29 January 1985 - 23 February 1985
Opening Reception 29 January 1985 8pm
Dislocated Symmetries From A Wilderness Of Mirrors
This photo installation by Toronto artist Michael Balfe is concerned with generating dislocations of context and meaning relative to conventions of representation. Images of our public environment are isolated and reorganised into a segmented body, a fractured crucifix of broken language where syntax is deformed; beginning, middle and end are displaced by top, bottom, left, right and centre. In this installation, the artist attempts to stop-down our perception of the familiar, disrupting the fields of meaning with which we invest images. Consequently, the artist ventures to construct a defamiliarization of the systems of shared codes and symbols we inhabit; of things seen and not looked at.
Michael Balfe was born in Long Beach, California in 1950. In 1968/1969 he attended Fullerton College in California and upon emigrating to Canada, he completed his education at the Ontario College of Art. Since 1976, he has participated in group and solo exhibitions in Chicago, Toronto and the surrounding vicinity. His work is represented in the collections of Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queens University in Kingston, Ontario and Carleton University in Ottawa.
Mercer Union, Toronto
January 29-February 23
Vanguard, May 1985
What if, I am thinking as I write, what if the fearful fragmentation and the shattered mirrorings and echoes were somehow systematic? What if there is a pattern and we are it? The objectively subjective image-repertoire and the subjectively objective language game fabricated together? If these have become possible questions a lot of the material grounds of this speculation (an interesting keyword) have to do with photography and recording. They blend first in sound films, then in broadcast television, and now in videocassette. We are, as Dick Hebdige says, “hiding in the light”, silenced in the soundscapes, bathed/baptised in the blue light of the audio-visual. But an immediate refusal has to be interjected: so much of this firms up as evidence of ‘late’ capitalism forgetting how very specific that relational network is: in the same place that this can be authenticated — out back of that real — is very primitive accumulation, exploitation, and oppression. It’s ‘early’ capitalism for most people in most places most of the time.
Gosh Mercer Union is a cold space. This particular recontextualization of the already contexted photographs installed (another keyword) — Michael Balfe (Dislocated symmetries from a wilderness of minors) and Isaac Applebaum (Man Makes Himself)–hinders what I felt to be their cultural politics (which comprises for me their resources-for meaning and aesthetic strategies). That re/ context works inside the contexts already made content; and it does so loudly because there is the typical minimalism — no notes! no guides! — that fractures and fragments, i.e. supports what “we already know” about photography fields of force and photographs’ willing desire. That is, these are objects of images of objects/people, made artistical. Especially in a gallery you cannot walk in off the street to. The comments book had four pages (29th January to 8th February) with only three additions to the names, two positive and one (the most recent) bluntly negative “Usual shit!” The gallery or the photographs? Well it wasn’t, for me, excremental, but I think I know what the writer meant.
Michael Balfe exhibited (showed, provided, installed, offered, arranged, montaged, made available . . . ) 25 photographs arranged in five cruciform panels of five images each. Each panel was captioned by a metal plate placed on the floor beneath: the two panels to the left as you enter: Mirage and Fool’s Palace; the three on the right: Echo, Signal and Architecture of History.
It took time. These are very objective images, details, fragments of objects. All of them retain both a recognizable form but they make more shown than stated. First because they are photographed–taken and yet made differently meaningful; second, because they are presented in the montaged cruciform five image panels and in the organisation of all five panels (which I imagine should be on three walls of a small gallery room). We have thus, at least, three architectures first approximation): the recognisable objects, their images, and their organisation here as interior decoration (I use the term deliberately, decoration) for these walls five floors up on Adelaide Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in February of 1985. Architecture–the texture of the “great arch” of bourgeois civilisation that encompasses, maps the contemporary world now, and all the past. Architecture — a practice of presentation, not simply to build but to say: invitations and exclusions, welcomes.and refusals (no blacks, no women, no natives . . . ) of regularity and of rule (wipe your feet, wash your hands, remove your hats, gloves, coats, shoes, be announced, be made to feel small, stupid, shuffle forward/ have fun/smile/HAVE A NICE DAY . . . ) Architecture and architectonics: blank and yet shrieking, howling, ordering, regulating. Come feel the noise. So suddenly (second approximation) the fragmentation of the image making and the montage of the meaning making puts a power difference centrally there. Whose are these objects? Who is authorised to build, name, own, use them?
