Sunday, October 23, 2011

Walk Along Harbourfront

There was something extra to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend - three glorious days of Indian summer with sunshine and temperatures in the mid to high twenties!  We took advantage of it with a walk along the Harbourfront, starting from Bathurst St and walking east.  

We wanted to revisit Ireland Park, which is at the foot of Bathurst Street by the lake.  It holds beautifully soulful sculptures that are a memorial for the victims of the Irish famine (1845-1851).  Unfortunately the park is closed due to city construction until Spring 2012.

Next on the agenda was Canoe Landing Park, so named for the large red canoe overlooking the Gardiner Expressway that was designed by Canadian artist Douglas Coupland.

A second sculpture designed by Coupland in the same park
forms a "forest" of giant brightly coloured fishing bobs.  His concept for the park is to celebrate Canadiana with iconic Canadian images.  The park also includes a beaver dam sculpture and a path named after Terry Fox.

Continuing east is the Toronto Music Garden which is supposed to be landscaped to interpret Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major with each movement represented by a different section of the gardenThroughout the spring and summer, concerts are held on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons beneath a beautiful gazebo in the middle of the park. Guided tours are held on Wednesdays and Thursdays afternoons.

One of the main purposes of being at Harbourfront is enjoying the beautiful views of the skyline and watching the motor boats and even tall ships bobbing on the water. At Harbourfront Centre, you can rent canoes, kayaks, large Indian canoes that hold multiple people, sailboats and even powerboats ranging from small 13ft 25HP models (no experience required but go really fast) to 20ft 150HP ones.

We spotted some unusual water crafts including this boat named "Shark Attack" with the painted shark face on the bow.  We watched a man standing upright and paddling at a pretty fast clip on what looked like a surf board, and marveled at the balance he must have needed to keep from tipping over.

Recently some innovative man-made attractions have been added to spice up the waterfront.  A series of "wave decks" or undulating boardwalks currently spanning from Spadina Ave to Rees St., add interest to the stroll along the harbour.  The most dramatically sloping one is at Simcoe Avenue where kids like to use it as a slide.  The "beach" in HTO Park just east of Spadina gives the feeling of being on a real beach, with its bright yellow umbrellas and soft sand.  However the Gardiner Expressway in the background and the fear of going anywhere near the water of Lake Ontario tempers the illusion.

The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery was a hub of activity.  Outside was a comical sculpture of a Natrel 2% milk carton on stilts.  Even more amusing were the people in rental canoes paddling around in less than 2 inches of water but fully protected in life jackets.  There was a photography exhibit along the boardwalk depicting various beautiful locations in Ontario including the Badlands in Caledon.  Inside the building were more art displays and artist studios where you could watch people make pottery and other crafts.

The Queen's Quay Terminal hosts shops and boutiques, a theatre, restaurants, and the Museum of Inuit Art which contains an impressive collection representing the history of Inuit Art throughout Canada.  It was too nice a day to be inside to see it on this trip, but it is definitely worth a visit.  If you go during Doors Open in May, they give an excellent informative tour of the collection.  During the good weather months, the Harbourfront is always abuzz with activity including concerts and festivals.  Several years ago for Luminato, a big red rubber ball was "wedged in plain site" at various Toronto public locations such as under this bridge at the Harbourfront.  So you never know what you will see when you show up here.

We intended to extend our walk all the way to Jarvis St to see new man-made beaches and condo complexes to the east, but we were too tired by the time we made to Yonge St.  On the trip back to the subway, we caught one more sight of interest, a seemingly whimsical sculpture called "Immigrant Family" by Tom Otterness.  From afar you notice the cartoon-like circular happy faces but on closer inspection you notice more details like the foreign apparel worn by the parents and the old fashioned suit cases that have an Eastern European feel.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

AGO - Russian Propaganda Posters and More

We went to the AGO for the member's preview of their new exhibit "Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde".  It was made to sound like we would get a private exclusive showing before the general public, implying we would have easier access and beat the crowds.  Lesson learned - there are a plethora of AGO members and we couldn't get anywhere near the paintings.. so we'll take our chances another time with the general public. Instead, we roamed the gallery viewing less advertised exhibits and had a grand time.

Enroute to the Chagall exhibit were wall hangings by Inuit artist Irene Avaalasqiaq (I've always wondered why there are so many a's in Inuit names).  Her quilts display whimsical images and titles including one called "Tarzan and Jane on TV with Interference", possibly inspired by a real life experience?

