Art that demands and rewards: Stretch presents conceptual and minimalist works that mean something
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 June 2003)

From across the room, the round steel mirrors lined up along a wall of the Power Plant gallery in Toronto look like the usual blank, mute minimalist art. But if you stand very close to one of them, and breathe on it, a snapshot of a man or woman magically appears. Move down the line, keep breathing, and other faces emerge from within the depths of the mirrors.

Who are these strangers? They are among the disappeared of Colombia, presumed to be victims of political murder. Oscar Munoz, a Colombian artist, made this memorial to them by reworking minimalist imagery as a clever and touching political commentary. Like several of the exceptional art objects currently at the Power Plant, it won't easily be forgotten.

The work of Munoz and 18 other artists from various corners of this hemisphere have been brought together in an ambitious and surprising show called Stretch. The curators, Keith Wallace and Eugenio Valdes Figueroa, sought out forceful examples of minimalist and conceptual art, much of it from Latin America. They seem to have been trying to answer two questions. Now that artists have experimented with these styles for a generation or so, what can they express? Have they anything to say that will matter outside the confines of the art world?

Audiences have learned by experience to approach minimalism and conceptualism in a wary, fearful spirit. At its worst, minimalist art consists of a brick and two twigs lying on a gallery floor while the artist and the curator hover in the background, praying that someone will believe these inscrutable objects carry a hidden charge of meaning. Quite often, the spectator must bring more to the experience than the artist.

Alas, that kind of work sometimes appears in Stretch. Inaki Bonillas of Mexico shows a series of slides that "document" (a favourite word in this corner of the art world) the colours created by different brands of light bulbs when they shine on a blank wall. The spectator stands beside a slide projector and watches a series of photographs of nothing, in shades from pink to yellow. A curator, if he happens to be present, may argue that this piece addresses "How we think about light," but a few minutes spent watching it will turn the mind to thoughts not of light but of time tediously passing. Other conceptual pieces are merely tricky; one glances in amusement, then moves on. Terence Gower presents a case of labels for purely fictitious works of art in a conceptual art show that never existed. Cute, but not more than that.

More often, though, Stretch demonstrates that in half a dozen different countries, these art forms are yielding work of exceptional interest. Those who arrive with a glum view of conceptualism and minimalism may not become enthusiastic converts, but they'll almost certainly end up taking the show more seriously than they expected. (As on earlier occasions, the Power Plant is showing objects that demand lengthy contemplation -- but, for some odd reason, it remains the only gallery in the world with nowhere to sit down. Meditate, say the artists; but the lack of furniture says stride right on through.)

Manuel Pina of Cuba, one of the most interesting and ingenious of the contributors, has made his series of photographs into a sly political metaphor. He's photographed workers' housing projects in Havana, most of them built in the early romantic period of the revolution. He shoots them straight-on, in the manner of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German artists who have inspired a generation.

In Pina's work we at first see only ordinary photographs of ordinary buildings, but there's something odd about them. He's changed the chemical formula for developer fluid to omit the component that gives the image permanence. These pictures begin to fade almost as soon as he prints them. They die as we watch them, and last week, when the show opened, a couple of them were already turning brown. Every day they grow less distinct. By the time Stretch closes on Sept. 1, the frames will look as empty as the promises of Fidel Castro.

Art conceived as temporary, happy with its evanescence, appeals to several Stretch contributors. In Winnipeg, Doug Lewis sought out sidewalks that show various impressions made while the concrete was drying -- the traces of birds and dogs, the print of a running shoe, a clumsily lettered slogan ("I hate cops"), someone's fingers. He seized on these accidental creations, spontaneous gestures frozen in concrete, and made castings from them. Then he made reproductions in a form of gelatine material that looks solid enough but slowly dries and crumbles. His piece, too, will die in the course of the exhibition.

Vik Muniz of Sao Paulo plays with two opposed ideas: The conceptualist notion of art as fleeting on the one hand, and the minimalist ideal of powerful and permanent sculpture on the other. Muniz makes drawings of well-known minimalist art objects (a Richard Serra steel sculpture, for instance), but he draws in dust and the drawings immediately disappear. All that remains of his work is the photograph, which he shows in Stretch.

Stretch also includes art that's familiar in format but no less attractive for that. In a piece called Hiccup, Kelly Mark of Toronto lines up seven video screens, side by side, in each one of which a young woman (Mark herself) sits on the same steps of the same Toronto school building at the same time, day after day. It's the second time I've seen Hiccup (the Winnipeg Art Gallery showed it in 2001) and the second time I've watched it with obsessive interest. The videos are almost exactly the same, so you soon find yourself watching for minute differences. Nothing happens except life; people walk past her, cars and trucks drive in front of her. Mark has developed a way of seeing (call it deadpan intensity) that this piece eloquently embodies.

Half a dozen items spill out of the Power Plant building, onto the lawn and even the roof. Up there, beside the enormous phallic chimney, Fernando Arias of Colombia has contributed a huge banner that says, enigmatically, "I do not want to talk about identity until I get my foreskin back." This, clearly, is one of those cases where the spectator must supply the meaning, in the tradition of conceptual art.

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