Sean Sprague is a photographer from Toronto who now lives in Los Angeles. His work—large-scale singular tableau photographs—stage moments he observes in daily life, then recasts and reconstructs. These are spaces of in-betweenness aggrandized. Questions of labour and class drift through his work, tensions between the real and unreal, yet evidence is always withheld, faces turned away, details guarded, while maintaining that everything appears in piercing focus. Sprague, like many of his references and predecessors, is preoccupied with the gaps around truth. In describing his work he states, “Through staging of documentary scenes, these works seek to challenge the authority of the documentary traction in photography and its narrow definition of truth that excludes so much.”
I surprised Zoe Koke at an exhibition of hers in an East Vancouver multipurpose space. She didn’t notice me immediately, so I watched as she remedied an unwanted peekaboo of wood and canvas behind a piece of tapestry that was a part of her installation. Her movements reminded me how long it had been since we last occupied the same place—during a Montreal winter in a repurposed basement that smelled of Dove soap. Her practice became suddenly present and I half-visibly paced between her photographs occupied with thoughts on wellness, the physical materiality of being, and how a practice of writing images embodies resolution but retains layers of distortion. Days after the opening, she and I walked the Boundary Bay shoreline of the Tsawwassen First Nation with our eyes peeled for fragments of shell burnished by the water and sand.
Does air change in a war zone? I mean the nature of air itself—its tactile, sensible qualities. If so, are you able to describe it? Is it denser upon the skin? Does it carry sensation, time?—does it bear a smell? If so, of whom?
There is a moment in a gust of wind that precedes a rumbling stormy sky, when I suddenly feel different. A sudden restlessness comes over me, a sense of longing for a place that does not exist, perhaps buried in the ashes of a village destroyed by merchants seeking to sell human flesh. The electric, tense change in that moment recalls magic to my skin, an embodiment of the magic of the Zabat, a Black woman’s rite of passage. For a moment I feel ancient, powerful, and lonely—as if I’ve forgotten something important and I’m on the verge of remembering it. (1)
“Science does not have a monopoly on empiricism,” historian David Topper once noted, arguing that empirical matters are, in fact, “germane to all visual imagery.” (1) Recognizing the role of visual images in the production of theoretical knowledge means understanding that their value extends beyond mute illustration to their unique capacity for discovering and articulating new information. An elegant case in point is trigonometric parallax—the “gold standard” of geometric measurements—first developed by Hipparchus (190-120 BCE), and still used by today’s astronomers for determining the moving edge of our expanding universe. (2) Whereas distance measures the spatial difference of two points, parallax derives distance through the mediation of a third: observing a distant object while alternating between two lines of sight, one can measure the apparent shift in an object’s location. Read More
Ana Mendieta’s work embodied the complexities of nature, sovereignty, and taking up space. In Libertad, shown at Dazibao in Montréal from September 7 to October 19, 2019, French-Colombian artists Karen Paulina Biswell and Laura Huertas Millán appear alongside Mendieta to examine the sensual and material forces that impact the experiences of women, and the function of freedom for those who pass between being subjects and ‘objects.’ However, to limit this reading of the show within the confines of womanhood and female agency would be incomplete. Weaving through conceptions of home and belonging, and a determination for survival, the artists expose a slippage of race, nation, and gender that is inherent to all identity: concepts unable to be fixed within immovable categories. Together, the works comprise a criticism of the systems of knowledge that justify domination, as well as the essentializing gestures that equate women with nature. Read More
When I moved into my new apartment this past November, I started hanging up the bits of ephemera I’ve collected along the way: a framed, embroidered bouquet of pink flowers, two large nude monochrome prints I made in that one elective at university, and a certificate. It’s printed on thick paper, feeling substantial enough to be of some importance. At the top, in gold text, it reads “The Department of Optimism is Proud to Honour” with my name italicized and underlined, all in red (my favourite colour). It then reads, “In recognition of your helpfulness, selflessness, excitability and meekness. You are a wondrous listener and your soft nature makes all around feel comforted. You’ve been likened to Anna Wintour and Jackie Kennedy. You are graceful.” The certificate is officiated with a gold sticker, embossed with the text, “DEPARTMENT OF OPTIMISM”. There’s a space at the bottom of the document stating who nominated me. It’s anonymous, although there is only one person who would liken me to Jackie Kennedy. I think about them, and the complexities and history of our relationship. I find it strange that they’ve also likened me to Anna Wintour, unsure to feel insulted or complimented, but overall, it’s amusing. After sharing this tender moment with the piece of paper in my hands, I then put it up on the wall next to my degree, and chuckle at their similarity in appearance.
The mid-century modern across the street, now composed, perfectly centered within the window of the storm door, appeared angelic and fantastically distant in its miniature state. (1) Unassuming power poles and trees were mirrored in the wetness of the street, and they seemed to extend forever, piercing the top and bottom of the frame. Paralyzed there, like a moth under glass, the image of the house was a reality unto itself. All power lines and branches led back to its door, its half-open windows. “Thus, in minuscule, a narrow gate, [had] open[ed] up an entire world,” in which details were all that mattered. (2) The silhouette of a radio, a spider plant descending in pairs. This was all I could focus on as I came face to face with the Intruder. Read More
In the Right of Inspection, Jacques Derrida wrote of the medium of photography in these terms: “You could speak of…[a photograph] as of a thinking, as a pensiveness without a voice, whose only voice remains suspended.” I was reminded of this evocative description when I saw Sandra Brewster’s show Blur, on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario from July 24, 2019 to March 29, 2020. The association between Brewster’s work and Derrida’s thinking was brought on by those very final words in the latter’s statement—“…voice [remaining] suspended.” (1) In fact, suspension—or rather what it means to be suspended, to be seen in a seeming state of frozen arrest, both within the frame and, perhaps, beyond it—seems to be an apt way of understanding and talking about the artist’s new work. Read More