Harder Better Faster
Galerie Trois Points
11 June-20 August 2016
Marie-Christine Dubé and John Boyle-Singfield, curators of the exhibition Harder, Better, Faster at Galerie Trois Points, set out to create a myth which “reinforces the empowerment of women’s identities,” an ambitious aim that it achieved very well. As I made my way through the exhibition I wondered if this show did what it set out to do, or whether it simply, but fascinatingly, reflected the status quo. The first impression on entering the gallery was one of paradox; the sleek polish contrasting with the gritty and the rough. We are inducted into a realm of “projected images” which explore the representation of the self and the other through a primarily feminist lens, delving into the complex issues of gender and cultural identity.
The first encounter is with a video installation of young Montreal new media artist, Mégane Voghell, a piece called How to Remove a Lady from its Flesh. The video is projected on a board surrounded by a yellow rectangle which appears to be spray painted on the wall. Jutting out from the video presentation is a simple table decorated with various photos of other simple tables of its kind, some with happy and sad faces made up of crustaceans. The video is a non-linear collage of influences and impressions, itself seeming to question the oppressive implications of female self-representation in our society; images which range from a girl plastering on concealer, her image viewed only through a tablet computer to another woman draining a huge blister, a picture-within-a-picture surrounded by blurred faces and forms. Virtual reality collides with the camouflaged dimensions that we create for ourselves and are inundated with continuously. A woman’s world is a flood of images, expectations and ideals we are supposed to live up to. A nude pregnant woman sits in a bathtub outside while a toddler runs around, and she separates from a drawn image of herself, which seems to be a Photoshop filter. Digitally-created red hair forms a towering figure with a pornstar’s body. Similar to a computer game visitors can select from faces without hair and hair without faces, which can be selected and chosen at will to represent the self. Meanwhile words like “short memories and unsharp masks” flash on the screen. A yellow square follows a raw young woman’s practised smiles which belie the anxiety in her eyes: “Shy and daring at the same time.” This fragmented, repellant yet fascinating piece successfully subverts narrative expectations and usual space, bringing you into an alternate reality. It is quite a mature presentation especially for one of Voghell’s age, and it will be very interesting to see what she produces in the future.
Next are Stéphanie De Couto Costa’s three lovely stone lithographs, each showing a woman in a state of transformation, suspended in a void of white. De Couto Costa is a second generation immigrant artist who uses feelings of cultural dissonance to retell and thwart fairy tales in works on paper inspired by feminist writing and poetry. She says her series The Bitch and the Blond is “inspired by vanity portraits and the works of women storytellers.” Notions of transformation and duality wrestle with sensually-charged portraits, women caught in a morphological state, half-this and half-that. Road Kill shows a woman crawling seductively on all fours, howling from her wolf-head, her body bearing a shroud like a skin. Mimesis shows a raven-woman, head on backwards, back facing us. Which side is front? From which side of ourselves do we express and perceive? A long veil or train of feather-cloth trails down her front. Clothing, to De Couto Costa, seems to act not only as a decorative, protective layer but a psychologically protective one as well and a signifier of identity in transformation. Mother’s Ghosts is not an anthropomorphic transformation, rather it seems as if a tribal costume is in a state of becoming, or is perhaps overtaking the woman. Roots creep in, the figure is headless as she disintegrate into petals or into the earth, a state of disappearance. Feathers, braids and textures cluster in chaotic but elegant profusion and make me think of the disconnect many of us feel from our heritage, and particularly of the pain that must be felt by indigenous peoples. De Couto Costa works in multiples in her process-oriented printmaking practise, and seems to meditate upon ideas of replication—of story, identity and of people themselves, continuously birthed and passing on knowledge and problems.
Olga Chagaoutdinova, native to Russia, but educated in Montreal at Concordia, is a talented conceptual photographer who captures lives in countries caught in the awkward in-between state between communism and capitalism, Russia and Cuba specifically. This series of photographs of female prison inmates are intimate portraits taken after long discussions with each inmate. At first glance, it isn’t apparent that they are prisoners, as they are allowed to wear normal clothes, and their prison badges aren’t glaringly obvious; they simply look worn out by life, possibly former drug users. Knowing that the photographs were taken after what must have been an emotional interview adds poignancy and humanity to the grid-like portraits, which in their intimacy, also reveal the walls and defenses in their visage.
Montreal artist Dominique Sirois’ installation, Mimesis Trinyty, a conceptual space set in a fictional world of finance, is a video on a screen of a digital woman with a certain likeness to Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction, reciting a computer generated text which combines the writings of André Orléan and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Round, dark pillows scatter the floor and there is a leaking of boundaries of sound and matter around the gallery as oddly-shaped sculptures are scattered sparingly from room to room and the bland computer voice echoes soft words in French. Nub-shaped polystyrene sculptures with the appearance of concrete are piled on top of each other, forming lines of replication with a few tiny indeterminate objects resting on them. A small workout weight rests on an amorphous sculpture. The wall behind the video is papered with black and white simplified women’s faces, another nod to replication and feminine identity. Sirois frequently works with ideas of finance, and this installation is no exception. This financial world opens with a desk, the seat of power of a company perhaps, and the text speaks of muscular training. Merged with Madame Bovary, one cannot help but think of the role of women as property throughout the ages, their lives of increasing free agency and their current role in the financial world. We gain more power and “muscle”, but what have we got ourselves into? A complex world where we must flex our power even more dramatically to keep up. Harder, better and faster. The interpretation is left open and curious, which is part of what makes the piece a success. The virtual reality/alternate reality presented here is a reflection of our own world, another quantum possibility. There is a sense of being trapped, as Bovary was, by her finances and need to spend to fill a void.
Olivia McGilchrist is a photographer and video artist of Franco-Jamaican origin, whose work has largely dealt with post-colonial white identity in a predominantly black culture, and her sense of marginalization. She often takes this challenging subject for her lovely portraits, and her street nickname “Whitey” has formed what has become a recurrent character in her work, the artist appearing in a white mask. McGilchrist considers whiteness to be a mental construct as much as a physical one. This immersive video installation, From Many Sides, is a departure from that theme, a side step, and it seems the artist has dealt with her issues of being an outsider for now, here merging myth very successfully in a beautiful piece. We encounter the River Mumma, or river mother/mermaid figure, a black woman swimming in the ocean, wearing a white mask—but she isn’t Whitey. The white-masked black figure also occurs in the Jamaican folk dance, Jankunu, so McGilchrist is exploring not only her personal identity but a cultural and mythical one as well. In this installation, lucid colours and multiple tracks blend from one to the other, with a soft, dreamy soundtrack of birds, whispers and lapping waves. We feel connection rather than dislocation. We see girls walking down an overgrown road, a family gathering at a grotto, a girl in white shorts gathering water with crockery in a river. We feel the thick haze of colour and lush emotional states. Crashing waves, pure beauty, a magical invocation on a primordial, sleepy island. It is an overwhelmingly lovely mosaic of overlaying ripples, forms and reflections. The pervasive sense of place gives you a feeling of the power of nature upon the culture. McGilchrist deals with collective and intimate memory and as well as identity in a postcolonial landscape very effectively here.
The finely curated works in Harder, Better, Faster serve to question and illuminate the often dark and oppressive spheres of influence, self-censorship and self-representation—mirrored in those processes by the other or the powers that be— as well as the passing on of ideas, of mimesis, of cultural connection and disconnection.