News and entertainment companies, advertisers and politicians regularly engage in choreographed diversion, guiding our attention in some directions rather than others, satisfying certain desires and manufacturing new ones at the expense of other, unaddressed needs.
A Total Spectacle, currently at Atomic Centre, aims to demystify and disrupt the network of influence and misdirection underpinning some of our most cherished diversions -- contemporary art included.
Spectacle is both an exhibition and a piercing satire of exhibitions. Curator Milena Placentile transforms the south Point Douglas alternative space into a pitch-perfect caricature of "blockbuster" museum offerings (complete with ensuite gift shop), highlighting the work of six artists whose works reflect diverse approaches to issues of consumer culture. These range from incisive critique to nihilistic rabble-rousing to paranoid hand-waving and back again. While their effectiveness varies, each demonstrates a refreshing willingness to confront issues (and audiences) head-on.
Governor General's Award-winner and punk-esthetic pioneer Istvan Kantor conducted the exhibition's clamorous "opening ceremony," which incorporated nudity, fake blood, real blood, religious iconography, sneering picket signs, open flames, and the undignified demise of a steel filing cabinet. While "smashing stuff" might be an understandable response to an intractable situation, the performance also illustrated a vulnerability of work reliant on shock: once that shock wears off, once-subversive acts eventually just look silly.
Colombian artist Praba Pilar lampooned the "cult of technology" in a low-budget, largely unscripted "service" of her "Church of Nano Info Bio Cogno" in Atomic's unfinished attic space last week. With the "congregation" directed to engage with Pilar via smartphone and receive anointments of Coca-Cola, the performance offered a coherent, intermittently funny critique of technologically mediated interaction. (Regrettably, a related work echoes an approach to reality common to climate-change deniers and the anti-vaccine crowd, conflating very real issues like sweatshop labour with much more dubious others like the purported health hazards of wireless Internet.)
Joe Johnson's documentary photographs of American mega-churches engage in a subtler and ultimately more provocative interrogation of organized religion's flair for spectacle. Desk, Fort Wayne (IN) gives us a view from a cavernous church auditorium's AV control booth, which pointedly wouldn't look out of place in a cable-news studio or military command centre.
Similarly concerned with "optics," Scott Srli overlays precise architectural diagrams with photographs of police "kettling" (the confinement of demonstrators and passers-by behind chains of riot police, often for hours), illustrating how carefully orchestrated scenes of "order" can seduce us into compliance with and support for the repression of dissent.
A number of works fittingly poach visual tropes from advertising, as in Glen Johnson's trio of fictitious Tim Hortons television spots that skewer the conflation of national and cultural identity with corporate branding. In a pair of monumental photographs, Dayna Danger replaces the nude, oiled, and faceless fashion models of Tom Ford's infamous 2007 magazine campaign with her own body, wedging bottles of dish detergent between her bare breasts and thighs in place of Ford's expensive men's cologne.
Drawing on her background in museum studies, Placentile unites the disparate works with careful staging, supplemental displays and signage, loops of odd and asinine TV footage, the aforementioned gift shop, and an "audio tour," which is actually just a cassette of dancehall artist Sean Paul's insipid theme song for last year's UEFA European Championship. While highlighting artistic challenges to consumer culture, A Total Spectacle never loses sight of art's frequent collusion with it (the not-unforeseeable parallels with the WAG's much-ballyhooed 100 Masters are numerous and overwhelming). It's an un-self-satisfied and all-too-uncommon approach to political art.
(But please, lose the tinfoil hat -- your modem really isn't trying to kill you.)
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.