Artist, festival disappointed as artwork removed
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A local artist has been left in the dark by a festival designed to illuminate.
When the inaugural Lights on the Exchange — Allumez le Quartier festival kicked off on Saturday, Reza Rezaï’s installation at 441 Main St. was nowhere to be seen.
His neon art piece, entitled Contra, was set to be displayed in a window above the threshold of the former nightclub for two months. It was removed, without warning, by the building’s owners less than 48 hours after it was installed.
“The work is essentially being censored or silenced because of the building owners thinking it’s controversial,” Rezaï said on Monday afternoon.
In a phone call with the Free Press, Gil Rossong, owner of the historic bank building, declined to comment on the situation or his reasons for removing the art piece.
Rezaï, an Iranian-Canadian artist, created Contra in 2019. The artwork is a play on song lyrics by the band Vampire Weekend and a reference to the Iran-Contra Affair, which saw the United States facilitating secret arms deals with Iran in the 1980s and funding rebel groups in Nicaragua with the proceeds. The glowing art piece features the words “I think you’re a Contra,” horizontally in blue and “Iran,” vertically in red.
For Rezaï, the work is commentary on the way western governments have operated in the Middle East. He was also hopeful the piece would help draw attention to the civil uprising currently unfolding in Iran.
“How is a historical fact controversial?” he said. “The past informs the present. And to deny that, to remove that, it removes us from truly understanding how we need to be and how we need to do better.”
Neither the artist, nor the festival was informed that Contra was being removed.
“We’re very frustrated and we find it very disappointing,” said Artspace executive director Eric Plamondon, who recruited artists and venues for the festival hosted by the Exchange District BIZ. “I’m also trying to be respectful of the fact that… it is the decision of the business owner to no longer host the art.”
Rezaï was onsite and met with Rossong when the piece was placed last Wednesday. Since its removal, the artist says he has been left out of conversations between the festival and building owner to resolve the issue — something Rezaï sees as disrespectful and a missed opportunity for education.
“I’m completely in the dark,” he says, adding that the artwork hasn’t yet been returned to him. “I’m quite disheartened by the festival itself and how they’ve governed themselves.”
Plamondon says festival organizers explained the backstory of the piece based on an artist statement Rezaï had written, but were unable to reach an agreement with the owners of 441 Main. The festival is currently seeking another venue for Contra.
“We are the curators of the art, so we take responsibility,” he says. “We still stand behind both Reza as an artist, and his piece.”
All of the artists involved in Lights on the Exchange have signed contracts and are being compensated for use of their work. The event had an “oral understanding” with Rossong and doesn’t have formal contracts with most other venues due to the site-specific nature of each installation. Plamondon acknowledged there have been concerns from other businesses about the content of some of the window displays or projections.
Rezaï hopes festival organizers will rethink how they engage with artists and venues going forward.
“There’s been a lack of foresight,” he says. “I don’t really understand why they weren’t able to think things through fully to prevent a scenario like this.”
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Monday, January 23, 2023 10:05 PM CST: Updates photo