One of our favourite exhibits was "Constructing Utopia" showing in the Walter Trier Gallery.  It was a collection of  Russian propaganda books and posters from revolutionary Russia (1910-1940).   Many of the posters were drawn with black and red ink since these were most easily accessible during the years of war and austerity.  Major themes of the posters dealt with labour, industry and education. Translated slogans touted propaganda statements such as "Only Russian Rule leads the masses to light and education" and "Peasant Women, read your newspapers!".   Visual propaganda was directed at the less educated lower class through strong heroic images of industry workers, revolutionary soldiers and party members.

Russian artist Kazimir Malevich's cartoonish images drawn during WWI,  depict farmers and village people triumphing over German soldiers.  The intent was obviously to spur on the common folk to acts of patriotism, similar to the American Uncle Sam posters from the same time period.

The most striking and iconic poster in the exhibit is the one by Adolf Strakhov marking the death of Lenin in 1924.  It shows Lenin dressed in bright revolutionary red, standing in front of factories that symbolize the desire for progress and industry.  His stance and the trucks of armed civilians in the background conveyed the following message -  An armed revolution under the leadership of Lenin would spur the Russian people to move forward toward industrial progress and prosperity.

An interesting corollary to the theme of factories, industry and progress arose in the next exhibit "Songs of the Future: Canadian Industrial Photos".  There was a fascinating video interview with photographer George Hunt who described how public opinion on his photos of billowing smokestacks seemingly changed overnight.  What was initially seen as positive advertising for a booming, thriving economy  suddenly become taboo once the environmentalists took their stance.  Suddenly companies no longer wanted their factories or buildings portrayed in this fashion as they were now painted as greedy corporate sharks who didn't care about the planet.

The Grange Prize for Photography is awarded for the best in contemporary photography from Canada and a partnering international country which rotates each year.  Two Canadian photographers and two from the partnering country are selected for the shortlist, from which the public can place votes to select the winner.  This year the country is India.

The photos from all four photographers were vibrant and interesting so it was difficult to choose.  The work from the two Indian photographers (Nandini Valli and Gauri Gill) seemed foreign and exotic as they gave insight into life in India.  Elaine Stocki from Manitoba displays photos related to race and class in North America.  Althea  Thauberger from Vancouver has an eclectic group of photos, but the ones that stand out are her shots of women soldiers in Afghanistan.  It was jarring to see photos of women who looked like every day housewives decked out in military gear and holding huge guns.

The Isadore and Rosalie Sharp Gallery on the first floor was featuring a set of Toulouse Lautrec and 1960s Rock and Roll posters that were a recent donation from a New York collector.  The juxtaposition of art from such different eras made for interesting viewing.

The exhibit "From Renaissance to Rodin" represented an even greater collection of donated art from benefactors Joey and Toby Tannenbaum.  An entire gallery was filled with huge Renaissance paintings and sculptures, including one called "Expulsion of the Money-Changers" and highlighted by Bernini's amazing marble bust of Pope Gregory XV. A vivacious Joey Tannenbaum recorded a video describing how he came across the sculpture in an auction.  It was only "attributed to Bernini" and therefore was selling at a very reasonable price.  Somehow he knew instinctively that it was a real Bernini and instructed his agent to buy it under the agent's name, so as not to attract attention.

Another story he told was about how he acquired the two magnificent Rodin sculptures called "Burghers of Calais" which are currently on display in the Walker's Court.  He talks about how he was first brought on a school trip to the Art Gallery of Toronto (as it was then called) at age 8 and fell in love at first sight with a Rodin sculpture.  He claims that he vowed he would have one of his own one day, and fulfilled this promise by donating two to the AGO.  It is inspiring to imagine the maturity and foresight of this little boy to recognize the beauty of a Rodin at that age!

These particular sculptures depict a heart-wrenching time in history.  During the Hundred Years War in 1347, King Edward III occupied the French port of Calais and was starving its people with a blockade.  He offered to spare the inhabitants if the leaders of the town would offer themselves up for surrender and execution.  The two statues give tribute to two of the heroic men who sacrificed themselves for their people - Eustache de Saint Pierre & Andrieux d'Andres.  I found a fascinating article about the sculptures at this link.

So although we did not get to see the blockbuster Chagall show we headed out for, a trip to the AGO is never wasted and we ended up experiencing a slue of diverse exhibits. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Theatre: Private Lives at Royal Alexandra Theatre

Noel Coward's 3 act play "Private Lives"  revolves around divorced couple Elyot and Amanda who meet by chance in the South of France, while honeymooning in adjacent suites, each with a new mate.  Realizing they still love each other, they ditch their respective spouses (Sybil and Victor) and run off to Paris together.

