecological crisis, what does it mean for the public when the exhibitionary complex turns its gaze away from their suffering, and toward the travails of inanimate objects? When speaking of subjects – racialized, migrant, incarcerated, and deceased – can an art object operate beyond being a fetish, an essentialized token of a culture, or a didactic representation? Curator Daisy Desrosiers grapples with these questions in Material Tells, a group exhibition featuring the work of eleven internationally-acclaimed artists across the two sites of Oakville Galleries. Simply put, this exhibition straddles the intersection of culture (what matters) and ontology (what constitutes matter). Material Tells foregrounds histories of exploitation inherent in everyday objects, which are predicated on the extraction of raw materials, bodies, and labor from the Global South. It also invites the viewer to situate themselves with these networks of power and seek out their agency.
In choosing material as her métier, Desrosiers also indirectly contests with the looming spectre of Object Oriented Ontology. “OOO” is a mode of philosophical discourse that advocates for inanimate objects possessing the same agency as humans. Hito Steyerl’s short text “A Thing Like You and Me” offers a neat summarization. Instead of striving to be a subject whose autonomy is always compromised by larger structures of power, Steyerl argues, there might be emancipatory potential in being an object. The sting of this notion, though, to subaltern bodies who already operate as quasi-objects in the global economy of power, is summarized succinctly by psychoanalyst and critic Ben Kafka: “‘You’ may indeed get a kick out of comparing yourself to a speck of flea shit or a solar flare. But substitute ‘you’ for pretty much anyone else on the planet and you begin to see how dehumanizing ‘posthumanism’ can be.” Although OOO is no longer trending in the same way it was in 2013-15, its influence is still palpable in sculpture and installation-based practices, and its poetic vagaries remain eminently marketable.
In the context of an art gallery, culturally signified objects are often exhibited as a stand-in for an absent ‘other’, sidestepping the urgent need for art to speak to and empower publics traditionally excluded from its sphere by dint of race, class, and ability. Resisting fixed notions of identity, which are often a feature of neoliberal cultural production, Material Tells attempts to place densely-layered cultural histories in relationship to each other. Desrosiers draws on poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, which makes a case for “opacity as a site of uniqueness.” This notion of opacity implies that beings – objects, individuals and identities – are in a constant process of becoming that can never be fully translated or represented. Instead, in moments of encounter, opacities can coexist and converge, weaving together and creating a site that sustains a plurality of histories and identities. In Material Tells, Desrosiers deftly frames these encounters in relationship with their respective sites, agitating and making visible the economies of power that create meaning out of material.
The first of these venues, Gairloch Gardens, is a 1920s Tudor-style folly ensconced in an expansive English landscape garden amidst a millionaires’ row of residences on the shores of Lake Ontario. Large bay windows in the house-turned-gallery look out onto the grounds, the primary draw for visitors. These views to the landscape and how it frames interactions between people, are a key consideration in the exhibition design. Upon entering, I am immediately confronted with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Dad) (1991). Comprised of 175 pounds of white sugar candy, the work is part of a series of memorials to the departed, in this case the artist’s father. Besides its sensory trigger, sugar as a medium also harkens back to its history as one of the first commodities that drove colonial expansion. Placed in front of a large bay window on the shores of Lake Ontario, the weight of this body takes on a site-specific resonance. On a clear day like this, the smokestacks of Hamilton’s steel mills are visible. They grind onward in unceasing processes of extraction, refinement, and distribution of the natural resources that has defined settler colonialism along the southern shores of Lake Ontario for over 200 years. Placed here for the taking, these candies situate the viewer at a contentious point of exchange, not only with the memory of the dead evoked by the work, but also with the economy of endless consumption that often renders human life disposable.
The somatic triggers of the sugar entering my bloodstream call to mind what Freud called the “body ego,” explained succinctly by Kafka, as that part of us that experiences anxiety, or relief, or pleasure, or any number of other sensations that are simultaneously physical and psychic. On entering a gallery, so many of these responses are conditioned by social relations, particularly when anxieties around class and race are involved. These responses are often least anticipated by curators when thinking of their public. Desrosiers, however, foregrounds the body throughout. Though the didactic labels give concise information about the historical and cultural context of the objects, the viewer can only make sense of the work through a visceral encounter.
Just as Gonzalez-Torres’s component sculpture suggests a body diffused and disarticulated over time, Kevin Beasley’s Untitled (Swoop) (2016) refers to the body in absence. Kaftans, cotton t-shirts, and house dresses, all of which carry cultural connotations of Blackness, are encased in resin, draping themselves in ways that invoke the erasure of Black bodies in public spaces. These spectral bodies could be read as merely frolicking in the water, but their discombobulated appearance makes it hard to resist comparison to images of migrant bodies emerging out of the ocean, on more distant shores. The t-shirts themselves, often products of a global commodity exchange, could well have washed up here by accident, except the rigidity of the composition implies otherwise. Against the backdrop of a barricaded lakeshore where entry is restricted, the work questions which bodies are allowed to be in this space.
