Astral Bodies

Review May 30, 2017

By Evan Pavka

“Body” is an unconfined term, referring to the personalskin and boneand the celestialstars and orbiting planets. The word also signals the individualmy bodywhile referring to the collectivea political body. At Mercer Union the exhibition Astral Bodies, comprised of works by Shary Boyle, Shuvinai Ashoona, Karen Azoulay, Pamela Norrish, and Spring Hurlbut, questioned the possibility of a body beyond this.

Within the exhibition, which was curated by York Lethbridge, the physical, celestial and transcendental became entangled and inhabitable. No where is this more clear than in Shary Boyle’s God’s Eye (2015)—a small porcelain boy standing in for the Greek Titan Atlas while bowing under the weight of a metallic globe. The mirror-like orb distorts and reflects the surrounding gallery, placed intentionally off centre to increase the strangeness of the incomplete images on its surface.

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God’s Eye (2015) by Shary Boyle. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

Pamela Norrish’s Outfit for the Afterlife (2010-2015), an intricately beaded replica of the artist’s studio attire, is a similar kind of eye embedded with bodily traces. The half a million beads recall the labour corresponding to their form while a hole on the right knee and signs of wear on the left, signal a body’s presence. However, this absence offers a space to inhabit, dwell momentarily in, and observe. The body becomes a kind of eye or a privileged point of reflection, one that looks out at the space around it and the intricacies of its own form.

Though the astral body is shaped and reshaped, the material body, too, negotiates between transience and permanence, eternity and finality. Spring Hurlbut’s video Sum Fong (2008-2016) records her interactions with cremated remains—at once suggesting their previous form while the residual vapour dances into the blackness resembling stars, galaxies and nebulas. The grey hue of Mercer Union’s walls further suggested a similar kind of bounded condition, caught amidst the luminous volumes of the white cube and the blackness of the night sky. 

While seemingly absent, physical bodies are inescapable within each work. In a coy game of appearances, bodies are reflected in surfaces, hidden within materials, and concealed just beyond the extents of images like the imagined figures behind the floating hands in Karen Azoulay’s The Astronomer’s Mime (2011).  

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Installation view of drawings by Shuvinai Ashoona. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

Most explicit in Shuvinai Ashoona’s show-stealing drawings depicting multiple earth-like worlds—entangled with schools of fish, caught between combating monsters, and emerging from bodily orifices—these works refuse to place a transcendental body separate from the individual. They reveal bodies—personal, celestial, individual and collective—at once metaphorical, spiritual, and interior yet inescapably tangible, material and exterior. Their worlds exists within and without, linked in vast and irreducible ways, bound to the mathematical harmony of orbiting masses and the imperfection of what walks their surfaces.

Astral Bodies exhibited at Mercer Union from November 25, 2016 – February 4, 2017 in Toronto, ON.

All images by Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of Mercer Union.