After several days of bliss, problems ensue when they fall back into old habits, allowing incessant sniping. insecurities and petty jealousies to escalate into full blown fights.  Several times they attempt to quell the brewing argument by invoking the pre-arranged phrase "Solomon Issacs", later shortened to "Sollocks" as as signal to stop all discussions until both sides cool down.  This pair epitomizes the saying "Can't live with them .. Can't live without them". 

Canadians Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross are excellent in the lead roles, both showing great comedic timing and physicality.  Kim Cattrall has already been widely lauded for her portrayal of Amanda, which she originated in a London run of the show.  She is beautiful, sexy, sophisticated and intelligent, yet shows a vulnerability under her mask of haughty bravado.  Paul Gross was a bit of an unknown but more than rose to the challenge. As Elyot, he is handsome, debonair, roguishly charming and hides his insecurities with an air of glib flippancy and nonchalance.  Their British accents come and go, but they are so likeable that it doesn't matter.

The lavish set representing the Paris apartment where Amanda and Elyot flee to is so beautifully decorated that it becomes distracting.  It had an art deco feel to it in terms of wall ornaments and patterns and featured a giant round bed on center stage, a covered piano, a pair of chaise lounges that would come into play in the third act, and a very unique goldfish bowl that results in a sight gag.  I found I was spending so much time looking at the details of the room through my binoculars that I was missing the action.

Considering the play was written in the 1930s, Amanda is a particularly strong, sensual, aggressive female character who is more than a match in the verbal sparring matches with Elyot.  The topics of some of these tiffs reflect the social mores of that era.  Elyot finds it promiscuous and gauche that Amanda had other liaisons after their divorce while it was perfectly acceptable for him as a man to do so.

And the fact that he has hit her more than once is treated very lightly with quips like "Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs" and "I didn't hit you very hard".  It's interesting that the physical violence that they inflict on each other is written to be slapstick-ish humour, with her breaking a record over his head and he slapping her across the face.  But in current day sensibilities regarding domestic violence, there is a double standard where his actions were seen as vile and only hers were considered funny.

One major deviation and anachronism that this staging of the play makes is in the setting for the second.  Noel Coward set his action and dialogue to take place chastely at a dining table whereas the main set piece of this play is the circular bed on which Elyot and Amanda romp and then fight.

The dialogue that Noel Coward writes results in quick repartee between the former spouses.  The warning signs are there as the conversation slowly turns from loving banter to slights and insults.  Its like watching a train rushing towards a cliff without being able to stop it.  At the height of their most vicious battle, Sybil (so named just so Coward could include the joke "Don't quibble, Sybil") and Victor arrive to confront them, making a bad situation worse.

The two new spouses are clearly no match for the originals.  Victor is stuffy and boring while Sybil is a frivolous lightweight.  There is a huge laugh when Elyot tries to escape the awkward situation and when asked where he was going, Paul Gross answers "Canada".  One would think that he threw in that line as a self referential joke, but it was actually as written in Noel Coward's play.   Coward uses his trademark ending (which he has used in at least 2 other plays) by having Amanda and Elyot quietly sneak out of the room as Victor and Sybil end up in their own knock-down drag-out brawl.

This is a very enjoyable play which will hopefully do well when it travels to Broadway after its Toronto run.  It will be playing at Royal Alexandra Theatre until the end of October.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mount Pleasant Cemetery - William Barker Monument

It may seem strange to say that a cemetery is one of our favourite locations for biking or taking a stroll, but this is not your typical cemetery.  Spanning from Yonge St to Bayview Avenue just north of St. Clair Ave, Mount Pleasant Cemetery has miles of flat paved roads interweaving tombs and graves, and is known for its vast and varied collection of trees.  From cherry blossoms and magnolias in the spring to magnificent fall colours in the autumn, a tour through the cemetery is a visual delight.

One of my favourite areas in the cemetery is the Garden of Remembrance which provides a setting of natural beauty to for cremation burials.  With features named "Pool of Reflection", "Eternal Gardens", "River of Memories", "Gateway of Hope", "Forest of Remembrance", this seems like such a peaceful final resting place and a comforting setting for loved ones to visit.

I love sculptures and there are no shortage of them in the cemetery.  It is like a treasure hunt to ride our bikes around to spot interesting ones.  While angels and religious images are common, there are also more personal sculptures.  One tire magnate has a large tire as his tombstone while another grave has a golf ball as the centerpiece, giving insight into the former passion of the deceased.

Steve Stavros' tomb is an entire resume of his career.  At the top is a huge statue of Alexander the Great, a metaphor for Steve who was also Macedonian?  Around the tomb, there are plaques representing Knob Hill Farms, Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, and his prize race horse amongst others.

