Robert Fulford's column about Toronto's Contact photography festival

(The National Post, May 9, 2002)

Of the 134 photography exhibitions spread across Toronto by the Contact festival through May, one of the most engaging happens also to be the most elusive. It's almost a secret. To see it you first find your way to Bloor Street and Bartlett Avenue, between Dovercourt and Dufferin. Next, you walk north and turn into the second lane on your left, advertised discreetly on a telephone poll by the 2002 Contact poster, displaying a famous Henri Cartier-Bresson photo.

What you find at the next turn won't look like an art gallery because it isn't one. It's a row of standard concrete garages on a standard Old Toronto back alley, which five remarkable women have transformed into a series of art environments called ON Trespassing.

This is the classic Contact experience--taking a nondescript route towards a rich and surprising experience. A cultural phenomenon that's now six years old, Contact doesn't just show photographs for a month or so, it inserts them into unexpected contexts. True, you can see photography in all the standard venues. The Art Gallery of Ontario has William Wegman's photos of his weimaraner, for those who can stand doggy cuteness, as well as Mexican pictures by Reva Brooks. Also, the Harbourfront Centre has an array of photo shows and most private art galleries also offer photography this month. But what gives Contact its unique identity, and helps make it the world's largest photo exhibition, is the way it pops up in unlikely places--college hallways, bars and restaurants, office buildings, the Eaton Centre, a furniture showroom, and, naturally, bookstores.

Steven Evans's Course Studies: Tracking Ontario's Thames, handsome photographs of south-western Ontario geography, will hang on the walls of Ballenford Books on Markham Street (beginning May 16), and John Sebert's medley of hits from a lifetime of superb magazine work is showing just to the south at David Mirvish Books, along with Danielle Schaub's portraits of Canadian writers.

Contact also penetrates Flavelle House, the 1902 mansion that's part of the Faculty of Law on Queen's Park. Julia McArthur has taken over the Rowell Room to show her photos of the female symbol of justice as portrayed, blindfolded and otherwise, in sculpture that decorates courthouses across Canada. That's a perfect marriage of content and setting. The same is true for Shawn Jordan's sports photos, including portraits of athletes from Tiger Woods to Vincent Carter, which you'll find at Wayne Gretzky's Restaurant on Blue Jay Way.

The women who created ON Trespassing, a Montreal-Toronto collective called Fresh Air, fit neatly into Contact: Their joint ambition is to move beyond gallery walls and integrate cultural activity into the fabric of ordinary life. Like the curators, dealers and photographers who organize Contact, these artists set out to dissolve boundaries between public spaces dedicated to culture and private spaces where art rarely rears its head.

They use huge photographic prints that seem even larger when confined in small garages, and they want not only to transcend this unusual environment but also to comment on it. As it happens, recent history is on their side. Though the private garage was traditionally just a place to stow the car and maybe install a workbench for home repairs, the last two decades have romanticized this common space and lifted it into the realm of popular art and high finance. A garage band, we now know, can revolutionize music, and a nerd tinkering with a computer in the family garage can end up creating a global corporation.

Janet Bellotto's holographs transform her garage into an imaginary ballroom, complete with crystal chandelier. Isabelle Hayeur's wall-size photos on Plexiglas seem to expand the garage by precisely matching the look of the real wall beside us and the fictional photographic space. Blanca Casas Brullet depicts traces of intimacy appearing in public spaces; her photos, arranged with consummate skill in a slide show that teasingly resembles a narrative, depict odd personal items (a brassiere, shoes, combs, etc.) that she found discarded in cities from Barcelona to Toronto. Martell Linsdell, who calls her piece "Life's Leftovers," recreated her father's garage, which was filled with junk--and also with nostalgia, dreams, and hope. Little bits of conversation lettered on the junk ("of great sentimental value") articulate the affection we feel for abandoned objects we can't bear to discard.

