SBC Galerie D’art Contemporain
“Does the Oyster Sleep?”
April 30-July 9, 2016
Approaching SBC Galerie d’art Contemporain, words of love in French echoed softly through the halls. Upon entering the gallery, I was struck first by a video of a person kissing a wall with intent tenderness in closeup. A large projection the dim city streets of Paris, clearly older footage, filled the back wall. Then I noticed to my right, images of a war-torn country in the Middle East. Initially, this juxtaposition was discordant, confusing. Yet this first impression also set the stage for the proposition of the exhibition. Sitting down to listen and watch brought me deeper into the experience and revealed a sensitively curated exhibition layer by layer.
Does the Oyster Sleep? raises questions of the relationship between love and activism, intimacy and community, self and other, and the complex ways in which we engage in the world. The evocatively titled exhibition takes its cue from a passage in Clarice Lispector’s Àgua Viga, with a lemon-juice dripped oyster representing “anxiety and transcendence”. Lispector says “I don’t like when they drip lemon upon my depths and make me contort all over. Are the facts of life like the oyster? Does the oyster sleep?” The implication thus seems to be that the “facts of life” such as the state of the world, politics and the difficulties of interpersonal relationships are the juice dripped on us which causes us to wake, contort, and tear ourselves free, and then experience union with the other, part of the cycle of life.
The first video in this exhibition was From Beirut with Love (2005) by Waël Noureddine of Lebanon. We are confronted by images of Beirut suffering the consequences of civil war, soldiers with guns on the street and vigilantly watching the populace from buildings riddled with holes from mortar shells. We hear a constant buzzing and see the blank and exhausted faces of the populace, shown silent and in intimate groupings, facing the camera. We encounter militia with concealed handguns and their families. Young men squeeze fresh lemon juice into spoons filled with heroin, then shoot up. The lemon echoes the subject of the exhibition. Is heroin that which wakes these men, or what puts them back to sleep, to journey to a world less painful and dangerous?
We encounter another silent film in Un Chant d’amour (2004) by Silvia Gruner of Mexico. The title and action take their theme from Jean Genet’s groundbreaking bold film—the only one he ever produced—which deals with frustrated homoerotic desire as well as surveillance and interference by authority, and also the erotic domination by said power. Gruner’s piece focuses on the seminal scene of Genet’s film, where one prisoner passes smoke through a wall to the object of his desire with help of a straw. The Genet scene is intensely erotic and full of powerful longing and passion. Gruner’s piece is more tender and subtle, yet also deals with issues of gender, as the roles flip among three partners, two men and a woman, in this film, gender is hard to identify and seem to be irrelevant. Tender, ardent kisses are pressed to the wall, and mouths approach the straw, accepting hot, white smoke. It is a worthy homage to Genet’s powerful piece.
Sophie Bissonnette’s documentary work, A Wives’ Tale (1980) is what one encounters next on this journey, a film which recognizes the role of the wives of miners in an historic strike in Sudbury, Ontario in 1978-1979. They organized and raised money while their husbands were on strike, thus acting as the backbone of the effort, enabling them to support their families and gain their demands. Labour of love.
The short film by Marguerite Duras, Les Mains negatives (1979) was a treat. I admired her writing when I encountered it for the first time in university and was pleased to find it again here. The blueish street scenes brought to mind being alone in a taxi, gently, then fiercely longing, feeling a stranger in a city teeming with people about to wake. The words resounded and repeated with great tenderness that transcended the personal and extended to all who would listen. The title of the poem, and the film, Les Mains negative, originates from the prints of hands painted on cave walls many thousands of years ago. Hearing Duras’ speak her poem in French was something special and the rhythm and subtlety of her words in French cannot be duplicated in translation.
“Je suis celui qui appelle
Je suis celui qui appelait qui criait il y a trente
Je crie que je veux t’aimer, je t’aime
J’aimerai quiconque entendra que je crie”
The feeling is transformed from lonely longing for personal love, the stranger in a strange land, to an intimate yet “indefinite” love for all of humanity, which embraces the lover as well, who becomes pure love.
The next piece, proceeding counter-clockwise around the gallery, was the award-winning The Future My Love (2012), the first feature film by the fast-rising artist and filmmaker Maja Borg of Sweden. The film was a mixture of aesthetically interesting scenes of Borg musing on the difficulties of a romantic relationship alternating with documentary style interviews and scenes with now 100 year-old Jacques Fresco, explaining his Venus Project, an incredibly ambitious and poignantly concerned enterprise in which he built model ideal structures on 22 acres for a burgeoning populace which he saw coming to a scarcity crisis. The public blends smoothly with the private with Borg’s voice-overs as her train of thought is influenced by Fresco’s ideas and her travels. Issues of freedom and responsibility come up in both streams. The idea of doing away with money by doing away with scarcity with the help of machines kept arising both with Fresco and a group he was associated with for a time, Technocracy.
Borg began her journey to understand the politics of her estranged lover, who appears as a statuesque and idealistic woman in black, a shadow in her hijab, which she erotically removes, taking her hair down when she comes into a private space. Borg says: “You demand nothing and all is yours.” Then: “Look at the wars. If we could do so much damage, we could do so much good. And I thought to myself, if you could bestow me such pain imagine what pleasures you could cause me.”
Interestingly, Fresco does not object to machines or computers, on the contrary, he believes we need more of them, as well as more education in order to reach our full potential. Fresco: “Many people don’t entertain dreams because they only earn minimum wage. They can’t afford dreams.”
Of the Borg scenes, the most memorable to me was Borg in a wedding dress contrasting sharply with her black-clad lover, both women veiled, in a lover’s embrace. We have a love affair with capitalism, a bad relationship we just can’t quit, an addiction, a folie à deux, is the implication as we cut back and forth to Borg’s musings. “These institutions also exist inside me” we hear the artist say, and this film, a sort of waking dream, ends as Borg moves forward with her life, divorcing her lover in her mind, while Fresco closes his Venus Project headquarters due to lack of funds.
Passing into a nook of the gallery towards the last film, I encountered the muted colours and smooth lines of an anonymous coastal town, viewed through the eyes of Sara Eliassen in A Blank Slate (2014), which has been played extensively at film festivals around the world. The artist also seems to be a stranger in a new town, nearly deserted, or returning to her hometown perhaps. She watches the life that goes on there but barely interacts. She voyeuristically puts herself into the conversations of others; when a man approaches a girl in a café, she answers for the girl in her head, and then two well-dressed and furred older women critique her performance on video as she looks on with them in a postmodern twist. She arranges and rearranges her things in a sparsely furnished hotel room, looking at a carnival across the street. Later she enters the quiet place of diversion, and as she is raised to the top of the ride, it pauses and she watches a man in her hotel room, then sees herself, roughly taken by the stranger. Fantasies of intimacy and the longing for contact and connection resonate through this work, in an engagingly experimental, haunting style.
The aim of this exhibition was to present the role of Eros in politics today, politics being broad in scope from world affairs to personal, me vs. you, self vs. other, at two poles. Eros is what brings together what is perceived to be opposite, finding the points where they meet, and discovering the symbiotic relationship inherent.