Canadian dynasties such as Eaton and Massey have their own massive mausoleums.  The resting place for the Eaton family is guarded by bronze lions while the beautiful Massey family (think Massey Hall) crypt has a turret and gorgeous stained glass inside.

There are many other notable people buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery including former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, pianist Glenn Gould, doctors Banting and Best, Alexander Muir who wrote "The Maple Leaf Forever".  There are historic tours of the cemetery that take you around to the famous sites.  We took one a while back that was led by historian Mike Filey.  Unfortunately he spent alot of the walk trying to market his latest book.

In September 2011, William Barker, one of Canada's most famous war heroes was finally given a prominent monument marking his resting place.  Barker was the most decorated Canadian war hero, who won the Victoria Cross in WWI for single-handedly attacking 60 German aircraft and shooting down 5.   The monument which sits in front of the mausoleum where he is buried consists of a bronzed replica of the propeller of a 1918 Sopwith Snipe, the type of plane Barker flew.  Inside the mausoleum where Barker is iterred in his wife's family crypt, another plaque marks his resting spot.  Inside the crypt is proudly displayed the Canadian flag and a black and white photo of Barker with his plane.   It was heartwarming to see our national hero finally get the permanent public tribute that he deserves.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Nuit Blanche 2011

Our impression of Nuit Blanche this year was that the exhibits were not as exciting and innovative as previous years, probably due to the recession resulting in less funding.  At the same time, the growing awareness and popularity of Nuit Blanche over the years has made it more and more crowded, with long lineups and lengthy waits to see the more sought-after installations.  With limited time and energy on a very cold night, we chose to passively view more exhibits rather than wait in line to participate in a few choice ones.

In retrospect this might have been a mistake as it made us feel less connected to the whole experience.  However we still had fun wandering around the downtown core that was abuzz with energy.  From what we saw, there were some highlights:

"The Tie-Break" reenacted shot for shot the 18-16 tiebreaker in the 4th set of the 1981 Wimbledon finals between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe which is now considered a sports classic.  It was amazing how much the two actors looked like the real athletes, especially dressed in whites on the court.

This was a very interesting concept and a valiant attempt.  Having since watched the real match on YouTube, I think the Nuit Blanche performance would have been more exciting if they had recreated the spirited commentary from one of the sports channels that reported the tie-breaker  at the time.

 "City Mouse" provided poignant reminders of how the office towers in the Financial district once was home to forests and wildlife.  Stuffed replicas of a racoon, wolf, black bear and hawk each have the body area hollowed out to show an office scene where office workers are dressed in suits and ties, but sport the heads of the animal encasing them.  Sound clips of crickets intermixed with keyboard typing further accentuate the contrast between the former natural environment and the cosmopolitan urban life that has replaced it.

Scotiabank's "Fluxe" exhibit allowed participants to use their fingers to draw images with one of 9 pre-designed patterns chosen from a touch screen.  The results were broadcast on a 100' x 33' LED screen attached to the Scotia Plaza.  The lineups were huge to take part in this, but it was still thrilling to watch the beautiful visuals light up the display.

"Hello Dolly" was another installation which would have been fun to take part in if it hadn't been for the 45 minute wait.  All night long, a camera was pushed around a circular dolly track while participants get a whole 2 minutes of fame (rather than the proverbial 15 seconds).  The filming of whatever actions they choose to take in those 2 minutes are broadcast on nearby wall for all passersby to see.  We watched several people perform modern dance or mime moves while one woman sat on the stool and rummaged through her purse for about a minute before taking out a compact and applying her makeup.

We saw a bunch of cheesy exhibits whose descriptions were far loftier than they turned out to be.  One was "Who's going to Run this Town" which was supposed to "reference existentialist moments of power struggle in speculative popular culture."  What we got were some Mad Max Road Warrior-esque photos hung on the Scotia Plaza.  We actually stared at the photos for a few minutes assuming something would move or change or do something, since that couldn't be it!  Another was "Infra" which advertised "wolves represented as pure energy, which metaphorically refers to the wolves' primal instinctive states".  We walked up to the static looking plastic wolves and were not impressed.

One of the best things we saw at Nuit Blanche was not an exhibit at all but the location that hosted the exhibit.  We went to visit "Je T'aime Alouette" which simulated what it might have felt like to be on the Alouette satellite.

This was hosted in the Design Exchange and for the first time, we got to see its second floor where we found exquisite examples of Art Deco decor including a stunning chandelier, door and bannister.  This turned out to be one of the highlights of our night, and based on the number of people taking photos of these features, we were not the only ones who thought so.

