In his 1966 essay ‘Entropy And The New Monuments’, Robert Smithson describes an architectural imagination that is fixated on the present. ‘New Monuments Forget the Future’ returns to the text with a meditative exhibition studying the changing cityscape. The centrepiece, Luis Jacob’s ‘The BILTS’ (1997) is an anti-representational installation of Toronto’s most iconic skyscrapers. Resembling industrial girders in a nude lacquer, each piece takes the flattened footprint of one building. Jacob extends these to equal lengths, highlighting a two-dimensional space that is rarely reason for comment. And placed diagonally flat, they serve a crucial purpose: the obelisks lose their domination of space, and have a destabilising effect on the viewer.
Equally disquieting, but tucked around a corner, Eva Kolcze’s film ‘All That is Solid’ (2014) fills the gallery with an otherworldly soundtrack of humming, buzzing and whirring. Shot on black and white 16mm film, brutalist architecture is subject first to the sweeping and rolling gaze of the camera – which fails to penetrate the depths of concrete – then to a caustic process of film degradation. Robarts Library, the University of Toronto Scarborough campus and the Ross Building at York University, built in the 1960s and 70s, stand impassive, archetypes of another era. Then, solid structure dissolves, revealing grey depths of blood vessels and capillaries and skin cells, which erupt, collapse and explode. There’s an interesting dynamic between the texture of the original celluloid and the digital grain revealed in transfer to HD: it’s a play between destructive tendencies, old and new, then and now. Grain and deterioration also recur in James Nizam’s photographic series ‘Dwellings’ (2006), which depict both the inside of crumbling apartments and their ragged view of the outside world: buildings framed by their own dissolution. Each is lit patchily by torchlight: one shows empty suitcases and squatters’ detritus, in another a window is smashed, a wall gapes. Through these portals, new tower blocks glow in streetlight, revealing a future-past and an inevitability.
If film and photography compel nostalgia, the paintings in the exhibition release something else. Howard Lonn’s richly-textured squeegeed canvases hold the room with nefarious sweeps of colour and darkness and imply an overpainting; a patched-up, imperfect erasure. Kaleidoscope structures poise over bodies of water, ready to tumble and dissolve. They feel perfectly unfinished, a botch job, a construction not yet complete. In Richard Storms’ ‘Curtain Wall’ (2015), the interiors of new apartments are rendered abstractly in flesh tones and thin brow lines, emphasising surface and facade, foundations digging at foundations. Renée Van Halm’s grid-like paintings layer skeletons of buildings and scaffolding over each other, referencing industrial colour cues and hoarding ads with toothpaste green, kingfisher blue and salmon pink. The painted works bring vibrancy to the show, but more importantly, a sense of the unsettled city, like seeing floodlit cranes on the skyline at night.
In Toronto, like so many cities of the global north, ‘Condos’ is the word on everyone’s lips. They feature daily in newspapers and recur in conversation: artists fear being priced out of city housing; a major venue is forced to relocate to the outskirts; a couple in a cafe prepare to view their next apartment. While Dean Baldwin’s exhibition at MOCCA, the final one before the developers move in, makes a raucous statement with politicised irreverence, ‘New Monuments Forget the Future’ takes a more contemplative approach. Here we find a timely, but dispassionate response to the rapidly-changing architecture of the city. Taking the long view – sometimes quite literally – artists address the potential worlds constructed by today’s planning decisions with a reminder that time alters materials, buildings are repurposed and concrete might melt into air.