Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Last Fish

The Last Fish
Curated by Sarah Abbott
MacKenzie Art Gallery - September 8, 2007 to January 27, 2008

The Last Fish is an exhibition that suggests we consider the importance of planetary resources--chief among these being water--and the sadness of their disappearance. The curator's statement deploys terms like "memorial," "pilgrimage," and "worrisome," briefing (or debriefing) the viewer into a corner. After all, who would be willing to argue that we should dispose of our aquatic resources as quickly as possible?

The exhibition is divided into two chambers: that which we must encounter first, and another behind it. The first chamber is painted white, and contains, we are told, the "creepy, confrontational Aeronast" (by Mark Prent) as its centrepiece. Around the finned-and-straining gymnast made from polyester resin and Fiberglas--a fact to which I'll return later--are a number of other works. Almost exclusively 2-dimensional work, they show scenes of wrecked landscapes, animal death, and--most bizarrely--a colourful scene of people at a picnic.

Passing through this space and entering the darker, blue-hued second chamber, we are confronted with Abbot's "memorial" to the last fish in the form of a display built around Johnny Aculiak's Fish. Again, radiating around the central work are other works which bear tenuous connections to the central work in that they reference water or landscape or nature or plants or the traditions of Aboriginal peoples. The walls are painted blueish-teal and what we might describe as water sounds are piped in, presumably to give us the impression that we are in the last fish's habitat; I admit, however, to having had a hard time suspending my disbelief when I took off my shoes as instructed by the vinyl lettering on the central platforms and felt the synthetic carpet and latex-painted MDF underfoot.

Because this exhibition relies as heavily as it does on emotion, both in its interpretation and seemingly in its curator's methodology, I suspect it might be appropriate to respond emotionally. I find this exhibition unsettling; not because of its message (a dirge to which we have become largely desensitized, as a culture) but because it doesn't seem to practice what it preaches. And it does preach.

Art is disruptive to the environment, as is all human activity... assuming you're willing to adopt the cynical and modernist view that humans are somehow separate from nature and that we have the power to destroy or to fix it (as this exhibition does). Art production uses, makes, and destroys things that don't need to be used/made/destroyed. As artists, we can try to minimize our ecological footprints, but as long as we're rearranging stuff or using energy, we're part of the problem. But there's a range of greys in being part of the problem, which is why the amount of photography in this exhibition surprised me. Film photography materials, processing, and development (as well as those of motion-picture film--what's the old saying about people in celluloid houses?) are incredibly toxic, and it is with an understanding of this that I find the inclusion of Ed Burtynsky's work to be emblematic for the exhibition as a whole--it looks like it's decrying environmental exploitation, when it is, in fact, helping to perpetuate it. In other words, the work, and the exhibition containing it, reject the act of environmental repair in favour of its environmentalist rhetoric.

The same could be said of Prent's sculpture included here, as it is made from caustic and plastic materials, but I remain unconvinced that Prent's work is even about the environment in the first place. His aeronastic character has fins for feet, and as such it seems to me that he is not striving for "capitalistic progress," as the curatorial statement suggests, but rather is compelled or even forced to support himself in one way (with his arms, painfully) because he is incapable of doing so in another. While the language of the pommel-horse may suggest competition, the figure's physiology suggests necessity instead.

There is an argument to be made--not by me, but surely by somebody--that takes into account the recontextualization of Johnny Aculiak's sculpture Fish, which is given central focus in this exhibition. I am insufficiently educated in the original contexts and intentionalities of his work, but I can address the facts of the exhibition itself. The "memorial" to the last fish is constructed in such a way that does not evoke sacred spaces, as the term memorial might imply, but rather those of museological doctrine and the exhibitionary order. The plexiglas vitrine, the low, multi-angle lighting and the processed-wood platforms all suggest this, as does the standard museological labelling (consisting of artist, title, medium, provenance, etc.). It seems as though the display of the work is at odds with the work itself, or even totally supercedes it, and one therefore might wonder whether Abbott is curating here or making her own piece using another. As viewers, we might ask ourselves, "if there were some other representation of fish-ness on the podium--a child's drawing, the word "fish", a plaster koi, etc.--would it change the meaning of the thing significantly?" Upon answering this, we might also wonder whether our answer suggests that the display acts in service of Aculiak's work, or takes advantage of it.


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