by Heather White
I love the term ‘close’ for the kind of weather Toronto’s having these days. It’s been extremely humid here, and ‘close’ gets at how that feels: like the very atmosphere has encroached as a tangible presence. Hovering doggedly all day. That you have to keep moving through to get to anything else. This weather makes visceral the way weather always is, fundamentally: inescapable, intimate. Close. We experience it on a basic and immediate level.
That’s not, typically, the level at which Mercer Union aims its programming; the centre is known for showcasing art that skews cerebral and often demands specialized knowledge of critical theory and art history. Consistent with that tradition, Red Sky at Night doesn’t discuss the weather as a small-talky common denominator of experience, but approaches environment as a mediated phenomenon ripe for formal experimentation. The nine artists shown consider the environment through the human interventions it withstands or inspires: pollution; architecture; interpretation; recreation. With questions about geo-engineering becoming ever less rhetorical and software engineering gearing its efforts towards the storage of all our information in ‘clouds’, the deconstruction resonates.
But there’s a much more striking through-line here than that. There’s a simplicity that connects these works to each other and to the primitiveness that characterizes our relationship with our surroudings. I think the show is best viewed as a series of first stages in so many methodical investigations of the world. Indeed, the successful works all share a conspicuous constraint in controlling their variables. Bruce Nauman excerpts sky into decontexualized pages of colour; Absalon reduces the range of human activities to the gestures afforded by a contrived architectural arrangement; Bernaut Smilde captures a single cloud surviving indoors.
This last sets off a suite of three pieces that makes the show: Smilde’s photograph is followed by a truly gorgeous black and white film of a bubble undulating across a landscape; Heike Baranowksy caps off the exibit with fifty three minutes of white weather balloons floating in an abandoned athletic space. The balloons meander around as the sparest possible invocations of presence; they’re white parcels of air behaving like stand-ins for ghosts. This is keeping it simple, smartly.
Red Sky at Night continues at Mercer Union until July 29.
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