“Days of Reading”

Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art’s “Days of Reading: beyond this state of affairs” is a tightly edited exhibition of objects, performances, works of sound and light performed on Nuit Blanche, panels, a book fair and lectures. Works by 14 artists are associated by syntactic flow, conceived through four themes: “Appropriated,” “Collecting,” “Cloaking” and “The Reveal”—adjectives, gerunds and nouns that get us on our way. There are utopian moments, poetic reveries, political actions and reclamations. It’s dramatic, sober, satiric and, sometimes, giddily absurd.

Theaster Gates’s Do I Know You?, 2017, is a row of variably bound Jet magazines, from the Johnson publishing empire, with gold embossed text on the spines. The black, leather-bound and titled volumes serve as an anchor for curators Jennifer Papararo and Sarah Nesbitt. The exhibition title (a riff off Proust as foil for privileged solitary and internal reading) is punctuated by Gates’s poetic text: “Beyond this state of affairs.” This puts us solidly in the present moment of reading, and local, historical circumstances. Gates creates spaces to elevate Black culture, repurposing collections and raising funds to fuel development.

Raven Chacon with performers Laura Ortman and Suzanne Kite animated the opening events with a performance For Zitkála-Šá, which begins a sound piece for 12 contemporary Indigenous women, in music performance and composition—dedicated to a Yankton Dakota woman. The curatorial vision, resolutely politicized, includes the following ideal: “here meaning is conceded and revealed, based on the capacity of the reader and informed by social context.” Beyond the opening, Chacon’s work is off-scene and in progress. A plan for a retrospective book work is in the making.

It’s a sparse layout. Bereft of narrative continuity, the disconnections, de-coys and de-codes of mis-reading are especially poignant in the floor sculpture of Hassan Khan,_ Sentences for a New Order_, 2017, made with LED lights and electrical boxes. This mystery object impedes movement and narrative completion, signalling text read against the grain, in different pulsations, orders and light codes. Its industrial face, made of the stuff of urban connectivity, denies reading pleasure.

Theaster Gates, Do I Know You, 2017, bound jet magazines, steel shelves, 8.25 x 171.5 x 6.5 inches. Collection of Michael Nesbitt. Photos: Karen Asher. All images courtesy Plug In ICA, Winnipeg.

The wool/cotton jacquard woven tapestries of Leah Decter (through)line(age) 1779–1925–2013, 2013, reference Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) trade blankets. This work fulfills a broader narrative with text demarcations of her grandfather’s arrival to this country and the ship’s manifest. Misreader that I am, I can’t help seeing my Zaida’s prayer shawl, a displacement of ardour and arrival. Decter’s work is produced in acknowledgement of power dynamics between settler and Indigenous peoples, a decolonizing unravelling effected within community.

The ephemeral, tangential works by Sylvia Matas, Wind and This Year and the Next, from 2008, are poems by repetition and ellipsis. Matas cut the words from newsprint sources, permeating the solidity of place with obsessive production and the inability of words to fulfill their destinies as stable signifiers. The wind is the wind is not the wind and always the wind in Matas’s insistence—what gets evacuated out are the conditions of event and plot.

Natalie Czech’s A poem by repetition by Vsevolod Nekrasov 2, 2015, works with print ads, effacing original intent for the dreamlike structure of poetry. The prints show Czech’s redactions and deletions to find words in sequence of pre-existing poems. She trades consumption for the urge to read and find poetry in the everyday, to seek imagination where none may exist and subvert the instrumental conventions of the advertisement.

Located across from the HBC store, adjacent to the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) and kitty corner to the University of Winnipeg, the intersection of commodity, art and the academy, Plug In is felicitously poised—conceptually and geographically—to engage viewers in its “reflexive space.” Ken Lum’s sculpture 117 Dwight Eisenhower Blvd, 2009, made of Plexiglas, enamel paint and aluminum, mimics the coloured texts and fonts of strip mall, retail rental signs, replete with vacancies. The texts belie the sinister underbelly of conflict, paternalism, commerce and American’s war in Vietnam. Lum has long carried the reader to the critical and complex relationships of image and text works, raising issues of racialization, emotion and the vernacular of the middle brow. With public lectures, we get a glimpse of a recent interest in figuration. The canny siting of the piece across from the Hudson’s Bay Company is cheeky curatorial enabling. With enough letter, code and sign to make a semiotician weep, there is something weirdly mute about this exhibition; possibly because there is so much negation and exposure of naturalized discursive systems.

Jeanne Randolphe’s My Claustrophobic Happiness, 2018, is an 8 x 24-foot installation of art and ificto-criticism hung on metal fencing—a zig-zag, diagonal scar of a fence with borrowed artworks from the WAG, the U of W and Plug In, appended so the mechanics of installation systems are laid bare. Works from the minor canon are hung beside panels, ostensible didactic text. Imbued with the sleezy, insatiable seductions of luxe marketing, this is a critique of the way in which art language and interpretation feeds directly into capital. Randolphe generates the persona of La Betty. Art and luxury goods share origins and identity. It is the sculptural equivalent of a squealing and honking horn. It’s got Trump’s wall, a prophecy ready to burn. This call to interpellation will not leave the reader intact. Satire, thankfully, remains in the public domain.

Theaster Gates, Do I Know You, 2017, bound jet magazines, steel shelves, 8.25 x 171.5 x 6.5 inches. Collection of Michael Nesbitt. Photos: Karen Asher. All images courtesy Plug In ICA, Winnipeg.

Fabiola Carranza, Liberté ou la mort, 2010—lithographs installed with white metal—replicates the declaration of sovereignty. It was found and the rights purchased by the artist from the British Library after a devastating climactic event. Performative narratives by the authority of the state create political subjects. Medieval graffiti on All Saints Bench, 2018, made of Carrera marble by artist Shannon Boole, is the ‘talk back’ of the English Middle Ages—a bench for reading with incised demons and other markers. It’s functional art, and the collection of these signs has reinvigorated medieval studies. Collections are the basis of the ritual about collection and display by Sameer Farooq & Jared Stanley, If it were possible to collect all navels of the world in one place and present them standing on the steps to ASCENSION, 2018. Stepped shelves of figurative objects recall an anthropology that coded all taxonomies as hierarchical. Numerous organic shapes of different hues call attention to the enumeration of difference: meaning made, deferred and refused.

This is what makes the Plug In show so exciting: acts of reading and writing that lead to the un-natural denouement of codes. We succumb, resist and engage. The best work interpellates the reader as consumer, critic and subject while situating the art project as a potential redemptive moment.

“Days of Reading: beyond this state of affairs” was exhibited at Plug In ICA, Winnipeg, from September 30 to December 30, 2018.

Amy Karlinsky teaches reading to five-year-olds and art history to young adults in Winnipeg.

Volume 38 Number 1 : Language + Art

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #149, published March 2019.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.