SPACE: Shellie Zhang | A day passes like a year: Ode to Autumn

22 September 2021 - 14 December 2021

Mercer Union’s SPACE billboard commission has invited artist Shellie Zhang for its 2021–22 season for a yearlong series titled, A day passes like a year. Known for her highly composed still life works that assemble objects of pop iconography, cultural construction, and diasporic memory, Zhang’s photographs offer vibrant gestures of reclamation, humor, and dissidence.

In a quadriptych portrait of the year ahead and a reflection on the year that has passed, A day passes like a year looks to the Chinese four seasons painting traditions and the immediate locale of Mercer Union to glean a format for telling time in its place through change, personal connection, and collective association.

Ode to Autumn features objects sourced from a friend who used to live at Lansdowne and Bloor, an internet purchase exchanged at the intersection, flora growing at the corner, the Salvation Army, AGP Mart, and Bargain Club Superstore. — Shellie Zhang

Ode to Autumn is the first edition in the yearlong series; accompanying the work is a text written by Maya Wilson-Sanchez that can be found below.

Installation views: Shellie Zhang, A day passes like a year: Ode to Autumn. Commissioned by Mercer Union, 2021. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.


Let’s trace our neighbourhood through this image. Artist Shellie Zhang tells me that some of the candle holders are from the Salvation Army close to Mercer Union. These wonderful golden grapes—so plastic, so abundant—are also from the same place. The apple-scented air fresheners are from AGP Mart—that convenience store near the Lansdowne subway entrance. If you keep going down the same street, you’ll see the Bargain Club Super Store. That’s where Zhang got the air sprays and the aerosol can. The goldenrod in the planter, which blooms in late summer and into the fall, is one of the weeds you’ll see growing near these places. It’s a plant native to Ontario that’s very popular amongst pollinators. Other items are more personal. The planter was a gift to Zhang from a friend who lived at Lansdowne and Bloor and gave it to her when she moved away.

I moved to this neighbourhood seven years ago, and it has always provided whatever I’ve needed. I don’t think I realized that until I reflected on the nature of this part of Toronto with Zhang. She lives in Parkdale, a neighbourhood directly south of Bloordale with lots of things in common with this place—significant and diverse newcomer populations, lively spaces with numerous small businesses, and ongoing displacement caused by gentrification.

Zhang describes the series of photographs making up this commission as still life portraits of the neighbourhood of Bloordale. Inspired by the Chinese painting genre of the four seasons, she presents four images that mark each season, starting with this portrait of Bloordale in the autumn of 2021. This kind of Chinese painting tradition represents the seasons through landscape, flora, and fauna associated with each time of the year. Titled Ode to Autumn, this first image examines how objects convey expressions of nature and the environment. What does a crisp fall day look like in Bloordale? Does it smell like artificial apple spray? This series of works use the commercial language of contemporary still life photography to create an image responsive to a particular time and place.

For Zhang, the gathering of objects in Ode to Autumn is an exercise in getting to know this neighbourhood more intimately. As I write this, it feels fitting to mention that I will most likely be displaced from this neighbourhood soon. The news came just a couple of weeks after I met with Zhang to discuss this work. I’m sad but not surprised. Displacement and loss are common stories here. Thinking of my departure makes this portrait of Bloordale even more significant. I feel an intimate, almost familial, or domestic desire to take this photograph and put it in my wallet or attach it to my fridge door with a magnet. It marks a time and a place that I want to remember dearly.

—Maya Wilson-Sanchez


Shellie Zhang is a multidisciplinary artist based in Tkaronto/Toronto. She creates images, objects and projects that explore how ideas of integration, diversity and assimilation are implemented, negotiated, and manifested in relation to lived experiences. Zhang is interested in how culture is learned and sustained, and how cultural objects and iconographies are remembered and preserved. She is a recipient of the 2021 Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts Artist Award, and in 2017, was an Artist-in-Residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Recent and upcoming projects include exhibitions at AKA, Saskatoon (2021); the plumb, Toronto (2021); and the Anchorage Museum (2020).

Maya Wilson-Sanchez is a curator and writer based in Toronto. She has worked in numerous galleries and museums, including the AGO, Gallery TPW, and MKG127, and has curated exhibitions at Xpace Cultural Centre, the Royal Ontario Museum, Pride Toronto, and the Art Gallery of Guelph. In 2019, they were an Editorial Resident at Canadian Art and a Curatorial Resident at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto. The 2020 recipient of the Middlebrook Prize for Young Canadian Curators, she is currently curating a year-long exhibition series for the City of Toronto’s Year of Public Art and working at C Magazine as Associate Editor.

SPACE invites one artist to produce a yearlong series of images for a public-facing billboard located on the east façade of Mercer Union. Shellie Zhang’s A day passes like a year: Ode to Autumn (2021) is the first edition in a series of four billboard images commissioned by Mercer Union. An accompanying text written by Maya Wilson-Sanchez can be found above.

Image: Shellie Zhang, detail from A day passes like a year: Ode to Autumn, 2021. Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Mercer Union, Toronto.