Throughout my career as an art critic, the artistic medium artists choose has always been a central issue. In the 1970s, photography was questioned. Was it an artistic medium or only a craft? Then came performance and installation art, followed by video art. Luckily, today, it seems anything can be considered an artistic medium. So, I was not surprised when gallerist, Robert Kananaj installed a show for short-film maker, Randall Okita. It included three pieces: two installation artworks and one video.
At first, I thought that this was another Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) event, similar to others throughout Toronto, filling every art venue. But it is much more—a breathtaking exhibition that could stand proudly in any Kunsthalle in the world. All the works are metaphorical, but if I wanted to distinguish between them I would say Portrait as a Random Act of Violence feels like swearing, Things I Can’t Tell You is a poem and Be Here Now functions as a prayer. xxxxx
We encounter, Portrait as a Random Act of Violence (2012) upon entering the gallery. Originally, it was a structure built for an eponymous short film. As the gallery’s introduction says, “Okita often employs complicated and intricately built artworks as key characters in his films, exposing their construction as a metaphor for the complexity of how conflict and struggles build within us.” The installation appears in the film’s final scene, when both the vandalized building and the glass figure appear simultaneously, showing both violence and its possible aftermath. This exhibition is meant to be a departure from performance art, removing the installation and sculpture from their original video format, repositioning them in the gallery so they can stand by themselves, for themselves. And indeed, Portrait as a Random Act of Violence is an outstanding installation in its own right, with a deep and intricate meaning, eliciting many possible layers of understanding.
Right: Portrait as a Random Act of Violence, 2012, wood, glass. All other photos: Dustin Rabin.
The interior of the structure, itself, is a dark, gloomy place, like an abandoned building that might have once been a greenhouse, now vandalized. The space personally evokes fear in me, and perhaps even a flight response. All the windows are broken, their zigzag holes suggesting damage done with a large axe or stone block. It seems a dangerous place where violence might have taken place. Overcoming my resistance, I enter, to discover a miracle. The figure of a man, constructed of fallen, broken glass stands at the center. More than an assemblage of broken glass – it seems a visage of crystallized humanity. Rather than falling into the abyss created by the violence around it, it sparkles in the dark, capturing the light. While the vandalized building serves as a metaphor for the violence and darkness within us, the figure offers hope.
Below: Portrait as a Random Act of Violence, 2012 (detail), wood, glass.
I better understand the artist’s intent after watching the short film by the same title. Fast-moving and very loud, the film opens with a man standing in front of a building, smashing it ruthlessly, effectively, quickly. The destruction is drastic and dramatic. That same man then steps into the building, hangs the cinder block he used to destroy it on a hook. This initiates a machine that pulls up glass shards, gradually forming the figure. Could the perpetrator and the victim be the same person? Could it be different sides of the same character? Ambiguous and fragile in appearance, the figure is a disturbing mixture of vulnerability and strength. Its posture—hands in front of the face, head turned away—is aqually ambiguous: is it trying to protect itself from another attack or is it in a martial arts pose, ready to fight fearlessly? I study the figure, enchanted by its inner light. Can violence be turned around, creating something as ethereal as this sculpture? There is a longing that the cruelty of this structure will not imprison its occupant; that its humanity will be uncontainable, serving as a wellspring of strength for its ultimate resurrection.
Right: Things I Can’t Tell You (2011). Mixed media, Video screen still.
Things I Can’t Tell You (2011), is a 25 minute video loop—a visual poem of fire. Two figures wearing protective clothing and lit on fire are engaged in a choreographed air ballet. The artist, Okita is one of them. The human figures are not recognizable, but abstract, swimming through the air toward one other. They begin their dance toward the center of the screen from opposite sides, appearing as small flames. As they converge, the intensity of the flames, as well as their shape, changes. Occasionally, a human form—head, body part, arms stroking in swimming motions, legs kicking—can be discerned, while always consumed by fire. As they continue to burn, their actions trigger images, like calligraphy created by bleeding brushstrokes, dancing dragons breathing fire; their changing shapes associated with both known forms or those that are unrecognizable or only guessed. The shapes are like words better understood unspoken, or even impossible to say.
The two figures continue to move closer, seemingly about to meet. With the sound of a drum, and a moment’s hesitation, they then turn away, or are pulled away, from each other. As the distance between them widens, the fire weakens and dies. Darkness briefly fills the screen until the two small flames reappear, once again gaining strength as they move toward one another, their burning desire to meet and touch apparently forever unfulfilled. Things I Can’t Tell You is more melancholy than dramatic. His dancing flames are so mesmerizing, it is possible to overlook the fact that these are people, performers actually on fire. They lose their human qualities through a metamorphosis of fire, their bodies transformed to spirits.
Left: Be Here Now, 2015, multi-media installation.
A ‘gateway’ serves as a portal into the next room—a realm of spirits and prayer. Be Here Now (2015) appears to be a Shinto temple or cloud pavilion. And like the authentic structure, whose fragile shape necessitates that it be rebuilt time-and-again, this one is equally elusive. At first the ‘building’ seems to be solidly grounded, like a large Asian-style shaped calligraphic form, painted by a wide brush. Then I realize that, for this installation, I am standing in a temple created out of thousands of feathers. The feathers move, like Japanese paper prayer strips hung around windows, or old shamans’ clothes, with their ancient religions worshiping ritualistic animals. Okita’s moving feathers and the shadows they cast on the gallery’s walls evince images of shape-shifting mythical animals and other floating spirits. Soon, with the sound of a gong, the form’s color becomes imperial yellow. As its distinct outlines blur, the ‘temple’ seems to move slightly, appearing to breath. With yet another sound, it transforms into burning red, like a rising sun. This installation’s transformative power creates a sensation which can only be described as highly spiritual. Some say it this is all illusion, just an optical trick. But what is illusion, what is spiritual vision and where is the boundary between them? It is up to the viewer to decide.
Right: Be Here Now, 2015, multi-media installation (detail).
When interviewed, Okita said that he aims for balance between reality and the internal metaphors that he wants to represent. As the works in this exhibition successfully demonstrates, that balance is both elusive and sensitive. The visual environment in which Okita creates his forms and messaging is striking. As his friend, the writer Brendan McLeod wrote, Okita’s works are “hyper imaginative, dramatically potent, and visually arresting.”
By Emese Krunák-Hajagos, Contributing Writer
Through January 23, 2016
Robert Kananaj Gallery
172 St Helens Avenue, Toronto, CANADA