Wish You Were Here / review by Bart Gazzola

Wish You Were Here: 23 Days at Sea
Review by Bart Gazzola for The Sound STC
December 2016

Many artworks employ an aesthetic of experience: intending to communicate the understanding of an event or occurrence that the artist has undergone / endured, or alternately that is worthy of recounting in a space of examination and consideration, like a collaborative act of remembrance. The current show at the Niagara Artists Centre, Chapter 1: Twenty-Three Days at Sea, is of that ilk.

The four artists that occupy the gallery space (Nour Bishouty, Christopher Boyne, Elisa Ferrari and Amaara Raheem) have a starting point that’s communal, but each brings their own understanding and history to this unique residency project. “Time stands still in travel” and thus we have slim vignettes of multiple intersecting experiences. Sometimes they overlap, and sometimes not.

Twenty-Three is a unique project. Its relevant not just for considering how a cultural space can continue to foster creativity amid the madness of late capitalist frenzies of Vancouver real estate. Access Gallery in that city is the genesis of not solely this exhibition, but several “chapters” to come.

It also disrupts assumptions about “place.” In the Canadian “narrative”, place taints everything conceptually. In the post colonial / post modernist / post factual world, it’s yet another means by which we de / construct experience…

The descriptor: “In December 2014, Access Gallery….issued a call for…a highly unconventional artist residency, offering selected emergent and experimental artists passage aboard cargo ships sailing from Vancouver to Shanghai. Crossing the Pacific Ocean takes approximately twenty-three days, during which time artists will be considered “in residence” aboard the vessel…two candidates [would] inaugurate this multi-year project by setting sail in late summer 2015. [What] we had initiated was not simply an artist residency, but a powerful framework through which to address the complexity of our contemporary condition. The cargo ship — sailing across a vast and “empty” space of the sea, nearly always invisible to those on shore and yet inextricably threaded through all our lives — seemed to offer a near bottomless container for the imagination, for narrative and for cultural critique.”

The gallery is divided foursquare with the artists’ respective works separated (almost like a map). Boyne’s delightful installation Geneva, immediately to your left as you enter the Showroom space, mirrors a far table of photographs (gloves are provided for your perusal of the stacks of  glossy, large prints) and objects, immersed in an overpowering, almost unpleasant audio fog, at the far end of the room, from Ferrari. Her works is Untitled (“To stay in the hold of the ship, despite my fantasies of flight”).

Boyne’s work has a guileless quality. Partly because his many “ships” and “nautical” objects, like a child’s field of toy soldiers, have a playful nature that invites handling. There’s a simplicity, a starkness, to Geneva (wood, paint, brass) that evokes a long trip across a vast expanse, the isolation and loneliness of this, the emptiness and the understandable joy when you recognize a fellow traveller, in another ship, that passes you on the waters. Some of the “ships” are delicate and detailed, others are rough facsimiles of “boat”, like with any act of travel or movement that is so vastly abstract that we need to incorporate it into our imagination to understand it. Colour is sparse here (blocks of orange, cones of dark blue) as most of the pieces are beige with a touch of detail, some easily fitting in your hand. Others are tiny and could be lost on the floor, like a drop in a wider ocean.

This minutiae, this construction of meaning through repetitions of small “pieces” (a visual diary) connects to the personal narratives of Amaara Raheem, from lists of items (titled Time, Body, Things) or her soft, watery video (titled submerged) that seems as self reflective as it is oddly ambiguous (is it swimming or drowning? Leaving or arriving, or simply in an interstitial space in between?).

The video projections of Nour Bishouty also engage in first person narratives, tales told. Her inkjet prints from the series Shifting Surfaces, however, are more immediately engaging: the monochromatic images are vague and abstracted, but lovely in their delicate white frames.
These are all “practices defined by a perceptible and sustained state of “seeking” bodies of work produced in response to their voyages, along with published reproductions of their logbooks kept while at sea.” These are interesting enough to peruse separate from the exhibition, or to skim before / after the gallery space.

The excessive, almost aurilly abusive pulse of noise in the back of the gallery, in Ferrari’s work, is an honest replication of her experience. It has the veracity of repeated violence: perhaps in that respect its most successful in small doses, and like much audio art, plays with pushing the comfort of the “listener,” but regrettably I’ve little desire to sift the images or handle the objects on the table while I also gain a headache.

Twenty-Three is an interesting response to an immediate reality: whether the displacement of cultural spaces in Vancouver, or a site that is often “outside” artistic consideration (Mandy Barber, a U.K. based artist once produced an entire series about “public spaces that are owned by no one”, and many of these were / are spaces of travelling). But as the first “chapter”, I look forward to future work produced through these residencies that evoke more interest and engagement.

<< This review first appeared in The Sound STC >>