Then, with the noise, I moved between panels, traversing. First between images in different panels, the wrecked cars in Architecture and the transfixed china fragments in Signal; the string of mirrors centring Mirage and the hieroglyphed clay-now-stone in Signal, the differently weathered cliffs in Echo and in Architecture. Second, within the panels: the roller coaster Flyer and the oil/gasoline storage tank both in Fool’s Palace. And third, once more across, the montage of torn posters centring Echo (recognisable in it an announcement for Carl Dreyer’s Passion of loan of Arc) and the Chinese overwriting on the other posters in Architecture.
Then (third approximation) the noise stopped. I realized, I saw (on top of all the looking-work) that I was caught up in the wilderness (a wild and lonely place) and I knew I had been there before. It was the traversing that reminded me: Wim Wenders, Godard, but then recalled their “source”: Nicholas Ray. The objects that stare, coldly. The objects that howl silently, their heads thrown back. The objects that imprison our tongues. Chattering light, sounding streams of dislocation. Any place. No place. Nemo. Omen.
Isaac Applebaum–“Man makes himself” (a sexism we might have hoped to have left far behind ?) installed/exhibited eight portraits from Chinatown, five men and three women; five assorted pages (numbers 18, 27, 33, 36 and 37) from a book of images and captions (in English, Gemlan and Hebrew) of the NSDAP (Nazi) repression and genocide of Jews at Lodz, Oldenburg, Winitz and Belsen; a portrait of an unidentified white male, eyes rolled up, in a vest; image of one (or two) white naked male(s) (portrait and torso) with one three quarter body image; a grainy print marked as Jim Keegstra and a table of four curled and cropped face photographs resting in sand and a book of handwritten (in different hands) extracts of classroom notes from lectures. This book has inside the front cover a reduced version of handwritten notes overlaid with a smaller image “Social Studies, 30 Mr. Keegstra” and inside the back cover a photograph of three men one of whom might be Jim Keegstra. The handwritten notes indicate a persisting anti Semitism (marked out by underlining) with a pervasive ‘thesis’ of world wide conspiracy of Jews. Two entries:
1870s we ourselves Sinn-Fein name of the organisation that Carl [sic] Marx and his followers had/independence for Ireland/the Marxists wanted a workers revolution/1916 German Jews were moving over to Ireland
every gas chamber was 10 cubic metres/only 6 were found in Germany/these gas chambers were used for killing louse which cause typhis [sic]
So, contrastingly, there was no noise/no staring by objects, I heard the screams shudderingly, for I heard the difference. The pain of architecture is not this pain, this pain has a name and it’s called fascism, it’s called–Nazi we tend to forget condenses National Socialism — a certain socialism of the category. A category comes to stand for specific human beings such that they are made objects, things. As things they can be administered. And in the midst of these messages–the portraits from Chinatown? The men? The connection/my connecting? Patriarchal rationality designs the world to fit/confirm its own image of itself. Fascism is one final form of that Power (Hitler’s and Mussolini’s passion for the architectural makes a related point, in my view one that is continuous with all civicness/all of that kind of civilisation!) The naked man is caught up in the fearfulness of the administered architecture of the camps, the Holocaust, and the architectural administration of objectification, objects-as-power. In categorising socially some human beings as objects there is a wild, raging mirroring of the humanism of some objects as cultural repeating-machines (Look at me/building power!). Fabricated he denies fabrication, as the figure in dominance that organises civic humanism–the hand of god in the heart of the city, edification for the perfect city, the city that worships this particular god–he has his imposing architecture.