In an enchanted work called Crossover, Lisa Klapstock, who has spent the last four years shooting in downtown Toronto laneways, uses stillphotos to make up a split-screen video. She reproduces the same lane we've just entered, the lane to which we will return in a moment. That adds an extra charge to the tiny drama in her video, and enhances its magical effect. "I am interested," she writes, "in heightening the experience of the laneway and in creating a visceral experience of space and enclosure." And that's just how it works. (ON Trespassing can be seen till May 18, Thursday and Friday from 2 to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.)

Contact operates as the photographic equivalent of the Toronto Film Festival, but without line-ups. Like the film festival, it often exposes us to foreign material we will never see otherwise. At the University of Toronto Art Centre in University College, Northern Spell: Contemporary Finnish Photography, unfolds one delightful surprise after another. Marjaana Kella takes revealing portraits of people under hypnosis who are unable to calculate how they should present themselves on camera. Ola Kolehmainen's skill at emphasizing certain details of construction and design reconfigures a modernist Paris building as a deliriously stylish oriental palace. Jyrki Parantainen's wonderfully staged pieces, collectively called Mystery of Satisfaction, includes one photograph that turns a badly damaged and burnt old painting of a Venetian canal into an intense little drama. Andrei Lajunen (1969-1999), a fine talent who died young, creates what looks at first like a gigantic pile of truck-size shipping containers destroyed by a hurricane; on examination it turns out to be an artfully photographed pile of junked hospital beds. These Finnish photographers, while unfamiliar in specific detail, exhibit a familiar desire: they want us to see, under their direction, fresh values in the commonplace details of life.

And, just like the film festival, Contact turns our attention to individual Canadian artists we might otherwise ignore or take for granted. Cityscape of desire: Toronto at prayer, Michael Swan's exhibit at the Newman Centre for Roman Catholic students on St. George St., turns out to be a small gem. He illustrates the multitude of ways humans approach the divine with 18 photographs, often eloquent and touching, of Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists at prayer. One woman says the rosary while walking her dog. Young Brazilian immigrants, who come together in a movement named Shalom, pray at St. Brigid's Catholic Church in east Toronto, and (Swan says) "don't understand why Canadians seem to want to stay home alone." Sometimes the pictures need explanatory captions: The thoughtful-looking young people standing in a hallway turn out to be volunteers at Sanctuary who make it a habit to pray before preparing meals for street people at Evangelical House. Unfortunately, the space in the Newman Centre undercuts Swan's work with lighting that creates inescapable reflections in the glass over the photos.

In Margaret and I, a show at the Edward Day Gallery in Yorkville, the Montreal photographer Evergon (he uses just one name, like Madonna) exhibits a series of huge nude photographs of his huge 82-year-old mother. Some time ago he took partially nude photos of her, and two years ago she remarked, "You don't photograph me nude anymore." He responded by shooting a series of "nude Margaret" photos, presenting her as a woman of great weight and equally great character. These pictures might once have been shocking, but the forthright and open-hearted paintings of Lucien Freud and others have dissolved whatever feelings of repugnance might have assailed us. Instead, these photos leave us pleased to have met Evergon and his mom.

The must-not-miss one-person show in Contact is surely that of Edward Burtynsky, the shining star of Toronto photography in recent years. The photographs he shows at the Mira Godard Gallery demonstrate the unique talents that have created his international reputation. He discovers remote places where industrial activity and the natural world come together, and he uses those disjunctions to make large colour photos that are often both startling and poetic.

He first became known for majestic shots of stone quarries in Vermont. In recent years, as this show demonstrates, he's photographed shiny metal pipelines snaking through the trees near Cold Lake, Alberta; the vast army of oil pumps that you sometimes glimpse from the highways in California; a salt-mining centre in Rajasthan, India; and an astonishing place near Chittagong, Bangladesh, where ships go to be broken down for scrap and end up looking collectively like a cityscape on another planet.

The message Burtynsky's work delivers could be paraphrased and adopted as the slogan of Contact itself: Look here, I have something amazing to show you, something you've never seen before. Look.

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