Exhibition Review: 13 Ways to Summon Ghosts

This afternoon the late July heat forced me out of our apartment, which is hovering somewhere around 30 degrees and refusing to cool down. I decided it was a good time to pay my first visit to the lovely and well air-conditioned Gordon Smith Gallery up the road, where Kim Phillips (of the Contemporary Art Gallery) guest-curated a show this summer called 13 Ways to Summon Ghosts (May 16-Sept 1).

When I walk into the large, high-ceilinged exhibition hall there is a lot to look at, and a lot of noise. Pausing only ten steps in, I hear a guide loudly explaining a piece to some gallery visitors, a speaker behind me playing a indie-pop type song (this is actually part of the exhibition: “The Wages Due Song”, by Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen), and a man’s recorded voice rumbling somewhere in the room in a slight informative drone (spillover noise from the film room of a work by Carol Sawyer).

The somewhat chaotic soundscape is accompanied by its visual equivalent in colour, texture, and medium. The room is organized in pockets of work by the different artists, thirteen in total (as you may have guessed from the name) of varied backgrounds and practices. From my immediate standpoint I can see a large framed drawing to my right, massive hanging watercolours to my left, curious wooden boxes (traditional sifting screens) around me and further into the room, a blur of white and black patterned fabric, two large film screens, and fabric stuffed objects protruding from one wall directly opposite.

 

 

This assault of the senses is curious but not immediately problematic, until I attempt to read the informative and well-worded wall decal describing the show and can barely focus enough to glean the connection between all of these objects and works. Rereading the paragraph again and again (this reminds me of reading myself to sleep at night) I finally grasp something.

In 13 Ways to Summon Ghosts, curator Kim Phillips approaches the idea of “ghosts” broadly, organizing the show around the idea of the “spectral” or that which haunts us. In order to tie together a huge range of artwork in the exhibition, this has expanded to pertain to not just literal ghosts or spirits from the past but to the overarching structures of organization and oppression in society. Though much of the work felt quite personal, I noticed a political edge to Phillip’s choices — many of the artists’ work ties into larger dialogues around colonialism and patriarchy.

Phillips explains, “the work of each of these artists is remarkable because like haunting, it produces ‘a something to be done.'” These ideas are explored further in a beefy 84-page publication complete with a lengthy essay by UBC literary scholar Adam Frank, a foreword by Phillips and some other poetry by artists.

Overall the show is full of intellectually rich and interesting art, though the connection of “haunting” and “the spectral” feels tenuous at times.

Dreams and memory are touched upon by several artists. In Brenda Draney’s imposingly tall watercolours, suspended limbs and faces float in scores of white space, as if brought forward by the memory. In Cindy Mochizuki’s installation 105 Chrysanthemums, dozens of coloured porcelain flowers (splayed like anemones) are suspended delicately from the ceiling with string, reimagined from a dream shared by the artist’s grandmother.

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105 Chrysanthemums, Cindy Mochizuki

Carol Sawyer’s kaleidoscopic and somewhat dizzying film Visitations uses footage from the artist’s dismantling of her late father’s home office, a scene full of tiny objects such as plastic boxes, wooden beads, and magnifying glasses. Sawyer’s sliced and mirrored moving images have a strangely imaginative effect, yet feel washed by the sadness associated with such a task.

When I emerge from the film room at the far end of the exhibition, Vanessa Kwan’s large sculpture “Leaving the Body Behind” in my periphery makes me jump. I laugh to myself that I am so easily spooked…

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Leaving the Body Behind, Vanessa Kwan

On the more political end is work by Abbas Akhavan, Tanya Lukin Linklater, and Jin-me Yoon. In Horse Hair Question 1 and 2 Linklater’s large archaeological sifting screens are particularly provocative, raising questions around cultural excavation and the role of the gallery or museum. In Jin-me Yoon’s film Other Hauntings: A Geography Beloved (Dance) a South Korean woman maps the geography of a cherished region on her body, as the image of a woman mirroring her movements fades in and out of view (an eerie ghost hovering over her left shoulder).

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Other Hauntings, A Geography of the Beloved (Dance), Jin-me Yoon

Though some works stood out more than others, ultimately what tied 13 Ways to Summon Ghosts together (and most frustratingly) was the very first observation I had: noise. Throughout my experience of the exhibition, the sounds and view of other works constantly disrupted my viewing of any single one, blurring them together in a chaotic and sometimes confusing way. In this sense, I was haunted not only by the concepts investigated by each artist, but by the other works that needled for my attention as I strove to engage with any individual one.