Live Culture: Slavs and Tatars at Tanya Bonakdar


Reader, I drank it. A gallery employee filed a copper tumbler with a ladle of thin white liquid topped with an airy foam he especially fished out for me from the metal cart pictured above. This is the last week to visit the exhibition “Slavs and Tatars: After Pasteur” at Tanya Bonakdar gallery, where the artists have installed a bar of drinkable Turkish yogurt in a room of playful sculptural objects (don’t sit on the cots!) lit by pink and green neon. This interview with the collective Slavs and Tatars explains its origins as a reading group in 2006 interested in historical political and cultural threads in the Balkans and Caucuses. From those activities of reading, publishing, and disseminating texts developed the method of artistic presentation for trans-cultural histories on view here: a method that is playful rather than pedantic and associative rather than analytical. At least, this is part of the context for “Afteur Pasteur,” which claims to “challenge our understanding of the self through the unlikely relationship with bacteria and the microbe, the original Other or foreigner.”


On the upper floor of the gallery, the artists show works from two ongoing series among others. Pictured above on the left, the Kitab Kebab series offers books as a “talismanic digestive, a mashup of narratives and texts to be appreciated as much through the gut as the mind.” If it’s not clear from the image, the books have been pierced through with a skewer, brutally violating and connecting texts from different cultures in a mock up of the region’s notably violent history. So, not just a light lunch for a bookworm. Pictured above on the right, colorful plastic plaques riff off of Marcel Broodthaers’ “Poèmes industriels” in form, but do so to compare the inherent power dynamics of languages through semantically off-kilter juxtapositions and one-liners.


With all the value there is to a more playful approach, I wonder who is getting the joke? All the objects in the exhibition are beautifully produced and cleverly described. But the jokes rely on a cross-cultural knowledge of complex regions of the world that are difficult to make sense of, even for the people living there. Thus the original book club, with its research and publications, seems very much missing from this exhibition and very needed.

Constriction and Anxiety: Rashid Johnson at Hauser & Wirth


Rashid Johnson’s large exhibition “Fly Away” takes advantage of monumental spaces of Hauser & Wirth’s gallery on 19th Street where the artist tries to confine broad, unsettled themes of race and distrust to the work of art. Yet their implications seep out, notably in the dramatically different opening and closing rooms of the exhibition. The opening room of black and white images hung on the wall read as overblown inkprints or cartoons at first glance. Between the somber palette, the loose grid, and the orderly arrangement across wide open concrete floors, the effect is stark, even before one gets close enough to reckon with materiality and influence, abjection and horror. In contrast, the final room is devoted to a large black frame installation dominated by plants and the jazz notes of a pianist encased inside the structure, like a living room TV stand run amok under the influence of the the 1970s and the jungle. “Fly Away” feels particularly timely with it’s Afro-centric cultural evocations citing the pressures on the black figure and the black person in the world. As others have noted–including the artist, the missing faces and erasures are poignant and pointed in light of recent events related to police brutality in the United States.


The living plants and live music of Antoine’s Organ (2016) in the last room are almost the elements of a garden party, a contradiction with the serious implications of the installation. The black metal scaffolding contains books, video screens, mounds of shea butter, and plants in ceramic vessels built and decorated by the artist. Details such as copies of the satirical novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty suggest a darker element. The exhibition takes its title from the old hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” which ties into the performances of Antoine Baldwin, also known as Audio BLK. The pianist activates Antoine’s Organ from a perch for upright piano built within. When I visited, Baldwin’s playing was more melancholic than triumphal, avoiding the more transcendent note that the title “Fly Away” might otherwise suggest.

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The underlying limitations and negative significance underscore the stark impact of the first room, where six large-scale panels of white ceramic tile covered with dozens of agitated faces scrawled in black soap and wax. Johnson uses black soap as a paradoxical material: it is a cleansing agent that, especially when applied to white ceramic tile commonly found in bathrooms, resembles shit. Connotations aside, the texture contrasts between shiny ceramic and rich matte soap is elegant. The unhappy sketched faces recall Jean DuBuffet.  I felt there was poignant contrast between the black soap faces with mouths scratched across as if silenced or ravaged and the live notes spilling into the room from the artificial domestic jungle structure. The series builds on previous work called Anxious Men; these are called Anxious Audiences.


In tandem with anxiety, constraint is the tenor of the show, as Johnson highly controls the tools of the trade within the confines of the traditional art surface. His cultural commentary, like his material fascination, is decorative re-presentation, a re-use of signifiers to touch on themes of escape and identity. While there is value in creating a space for reflection, and today’s political context demands just such reflection, it offers no alternative vision of what could be, and the music echoes off the cavernous white walls rather than finding or offering a way out.

Up through October 22 at Hauser & Wirth.