When financier James Arthur Gairdner bequeathed his estate to the town of Oakville, upon his death in 1971, for use as an art gallery and a public park, there was widespread outcry from the area’s affluent residents. They feared that the encroachment of working-class visitors would lower property values. A local paper noted at the time that, on the other hand, ‘Joe Average’ would never “feel comfortable using the Gairdner property as public property.” This tension continues with larger demographic changes in Oakville. Looking out of the windows behind Beverly Buchanan’s Narrow Doors (2009), I enviously observe a brown man taking a nap on a park bench. I note no less than six passers-by, all white and dressed in the suburban uniform of expensive yoga wear, react to this man with varying degrees of suspicion and disapproval. Buchanan’s sculpture draws on the legacy of Black vernacular architectures – makeshift huts, cabins, and shacks – of the American South, and are heavily imbued with the legacy of Jim Crowe. Though quite by accident, the minor drama that plays out in the background reactivates the latent politics of space and belonging imbued in the work.
The colonial artifice of the English landscape garden at Gairloch speaks to how nature itself becomes transformed through human intervention to reflect a dominant mode of power. Replacing the indigenous ecology with rolling lawns and showy beds of dahlias, petunias, and hydrangeas, this settled landscape is reconfigured to the colonial imaginary. Situated in dialogue with this process, Kapwani Kiwanga’s Flowers for Africa (2013-ongoing) studies the symbolic power of botany in systems of colonial, and post-colonial diplomacy. Researching the protocols for independence celebrations of various post-colonial African Nations, Kiwanga asks a local florist to recreate flower arrangements described in these documents, reflecting on the foreclosed promise of Pan-Africanism in that historical moment. As the artist describes in a 2016 interview, “The idea’s not to make it a kind of mausoleum, or to preserve the vestiges of these floral arrangements, but more to […] re-examine this moment in history.” The flowers decay through the course of the show and must be recreated periodically. Pan-continentalisms and imagined homelands are a powerful, and sometimes dangerous, lure in the diasporic imaginary but Kiwanga reminds us that we are continually recreating these homelands through a process of assemblage that already takes place on stolen land. Nearby, Marie-Michelle Deschamps’s Untitled (2019) features a copper sheet covered in enamel, with rings resembling a notepad or binder. The crackling enamel creates a series of nearly-inscrutable veins on the surface. The result resembles both a blank sheet of paper while, by the lakeside, perhaps even suggesting the riverine system feeding the lake. Surrounded by the colonial encroachments largely built over this carefully balanced watershed, I think of the acceleration of flooding and erosion caused by these interventions as I look onto the seawall outside that is slowly sinking into the lake.
Departing from Gairloch’s understated yet focused visual strategies, I arrive at Centennial Square, where the exhibition takes on a heightened sensory intensity. Competing for attention in a more central public forum – this site is attached to a library – I notice how Ja’Tovia Gary’s film An Ecstatic Experience (2015) reverberates through the space. Gary annotates actress Ruby Dee’s 1965 television performance of a historical diary of a formerly enslaved woman with a series of dots, hatching, and other marks, emphasizing her material intervention into the narrative. A refrain of “I’m free! I’m free! I’m free!” rings through the gallery, as does a harp solo by Alice Coltrane, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The footage that follows features a funeral, churchgoers, and more recent Black Lives Matter protest footage from Baltimore. Emphasized throughout are the Black communities of resilience and resistance coming together at times of intense pain and trauma. Gary transforms the historic material and activates its potential to stir the audience’s fervour. In this instance, viewing is meant to be not passive, but catalytic.
Building on the theme of raw material and transformation, Azza El Siddique’s Let me hear you sweat (2018) positions clay slips placed on metal grates, gradually being eroded by a steady drip of water (fed by a humidifier and a siphon, respectively). The water, infused with perfumed sandalwood oil, gradually causes the unfired clay vases to warp and disintegrate. The metal hardware of the grates, in turn, rusts and takes on a rich patina over time. Evoking the occlusive bind between memory and form, Siddique’s vessels attest to the plasticity of identities transformed by migration. Like the other works in the exhibition, its materiality is in a constant process of becoming.
Although Desroisers sought to bring formerly unrecognized subjects and “often-overlooked narratives” into view, this exhibition’s process constantly straddles making and un-making. A lot of the works attempt to stabilize ephemerality, flux, and moments of history long past. But in doing so, in historicizing, compiling and presenting these narratives, they also create strata of occlusion. Even an exhibition that deploys opacity as its core visual strategy needs to undertake some amount of translation before a collection of objects can become a legible whole. This process of translation always precludes removing the object on some level further from the dispossessed subject for which it speaks. Drawn from exclusive collections and commercial galleries, these objects still hold economic value that countermands their symbolic significance. This tension is an inevitability, of course, and thoughtful activation of these objects is preferable to them languishing out of the public’s view. Material Tells is evocative because it resists the apathy of a detached museological gaze. The exhibition design activates the works in relationship to their environment, employing affect to pull the viewer into an encounter with the opaque. However, the sheer density of the narratives represented, not all of which have been discussed in this writing, presents a steep challenge to the specificity which these subjects deserve. Desrosiers’s curating attempts to activate a more critical way of looking and relating to cultural artefacts. Translating this exhibition’s poetics into methodology, however, requires repetition – restaging at various sites, at various intersections of history, geography, and politics. The momentary encounter between two mutually unintelligible entities is a tantalizing thought – but somehow their inscrutable whispers need to percolate into an effective language for understanding identity and difference.