When it opened in 1975, Mirabel Airport was the world's largest. Sitting on 400 square kilometres of expropriated farmland northwest of Montreal, it was intended to replace the older Dorval Airport (now Montreal-Trudeau), serving as Canada's eastern gateway.
Instead, the federally helmed project fell into immediate decline, spawning decades of resentment. Proposed highways and rail lines linking Mirabel to Montreal were never built. Traffic flagged as Toronto became the primary nexus for international travel in the region. Kept alive artificially though the 1990s, the airport's last passenger flights took off in 2004.
Nearly 40 years after it opened, the airport's seemingly inevitable downfall provides a hazy backdrop for Montreal artist Philippe Hamelin's exhibition at Platform Centre.
Its history provides Feu Mirabel, a scattershot collection of video, digital animation and photo-based works, with only the most tenuous framework. The airport itself is never pictured, and it's not always clear how one work relates to the next. Tentative connections emerge bit by bit, however, building towards an oblique reflection on manmade structures, systems and the ways they turn against us.
Creating what he calls "bureaucratic camouflage," Hamelin distorts and magnifies an envelope's security pattern to produce Jungle, a section of hallucinatory Xeroxed wallpaper. No longer neatly contained, the ubiquitous concealment device's cross-hatching becomes a gnarled thicket. Fluid and unruly, it spreads to a nearby animation, enveloping an abstract "sculpture" that spins noiselessly, nearly vanishing into its "jungle" backdrop.
In Translation, two prisms careen through empty space. On touching, they complete a kind of circuit, and the projection flashes to a second video of squawking birds in a dome-shaped aviary. Though pointedly enigmatic and awkward, the piece teases at issues of nature and artifice, virtuality and confinement.
Those themes manifest somewhat more directly in Model Life, a goofy piece of ultra-low-budget techno-horror. We encounter the protagonist (played by a willowy young man in understated but obvious drag) transposed via green screen into a crudely 3D-rendered condo, where she explores a live-action meadow using virtual-reality equipment.
Her "model home" soon becomes a nightmarish funhouse as doorways disappear, hallways collapse and rooms expand outwards indefinitely. After a glitched-out meltdown, she re-emerges in the "real life" meadow before vanishing into the woods.
Sounds from the videos ricochet through the gallery, creating unexpected cross-connections between works, and the disorienting effect is one that Hamelin does his best to amplify.
Rather than providing context, for instance, the pieces that refer to Mirabel most directly are as confounding as the others. One video imagines the airport's never-constructed rapid transit line (the "TRRAMM") as a stalactite-vaulted cave.
In another, named for Mirabel mastermind Pierre Trudeau, grey clouds nearly obliterate a black-and-white snapshot (the message becomes clearer once you make out the man flashing his middle finger for the camera). A pair of slide carousels project near-identical vintage headshots taken of Hamelin's father moments before and after shaving his beard. The photos help establish a 1970s ambience (and set up an amusing double-take) but otherwise come out of left field.
The exhibition favours tension over resolution, which can be frustrating. With time and some effort, however, it yields an experimental and highly personal perspective on events poorly remembered outside of Quebec, their lasting impact, root causes and broader implications.
Feu Mirabel closes Saturday.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.