eye - 04.22.99 


Trash and treasures



Featuring work by Tom Friedman, Germaine Koh, Michael Landy, Daniel Olson, Sandra Recchio, Joseph Scanlan, David Shrigley and Kelly Wood. To July 11. Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas W. 977-0414.


Don't let the title mislead you. Waste Management, the new group exhibit at the AGO, is about recycling, garbage, disposability and junk. But don't expect another earnest, shopworn pile of sad-faced art about our sinful, over-consumptive habits and the demise of nature.

Waste Management offers the radical (because it's true) proposition that all this crap we gleefully ruin the planet to acquire is actually lots of fun, sometimes beautiful and definitely worth the cost.

The inaugural exhibit in the AGO's new Pulse series, featuring emerging Canadian artists, it's a hopeful sign of good things to come. I now publicly forgive the AGO for last year's disastrous rat's nest, The Warhol Look.

Bringing together eight artists from various disciplines, curator Christina Ritchie succeeds in presenting a very large and overtly thematized collection without stumbling. None of her choices seem tenuous or arbitrary.

By opening up the show's core issue -- recycling -- to include not only the material act of reclamation but also the psychological habit of re-investing found objects with personal significance, Ritchie has created a luxuriously quirky exhibit. While some may read the show's lovable and lauded junk as the last, decadent gasp of a past-its-due-date culture, I found the exhibit's humor and playfulness uplifting. If all else fails, Waste Management tells the viewer, you can at least make art.

Of the eight artists, three best capture this "learning to settle with more" approach. Germaine Koh, Sandra Rechico and Daniel Olson all deftly remold found and discarded materials into intensely personal, emotionally loaded art.

Koh's "Sightings" is an ongoing project wherein the artist takes found, non-professional photographs (families at the beach, drunken snapshots, cute pets) and turns them into standard postcards. The effect of such an invasive appropriation is a surprisingly quiet, even poignant re-enactment of the merciless path of a life event -- from memory, to record and on to eventual disappearance.

"Sightings" asks, where are these people now? Do they remember the lost pictures, the day when each was taken and, if so, do they miss their souvenirs? How precious is an image?

By turning the lost personal tokens of strangers into commercial products, Koh not only satirizes the merchandising of memory -- the "Kodak Moments" -- but also triggers the viewers to ask themselves: what have I lost that once was meaningful?

On a more direct and physical level, Rechico's "Shards II," a small room carpeted with sparkly chunks of broken glass, asks the viewer to acknowledge the comfort inherent in systems of waste and overuse. As you walk across the ankle-deep pile of busted bottles and tumblers, what should be an unpleasant experience is actually the opposite. In a decent pair of shoes, a carpet of broken glass is a lovely thing to linger over. It feels like soggy grass and makes a charming clink. Instead of feeling shock and discomfort from such an evident display of waste and futility, you feel perversely soothed and massaged.

"Shards II" is Waste Management's most powerful political statement, because it demonstrates that, despite decades of anti-materialism rhetoric, there is an inescapable ease, grace and pleasure in simply tossing away whatever breaks, falls out of favor or outlasts its usefulness. Disposability is seductive.

Daniel Olson's video installation "Ballet me'canique" works on the same pleasure principles, but in the other direction. Olson, it seems, can't throw anything away. He questions the slippery conceits of value and worthlessness with a series of videos detailing the faces of trashed mechanical toys. Gorgeously filmed in severe but loving close-ups, the lost and found toys are invested with a reverence usually reserved for aging movie stars. The result is a series of tiny melodramas that dig deep under the skin.

Unapologetically sentimental, "Ballet me'canique" celebrates the power each of us has to bestow significance on whatever we choose. The cheap plastic toys, made to be replaced, become precious because, among all the potential others, they have been chosen by the artist to be saved and treasured.

Unlike Rechico's work, Olson's videos propose that, given the right context, practically anything can be deemed unique and irreplaceable -- which, of course, only leads to more and more stuff. If disposability is seductive, obsessive recycling can lead to fetishism and morbidity.

The only thing that keeps me from giving Waste Management full marks is an issue that's perhaps related, ironically, to energy conservation. I found many of the exhibit rooms under-lit, if not downright shady, particularly those housing Michael Landy's otherwise wonderful "Lifestyle" drawings, and sections of Kelly Wood's intriguing photo installation "The Continuous Garbage Project." Always ready to blame my own lack of carrot-eating and my cheap eyeglasses, I asked around. Everyone was complaining about the "cafe" lighting. A quality show like Waste Management deserves full wattage.

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