The camps at ground zero are thus continuities, but with voices, planning, intentions, wills (to annihilate, to survive), of the world of objects Balfe provides. From the shrieking staring to the staring human screaming. The Wilderness. Where we are now. Both photographic installations are thus made to sound, not the resonating affirmation, but the dissonance when (Robbe Grillet) “ideology grinds”. That too, in dark times, is of course an affirmation, gently.
In the floods of light stand still the persona, remembering, overwhelmed by the sounds of homelessness. We’ve lost home, we’ve lost our place, we are wandering. Those who wander die a little, or suddenly get killed. I dedicate this re/view (all ways personally) to all who fought and fight fascism by whatever means necessary. If Zundel is found “innocent”; if the Spadina Expressway gets built, we will all be slightly more silenced, slightly more imposed upon, more and more lost in “A Lonely Place” which we ought to understand as our world, what could be even if it is not yet. One way out, only one but not thereby to be discounted, is precisely the politics of Idling; Staring Back; Timing our words: Sounding sentimental; recognising how and what (and for whom) architecture and objects speak, listening to our implication in the unsaids and the saids of the image repertoire. Fighting any and all fascisms that seek to deny to all what are the capacities of each, differently. Resisting reduction to sameness behind which, grubbily or grandly, some authority will tell us how to live. (February 9th 1985).
Isaac Applebaum and Michael Balfe: photographic installations, at Mercer Union
By John Bentley Mays
Globe and Mail, February 1985
Isaac Applebaum’s work, entitled Man Makes Himself (but which seems to have nothing to do with archeologist V. Gordon Childe’s famous book of that name), comprises a number of loosely related components that add up to a nature, remarkable reflection on the contemporary human condition.
The most riveting elements are two books. One is a folio of photocopied classroom notes taken by students of Alberta school teacher James Keegstra, which Applebaum obtained from the pupils’ families during Keegstra’s much publicised trial for inciting racial hatred. The other is a book of sad photographs, captioned in English, German and Hebrew, taken after the Allied discovery of the Nazi death camps.
The intense, front-page topicality of these books is counterweighted, and the meaning of the show is broadened, by two groups of portrait photographs. One group simply presents Chinese men and women, stolidly and flatly facing Applebaum’s camera. The other group presents nude Caucasian men who appear to have been snapped in the midst of supple theatrical manoeuvres. The contrast between the almost sullen impenetrability of the Chinese faces, and the personable, happy-go-lucky Caucasians is the contrast between displacement and privilege, imprisonment in stereotypes and the freedom to act enjoyed by those who make the stereotypes.
The school kids’ notes are the most loathsome things I have ever seen in an art gallery. The racist poison in them, this show suggests, is present in diluted form even in present-day Toronto; but it has not killed the light of essential dignity that radiates from the portraits of Chinese and Caucasians alike. Applebaum has both handled his difficult material and made his important points with fine restraint and disciplined artistry.
Michael Balfe’s show features five constructions, each of which consists of five large black and white photographs mounted in steel boxes and arranged in a crucifixion pattern.- Underneath each piece, Balfe has laid a steel plate on which a word (“mirage,” “signal,” for example) appears in high relief. In an accompanying statements we find that these photo sculptures are intended to make us unfamiliar with “the systems of shared codes and symbols we inhabit,” and “stop down our perception of the familiar.”
I am not sure Balfe’s heavy, handsome work manages to do all that for us, but the clusters of photographs here do provide some fine moments of rhyme and rhetoric. That old literary language comes to mind when one stands in front of a Balfe – pieces watching the steel curve of a petroleum tank- echo the airy wooden curving frame of an old-fashioned roller-coaster, or the fronds of victory held aloft by a sculpted angel echo two platters held up by nymphs. Balfe has named his show Dislocated Symmetries From a Wilderness of Mirrors. That could be a working definition of poetry itself, and perhaps even of every art.