Phone Tag: Interview with Tiziana La Melia

smile even when its bad, chalk pastel on paper, 2016

smile even when its bad, chalk pastel on paper, 2016

Following an introduction from Rachelle Sawatsky, I Skyped with Vancouver-based artist Tiziana La Melia for the latest iteration of Phone Tag. Tiziana is active in both the literary and artistic communities in Vancouver, and her visual artwork often playfully blends narrative and imagery. In this interview, Tiziana describes current projects, how a space or location can affect what she makes, and attempting to balance an ideal working style with the demands of reality.


Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.


Innocent Oyster, water colour and flashe with collage on water-jet cut aluminum, led strip, 27" x 29"

Innocent Oyster, water colour and flashe with collage on water-jet cut aluminum, led strip, 27″ x 29″

LW: “What are you working on now? You mentioned that you have a studio visit later today. What will you show?”

TL: “I will be uncrating these free-standing paravent paintings that I started making last fall when I was at a residency at Parc Saint Léger, in a town called Pougues-les-Eaux. I recently got them back after exhibiting them at The Rooms in St. Johns, Newfoundland, but they don’t feel finished, so I need to look at them again now that I have more space to walk around them and look. I didn’t have room for that before. These works are called Purple Poses and there are three narrative threads, three sisters who are the three fates tickling the moon, a pond covered in algae blooms, and bodies made out of wine spills.

I’ve also been collaborating on the voice over for a film by Courtney Stephens. She’s a filmmaker who runs this screening series called Veggie Cloud in Los Angeles. The film-essay is based on letters from female travelers focused on illness and virtual and real time. I’m planning on going to L.A. in a week or two so we can be together to finish the script. It’s at a point where it is challenging to collaborate from a distance. It is also an excuse to see some art and connect with friends.

The third thing that I’m been preoccupied by is a manuscript for a long poem. I’m not sure what the title is going to be. Either The Eyelash and the Monochrome, or maybe Staring at the Ceiling Seeing D.O.G. It’s a text that I started in 2014 as part of an exhibition at Mercer Union in Toronto also called The Eyelash and The Monochrome. A version of the text is printed on dye sublimation bed spreads, but when I was invited to submit a manuscript to Talon Books this March it felt like the occasion to return to some of the ideas in this work, and to think about scale in writing and the time-based-ness of it, which are really obvious things… But thinking of books more as a form or space and its material though this space began to consume me. It’s not so unlike the script with Courtney, which has me thinking about similar things in terms of the formal and material conditions of working with language and time, and in this instance I am responding to images already shot for the film, and linking it to our research, but also again struck by the sensation of time. Which, with painting I think about sometimes, but in a very different way. More as a still document of time.”

Staring at the ceiling, performance documentation, Contemporary Art Gallery Vancouver, 2016

Staring at the ceiling, performance documentation, Contemporary Art Gallery Vancouver, 2016

LW: “Since you just moved studios, you can unpack this work in a new space now. Was this super-disruptive, or does having a studio matter less because a lot of your practice is writing?”

TL: “It’s been really disruptive. Before this move, I had just reorganized and expanded the space at Model, which also functioned as a gallery and event space. My studio tends to be messy, with layers of activity, storage, gestures…the incidental collision of different modes of working really influences how I think through my work.

Moving to the current space was unplanned. I wasn’t even looking for a new studio. I was going to try working from my garden, because, as you said, with a writing practice I can be more flexible. So I thought: Maybe I’ll work completely outdoors. I’m really lucky to live in a house with a big back yard and a landlord who I’ve become friends with who encourages us to use the space how we like. I was also fantasizing about setting up in the old fruit stand in my parent’s orchard in the Okanagan Valley; it’s about 4 hours from Vancouver. I was recently out there to work for an artist who has a ranch across the lake from where I was raised. Being there this time made me really feel like there was something unique to not being in the city… to experience things like boredom, but also being in tune to hear your own thoughts without the constant interruptions of the city. The ideal way I would want to work is a place that is quiet so I can tune into how I am actually feeling and to what’s happening in the world. Here, I end up absorbing the stress of the city; it is numbing. The last time I was in New York I felt that so dramatically. If you have the choice it seems crucial to try to be in a space conducive to the work you want to do, even thought I’m not sure I know what that is yet.”

burning herb on the four corners, 22" x 33", gesso, aluminum, mugwort, gaouche, on canvas, 2016

burning herb on the four corners, 22″ x 33″, gesso, aluminum, mugwort, gaouche, on canvas, 2016

LW: “Right, this is a question that I like to ask people: Is it more important as an artist to be in a city like Vancouver or L.A. or New York, where it is expensive, big, busy, distracting, or to be in a quieter place and you can focus, but its like–really quiet…?”