Regretfully we missed some really interesting exhibits which required long lineups to even get close to the action.  One was Intensity, where you line up to get into  a "luxury condo presentation centre".  Once inside, you are asked to stick your head through a hole where you end up as a part of "tent city", highlighting the vast gap between the rich and poor in Toronto.

Another was "Ride the Rocket" which transformed a Streetcar into a surrealistic ride through the use of video animation, sound effects and lively tour descriptions by the "TTC driver".  This had been high on our list of things to see but sadly, the lineup was over an hour by the time we got there.  I watched a video someone posted of what the experience was like and it seemed extremely cool!

I miss the early years where you could just waltz up to a Nuit Blanche project any time through the night and take part in it.  Next year, we're going to change our strategy.  Instead of planning a route to try to maximize what we can see in an evening (equivalent to one of those bus vacations where you visit 11 countries in 9 days), we will make sure we start at the most promising ones, before the huge lineups form.  And maybe we'll take the time to actually wait for a few more exhibits so that we can feel more engaged and at one with the art. 

Thursday, October 06, 2011

AGO - General Idea Haute Culture

The AGO is showing a retrospective on the work of the trio of artists who called themselves "General Idea".  The three gay male Canadian artists (Felix Partz, AA Bronson and Jorge Zontal) were popular in the 1970-80s when they banded together to produce "conceptual art", where the ideas conveyed by the art were more important than the esthetics of the actual works themselves.   Their art forms spanned multiple mediums, ranging from photographs, paintings, sculptures, TV and videos, performance art.  They spurned individual fame and recognition for artistic merit, staying together as a collective until Felix and Jorge died of AIDs related illnesses in 1994.

The three of them are featured prominently in their work, either by physically including their images into photographic art, or symbolically representing themselves as trios of various forms, including one of their most iconic metaphors of themselves - the stereotypical gay man's dog - the poodle. Some of their most infamous poodle paintings are part of the Mondo Cane Kuma Sutra series showing 3 brightly coloured poodles in various states of erotic menage-a-trois sexual positions.

Their works spoofed the current culture of the times and often took familiar works of art and put their own spin on it.   I was quite fascinating with researching the sources of inspiration for some of their more famous pieces.

Their "XXX Blue" shows 3 large blue X's rendered using stuffed white poodles dipped in a familiar looking blue paint.  This is a direct reference to French artist Yves Klein, who was known for using the colour "International Klein Blue" in his paintings.  He covered nude models with this paint and had them roll around on canvas to create new works of art.   One of his performances is actually shown on YouTube.

Yves Klein's performance art influenced some of the video shenanigans of the General Idea, such as their deliberately offensively titled TV broadcast "Shut the F*** Up", which was commissioned for viewing in more liberally accepting Europe.  This broadcast used iconic images such as 1960s clips of Batman and Joker and Broadcast TV test tubes to examine the power of mass media and its relationship with the artist.

According to the writeup in the AGO exhibit, their subversive 1979 "Nazi Milk" photograph was actually based on the 1919 work "L.H.O.O.Q" where French French artist Marcel Duchamp drew a goatee and mustache on the Mona Lisa.  The contradiction of the provocatively named photo which shows a Hitler-esque mustache on a sweet faced boy holding the wholesome glass of milk achieves the shock value that they were probably going for.  Its interesting that the 1984 "Got Milk" ads which bear such a remarkable similarity to Nazi Milk are influenced by it than the other way around.

For a few years, General Idea published a magazine named FILE which was a parody and even an anagram of LIFE magazine.  Spoofing mainstream culture, celebrity and art, and providing an early medium for providing a point of view for the Gay Lesbian communities, FILE was, in the words of AA Bronson, "An alternative to Alternative Press".  When LIFE sued them for copyright infringement, they turned FILE into Art Metropole magazine.

In the later years of their career, the focus of their art become more serious as General Idea strived to destigmatize the word AIDS, as the crises became more prominent both socially and personally for this group.  Again twisting a well known image for their own purpose, they created their "AIDS" installation as a direct tribute to Robert Indiana's famous work "Love".

Their series of AZT photos and sculptures use the HIV-battling pills to personify the AIDS disease.  An entire room is devoted to an installation containing rows of small AZT pills mounted on a wall (said to represent a year's dosage) and several large capsules on the ground that the tour guide interpreted as being the size of a coffin or sarcophagus.  These works really bring home the sombering reality that this disease imposed on its sufferers.

It was very enlightening to see this exhibit and learn what this group was all about.  To coin a cliché,  I now have the general idea about General Idea.  It makes me sad to think about how this group's innovativeness, brazen creativity and wicked sense of humour was cut short by AIDS,  how they possibly could still be alive if they were born even a decade later, and how lonely AA Bronson must have felt to be left behind alone.