The Sobey Art Award exhibition of finalists is currently on show at Halifax’s Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Awarded to a Canadian artist under 40, the prestigious award and exhibition comes with a first prize of $50,000. As Canada’s most lucrative prize for young artists, finalists have in the past included a solid mixture of internationally established names such as Terence Koh and David Altmejd (a winner in 2009), as well as emerging artists.The prize is awarded based on the work for which each artist has been nominated rather than the work on show in the Award exhibition. Thus the exhibition itself functions less as a competitive venue, and more as a survey of the best that the young Canadian art world is making.
The shortlist this year makes for a strong exhibition, though it would benefit from a larger space. While exhibitions of this nature make no claim to expand on a common theme, each of the artists has taken the viewer deep into some sort of alternate reality: subcultures; cultural marginalization; mental illness; and a suburban fantasy realm.
Best known for her modified photographs, Sarah Anne Johnson’s ‘Hospital Hallway’ is a compelling series of videos mounted on the walls of an octagonal enclosure. Drawing on the experience of Johnson’s grandmother – one of the unwitting subjects of Project MKUltra – the work takes us into the anxious, confined headspace of someone suffering from a mental illness.
Walking through the enclosure’s narrow hallway, we see Johnson on screen after screen, in a similar corridor. The videos show Johnson, in a wig and mask, struggling against her environment. In one instance she drags herself down a passageway; in other screens she bangs her hands against the wall. The effect of these videos running simultaneously becomes unnerving: the sounds you hear aren’t in sync with the image in front of you and the angle from which Johnson is shot varies, creating a feeling of disorientation, even dizziness – it’s work that is best understood through the body. Despite offering her body on screen after screen in a frenzy of movement, the artist, paradoxically, remains elusive – her facial expressions obscured by the mask. Whichever screen you can see there is always more of Johnson that’s just out of view.
Lisa Lipton’s work is characterised by an almost mystical exploration of mainstream pop culture. ‘Greysville’ takes the viewer on a kind of suburban dream quest, hovering between a blue-lit installation at one end of the room, and a video projected onto the opposite wall, mirroring it. The workbench and tool wall anchoring the installation are surrounded with every day objects, many of which are delicately worked with beads and glitter, giving them an almost shamanic quality that contrasts with their pop culture references – a beaded yellow happy face on the cut end of a log, and wooden stir sticks bearing phrases such as “In your eyes” are highlights.
The video, ‘Northern Lights’, features characters who, like Lipton’s transcendental objects, are all at once unsettling, humorous, and endearingly earnest. Their conversation is all Disney platitudes: ‘happy endings are wonderful’; ‘doing the best you can do.’ In work that defies over-analysis, Lipton evokes the urgency and sense of wonder we bring to our own hopes and dreams, banal as they often are.
Abbas Akhavan’s work explores what it is to move about the world when you are a designated outsider, continuing the artist’s exploration of the line that separates what is welcome and what is not. Though its presence in the gallery is subtle, the politics behind it looms large. Taxidermy made from animals killed in a collision with a vehicle or in the case of the birds, by flying into a building, is placed throughout the gallery. While some animals indicated in the project description are readily apparent – like a large white-tailed deer lying on its side between Johnson’s work and Jon Rafman’s – others loom unseen, including the black bear. Occasionally the pieces encroach on the space of other artworks, as if mirroring the unwitting intrusion that led to their death.
Looking at these animals’ lifeless bodies invites reflection on the arbitrary distinctions that underpin civilization. Itself an intrusion on the natural world, the concept of civilization is ironically dependent on its self-declared authority to distinguish outsiders from insiders; the sacred from the profane. ‘Fatigues’ could seem puckish if the world weren’t facing multiple refugee crises; as it is, it’s an unsettling look at these arbitrary distinctions – everything from how we draw borders to what we keep as pets. ‘Fatigues’’ other component undermines these distinctions another way, offering children a series of temporary tattoos designed to ‘disable’ facial recognition surveillance software, one of the more sophisticated systems currently available for keeping the ‘wrong’ people out.
Documenting and extrapolating from online subcultures and virtual worlds, Jon Rafman’s work, ‘New Age Demanded’ includes video, sculpture and an archival pigment prints series, which can also be found online as a photoblog. Taken together the works can be compared to an infrared camera, seeking out warmth in dark places with an impassive gaze – this despite including two bean bag-style seats covered in a collage of what appear to be ‘furries’, in a humorous note that contrasts with otherwise austere tone of Rafman’s work.
Rafman’s video ‘Neon Parallel 1996’ is a non-narrative journey into the future – or at least, the future as we imagined it in 1996. Through excerpts of online conversation typed across grainy aerial footage of a city at night, we understand that ‘Sp1der’ is guiding ‘Ang3l’ towards something, but what? Is this a real life mission, or just a virtual reality exercise? The latter is suggested by intercut shots of a woman wearing what must be an early model of a virtual reality headset, and primitive-looking computer generated imagery of a bar, where a woman dances hypnotically. While the components feel related, it’s hard to be sure. Rafman’s use of tangibly out-dated versions of sophisticated technology speaks of nostalgia for imagined futures, and of technology’s rapid obsolescence. In ‘Neon Parallel 1996’ the future is more an aesthetic experience than it is a place of inevitable arrival.
Raymond Boisjoly’s work draws on his heritage as a Haida and Québecois Canadian artist. Both of these communities exist within Canada with a sense of their own inherent nationhood, and have experienced marginalization and racism to varying degrees throughout Canada’s history as a result.
‘Versions, Versions of…’ is composed of two arrangements of five inkjet prints hung from clips on the wall. The prints themselves depict something blurry – flashes of high saturation RGB colours belying a scrambled TV image. Boisjoly’s work often includes filmic representations of Indigenous culture, distorted and scrambled. Over top of these images are phrases that read like poetic excerpts, or points of meditation: ‘Always further / yet along / changed and / changing paths’; ‘There is no / one way / things are / supposed to / have been.’ The text runs off the inkjet prints onto the wall, sometimes splitting a letter in two, the curled up edges of the inkjet print creating a pause before the letter can finish.
Boisjoly’s work speaks of disruption and miscommunication; but there is focus, too. The text gets interrupted but continues – a clear message emerges among the static. Whether it suggests a way forward or delivers an admonishment is less clear. It’s work that leaves me feeling somehow denied access, frustrated and turned away. Perhaps that’s appropriate.
Abbas Akhavan was announced as the 2015 Sobey Award winner on October 28th.