TL: “I grew up in a really tiny town, so the city always held this fascination and mystery for me, and also this possibility of reinventing yourself—of forming an identity outside the sort of conservatism of smaller places. For me, that felt like what I wanted to do. It felt more free…. I think I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. Just being in a ranch, where there were other artists and encountering other sorts of livelihoods and animals and plants and flowers and, like, silence… It’s just a total different thing. But also I just had more time; one day felt like four days.”

LW: “It sounds like being outside of a city is your ideal.”

TL: “I mean, I love cities—the access to libraries and museums and public institutions and friends. I used to embrace the constant distraction, as a kind of resource. But I don’t feel like it’s necessarily a good life. I don’t want to submit to that kind of resourcefulness.”

LW: “Do you think you would have had the same opportunities, the same people asking you to submit writings to things, those kinds of connections, if you were in the middle of nowhere?”

TL: “Not if I hadn’t come to the city. They would have been different opportunities and a different life. I wouldn’t have the gained access to certain opportunities or had the same jobs and encounters that lead to things. I was talking to the writer Steffanie Ling yesterday, who had brought up the luxury of staying home if you don’t want to go out. The social aspect of art is a significant aspect to participating as an artist in the city.  But it’s not the only way to be.

When I’m working on a project, I like to work in a continuous way. I don’t like to like socialize much when I’m working on creative projects, so that’s when I was thinking I could go to the Okanagan for stints of time where I have a deadline, and then I could live in the city when I’m doing research or working on things that don’t rely on a studio space. The reality in the city is that it’s hard to be fluid. A day in the studio has so many interruptions. I do contract work, and otherwise have my own schedule, which can be in conflict with the 9 to 5 of the world.”

Who is the boss of my dreams? Dye sublimation on silk, powder coated medical screen 2016

Who is the boss of my dreams?, Dye sublimation on silk, powder coated medical screen, 2016

LW: “Would an ideal day in the studio be working for 8 hours at a time? Do you need that long of a period?”

TL: “Totally, I love having a full 10 hours to lead up to like an hour of something—extraordinarily inefficient. But this doesn’t necessarily mean always working on the thing. When I used to have a studio in my apartment, I’d be tending to things around the house. I like just to be around the materials that I’m working with, but doing other things like reading and writing, making a meal…gardening. Ideally it would be all those things and kind of moving in between them. Ideally the art part is just one of the many things to care for in a day.

I don’t work in the mornings, so that’s why when I’m working on a project I become anti-social. Most people work a 9 to 5, and I tend to start at 5 pm and work until whenever. I start when I do and then I like to keep working as long as I can. I don’t get to do that very often, but that’s how I would like to work.”

LW: “When did you first think of yourself as an artist? And is that a different timeline than when you first thought of yourself as a writer?”

TL: “I don’t remember exactly when I thought of myself as an artist. But I do remember being interested in art at a young age. I must have been 4 or 5 when I became really fascinated by the mimetic aspect of art. I loved… just the sensation of seeing something reproduced. I used to draw a lot when I was a kid, but I never drew particularly well. People would be like “you’re a great drawer” but it was more like because I was drawing all the time. So I was always making things, making videos. I didn’t think of myself as an artist at this time. Because I was so shy, I really had trouble speaking, being ESL might have been part of it, but I remember being this way in Italy too. Making art was a survival strategy, and in school, for example, it was a way to avoid doing a typical report. I would make a video instead. I waited until after high school to pursue it seriously.

When I went Capilano College for studio art, I had the option to take creative writing as my English elective. The course was stimulating but also confused me—in the sense that it made me wonder if I wanted to pursue writing instead. Cap had a strong connection to Simon Fraser University, which is the school I transferred to a few years later. I ended up taking a class with a Canadian poet and critic whose books I had read. He encouraged me to write and this eventually connected me to the Kootenay School of Writing, to writers and publishing.”

Who is the boss of my dreams? (detail) Dye sublimation on silk, powder coated medical screen 2016

Who is the boss of my dreams? (detail), Dye sublimation on silk, powder coated medical screen, 2016

LW: “So this is related to my next question, which is, who has influenced your practice? Presumably writers as well as artists are influences.”

TL: “Ada Smailbegovic is a writer who has influenced my practice. She’s a friend and has a biology and literature background. Conversations with her have probably been the most influential. We met at a coffee shop that I used to work at. Her way of thinking has influenced me.”

LW: “When you say her way of thinking, is there something in particular?”

TL: “Her commitment to constantly trying to describe what you’re feeling. The experience of proprioception and the links between things, of autopoiesis. Her sensitivity to animals and plants was and still is beautiful. She studied moths and fungus and counted seals. Always thinking about how constellations of encounters are forming and transforming you, at a molecular level. And by extension, thinking about how forms produce thoughts and how thoughts produce form.”

LW: “Great. Thank you so much for participating.”

TL: “Thank you.”


No. 5 Orange, oil on linen, 77" x 55", 2016

No. 5 Orange, oil on linen, 77″ x 55″, 2016