When artist Lani Maestro first walked through Vancouver's Downtown Eastside three years ago, she was shocked by the neighbourhood's poverty, racial strife, homelessness, prostitution and drug abuse.
No pain like this body, the title of a raw 1972 novel by a Trinidadian immigrant to Toronto named Harold Sonny Ladoo, suddenly came to her mind.
Maestro, an immigrant from Manila, Philippines, knew she had to address the suffering of the Downtown Eastside in the installation she'd be creating for Centre A, a gallery in the heart of the troubled area.
"My work always tries to have a conversation with where it's going," she says. "It embraces and talks to its context."
Maestro, 54, designed two red neon signs that cry in stark text: NO PAIN LIKE THIS BODY and NO BODY LIKE THIS PAIN.
Installed on a sage-green wall, the signs were plugged in 24 hours a day and were visible from the street. Inside, during gallery hours, visitors could sit down and quietly contemplate them.
Evocative of nighttime advertising in seedy downtowns, of blood throbbing through veins, of tattoos, of electrical torture, of spirituals like Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (the second phrase can be read as starting "Nobody"), the signs are deliberately poetic, meant to have a visceral and emotional impact rather than an intellectual one. Their scarlet reflection in the concrete floor suggests a stain.
They're part of the site-specific exhibition Maestro created last year for Centre A, called her rain. The show, newly expanded in response to its Winnipeg exhibition space, is on view until Jan. 8 at Plug In, the free gallery at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard.
The soft-spoken Maestro came to Canada at age 25. She lived here for about 20 years before moving to France, where she is now based. A former instructor at Montreal's Concordia University and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, she has a background in book design and is interested in text-based art, poetry, language, translation and "non-translation."
She has exhibited internationally, from China, Japan and Korea to Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Spain and Cuba.
Her works are often so minimalist, the artist says, that what first strikes the viewer are emptiness, silence and the architectural space. "People come in and say, 'Where's the artwork?' I play with minimalism. It encourages the importance of the viewer. It speaks about your presence."
Maestro says she likes nothing better than for ordinary people to engage with her work. No Pain Like This Body can be seen by passersby through Plug In's windows facing The Bay.
The show her rain includes two other installations. A new one titled she laughs has two elements. In one, the seated viewer meditatively watches a monitor on which three un-translated Tagalog syllables eventually appear. In the other, which uses looped animation, a four-word poem briefly projected high on a wall breaks up into letters that go sliding down like rain or teardrops.
The effect is that language is inadequate to capture experiences, and that, as Maestro says, printed words often seem to betray human tragedies by reducing them, making them surreal.
Many immigrants to Canada have experienced war, extreme poverty and catastrophes such as typhoons and earthquakes, she notes.
There are hints of such disasters, as well as race-based experiences, sexism and urban pain, in the show's fourth element, brenda console, named in memory of a Downtown Eastside homeless woman. Consisting of six video monitors that continuously show fleeting text phrases, it's installed in the entryway at Plug In and can be seen from the sidewalk.
The phrases that slip by include "you look fantastic underneath that veil," "when the earth trembles in China it gets here a few breaths later" and "you have been crying all night and your purse is all wet with tears."
"Who is the speaking voice?" Maestro asks. "What is our relationship to whoever is speaking?"
In Vancouver, the same text was projected on a window facing gritty Hastings street.
A number of times, Maestro saw lone women taking it in, their faces full of emotion. And one night, a woman soaked in the rain peered in at the searing neon of No Pain Like This Body and spoke the words as she read them.
Plug In ICA
To Jan. 8