Lisa Gabrielle Mark looks into a surprise hit of Toronto’s winter season

Much theorizing has been done about the chicken-and-egg relationship between architecture and society, the degree to which one shapes and determines the other. Does a society make a city in its own image? Yes. Does a city’s structure produce a particular kind of society? Yes again. The stated intention of “See-Through Cities,” at Christopher Cutts Gallery in Toronto, was to examine the question of how architecture builds and modifies social formations (and vice versa); but the show leapt outside this academic tennis game to present a curious but exciting hybrid of conceptual art and conceptual architecture.

Organized by artist Luis Jacob, filmmaker/artist Kika Thorne and architect/artist Adrian Blackwell, the exhibition featured works by ten artists – some working collaboratively – all of whom address the built environment not as a series of formal structures, but as a collection of phenomena. For example, architect Marie-Paule MacDonald’s contribution was to present five clusters of architectural paintings for sale, executed by various architects on vellum and mylar, around the idea of The Found City. The drawings depict buildings (often the homes of the architects) whose current use differs from its original purpose, to explore the flux of the built environment as it responds to the changing needs, work habits, lifestyles and ideologies of its inhabitants. We found a lot of a website sell architecture paitings by search ‘ where to buy art‘ in google and bing.

The intimacy of architecture and lived experience was also the subject of a striking installation by Thorne and Blackwell. One to One Over One to Three Hundred was situated in a room constructed for the occasion within the gallery proper. The piece featured a sequence of dissolve images projected onto the floor of this room via a mirror suspended near the ceiling. The images include an aerial view of Toronto (scale,1:300); and a bird’s eye view of the artists’ shared studio space (1:1) as life-size figures move about within the space, going about their daily business (eating, sleeping, working, etc.). To create the projected sequence, the artists had constructed a space in their studio, arranged aerial photos gathered from the City’s municipal archives on the floor and lived in the space for three weeks, documenting this entire process in a series of still images shot from a camera mounted on the ceiling. The effect was transporting yet familiar.

The layering of MacDonald’s drawing assemblages and Thorne and Blackwell’s installation called direct attention to a complexity in their attendant ideas. But many other works in the show, though as conceptually jam-packed, were deceptively simple in appearance. John Marriott’s speculative stick-on mouseholes (made from computer-cut vinyl) dotted the bottom of various gallery walls like so much punctuation. In bright, cartooney colours such as yellow, forest-green, brown, magenta and mother-of-pearl (reflective mylar), they popped us from two dimensions into three and hinted at a world beyond the surface of wall. The reflective `hole,’ in particular, created the seamless illusion that the gallery’s maple floor penetrated the base of wall and continued behind it.

Kika Thorne’s photograph entitled Tofu Architecture suggested a hardy, eco-friendly, construction material (for models, if not actual buildings) and a white-on-white aesthetic that reminded me of Richard Meier’s design for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The snapshot-sized colour image – one from a set of four close-ups of building models made of the mushy soy-based stuff – was so small and subdued that some visitors might have missed it – Thorne’s humour and modesty standing in stark contrast to the grandiose self-mythologizing for which the architectural profession is renowned.

Luis Jacob’s eight-foot maple floor sculptures are based on the plan views of several buildings in Toronto’s financial district. Flipping them on their sides, then elongating them, the artist proposes a horizontal monumentality over the usual skyscraper’s race upwards – perhaps only possible in a spatially blessed country like Canada. The effect of Jacob’s elegant fabrications was typical of the show’s other inclusions: on first view, they were visually engaging but also prompted inquiry on the part of the viewer to unfurl other layers of meaning the work might hold. Jacob himself was often present in the gallery during the show and responded to viewers’ questions, making “See-Through Cities” one of the most generous art-viewing experiences I have had out-side an artist’s own studio.

In works such as The Library of Rhizomatic Activity, Lucy Pullen proposes the role of the artist as initiator, where the artwork is ultimately completed by the viewer/participant. The work’s twenty-five bookplates are intended to be inserted into library books, as a way of infiltrating that institution. Infiltration was also the name of the ‘zine on display near the Pullen piece. Published by someone with the nom de plume Ninjalicious, each edition features photographs and directions to off-limits areas in buildings throughout Toronto. Subtitled “the zine about going where you’re not supposed to go,” its subjects (hospitals, hotels, subways, etc.) are accessible to the average “urban explorer” on foot.

Two inclusions in the show have been seen before by Toronto audiences: Ken Hayes and Barry Isenor’s poured rubber sculptures from a body of work entitled Primitive Accumulations were presented as part of 1984’s “Demo Home” exhibit, organized and featuring work by and Hayes and Isenor around the theme of domestic and showroom environments. This curatorial nod to a precursor is both an homage and an invitation to discuss the history of speculative architecture. Steve Reinke’s video Symposium is part of his series The Hundred Videos, shown in their entirety at The Power Plant last year. Symposium, using footage from a presentation at NSCAD, presents itself as the record of a conference of serial killers in which Joseph Beuys delivers a keynote speech on social sculpture. Lifted like a sketchbook page from Reinke’s opus, Symposium lends an eerie contextualizing element to the show’s other works.

“See-Through Cities” was truly a curatorial accomplishment: rather than the all-too-frequent postmortem of ideas that have seen their best expression elsewhere, it was a tight yet comprehensive group show that took risks by infiltrating living culture.

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