The unlikely star of the 2011 ‘Le Mois de la Photo’ biennial of contemporary photography – titled ‘Lucidity: Inward Views’ and curated by Anne-Marie Ninacs – was Montreal’s maverick photographer Raymonde April. Her expansive solo show at Optica was intimate and heartfelt. This selection from her archives of the last few decades – of Montreal streets, her own self-portraits, candid images of significant Others – resulted in a selfless, seamless and stoic self-portrait.
A number of artists stood out at the Arsenal, the massive new art centre inaugurated last summer in Montreal’s Griffintown neighbourhood. The South Africa-based Roger Ballen plumbs psychological depths in what can best be interpreted as a quasi-aviary setting. The resulting frisson – with its collision of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Clarence John Laughlin, Frederick Sommer, art brut and sign language – is incontestably pleasurable and harrowing. Since the mid-1980s, Jack Burman has documented metres upon metres of dead flesh with the most sumptuous and unsettling results. He scavenges from laboratories, death camps, morgues and catacombs in order to bolster his legions of the dead. In experiencing Douglas Gordon’s From God to Nothing (1996) we walk into a huge rectilinear darkroom. On the walls we read a litany of 150 fears – from fear of the divine to fear of nothing – distinguishable only by the eerie glow of three naked light bulbs hanging, Philip Guston-like, from above.
Corine Lemieux uses photography as a conduit for the transmission of her mental states, offering a virtual cornucopia of diaristic imagery. Her recordings of the minutiae of her lived experiences result in an unexpected epiphany of the commonplace. At Articule, Diane Borsato offered a similar experience, though one marked by a wealth of idiosyncratic and consummately kinky signifiers. By turns humorous and inane, she performs all manner of strange experiments inside various societal constituencies – for example, she learns to speak Italian through absorbing information on the physics of black holes and an introduction to beekeeping.
Shown at the Centre d’art et de diffusion Clark, Cao Fei’s film Whose Utopia (2006–07) documents workers’ robotic regimens in a Chinese light-bulb factory. From a six-month collaboration with the employees, the artist garnered extraordinary footage. The film, which begins with documentary images of workers inserted into impossibly narrow work spaces, segues beautifully into a balletic meditation on freedom, in which the workers are released from their roles into dreamlike counterpoint wherein they cross both the physical boundaries and the psychological constraints of the factory. Also at Clark, Massimo Guerrera essayed a hectic conflation of images from his own life. His show, ‘Photosensitive Introspections’, included an accumulation of images that celebrate the wild tenor of his existence with others in the world.
At the SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art, Claire Savoie presented a powerful sampling of a work entitled Aujourd’hui (dates-vidéos) (Today [dates-videos], 2006–ongoing), in which she methodically investigates moments in her own life. At the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery of Concordia University, Jesper Just showed Nomad in One’s Own Mind (2002–08), a suite of five films which foreground solitary subjects coping with the flotsam and jetsam of their existence. And at the McCord Museum, Luis Jacob, in ‘The Eye, The Hole, The Picture’ (utilizing works from the museum’s photography collection), adeptly considered ways of seeing and framing.
Another highlight was Roni Horn’s show at the Galerie de l’UQAM. The phenomenological thrust of her photographs exhibited here was breathtaking in scope and specificity. The close-up images of water in Some Thames (2000) are hypnotic, running the gamut from representational to anamorphic, liquid, metal, organic, abstract and biomorphic. The many faces of the river photographed under changing conditions of light are profoundly chameleon, heterogenous and always engaging. Finally, Yann Pocreau should be singled out for the startling clarity of his huge hoarding-like prints installed on building walls in and around the Arsenal, dealing deftly with the relationship of the human body and the built world. Kudos to curator Anne-Marie Ninacs, who made deft and crisp choices in one of the strongest ‘Mois de la Photos’ in recent memory.