Walter Phillips Gallery
May 2 — July 26, 2015
All storytelling disrupts time — this is what makes it both valuable and risky. Narrative reorders and exaggerates situations. Cinema collapses human interactions, relegating dialogue to off-screen (inconsequential) and on-screen (significant!). Close-ups are exclusions of atmospheric details, expository shots play god, or, at their most subjective, embody a character’s singular experience. Storytelling also messes with linearity by inviting us in: in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, when Jack and Danny start seeing otherworldly or other-timely things, we’re invited to see them, too. Weeks of isolation are condensed into two hours and twenty-six minutes that float back and forth between the 1980s and the 1920s, unanchored and creepy, but made enticing by the underlying power of narrative.
Séance Fiction is precisely about storytelling as a time-fuck. The Shining is a perfect example, both because it haunts the exhibition (in the form of a replica of the Overlook Hotel bar by Hannah Doerksen), but also because the film’s mountainous landscapes and labyrinthine hallways parallel some of the environmental conditions of the Banff Centre, where the exhibition takes over the Walter Phillips Gallery. Curator Peta Rake assembles seven unsettlingly delightful works that seem to resonate on the same frequency as their surroundings.
Doerksen’s bar shepherds viewers into the show with a mix of seductive party lighting and a cold set of strange figurines and bottles accompanied by the uncanny sensation that this set-up is somehow familiar. Elsewhere in the exhibition, the magical nature of objects unfolds. In Shana Moulton’s video work, a series of bizarre shopping network-style gadgets open alternate worlds: a pair of makeup-magnifying eyeglasses reveal Moulton’s third eye, a key unsettles shelved curios which follow Moulton’s movements like an uncanny drag-and-drop tool. Titled The Undiscovered Drawer (2013), the nine-minute video chronicles a video-game-like succession of unlocking and puzzle-solving that curiously shifts between 80s fashion and pseudo-spiritual 90s products in a vaguely 60s-era domestic setting.
In Maggie Groat’s case of items from A study for collected tools for directions, healings, reconnections, wayfindings, wanderings, unseeables, wonderings, outsidings, action reportings, future seeings and interconnectivities (2015), objects conjuring new-age mysticism suggest bizarre possible uses. Meanwhile, alongside it, Heather and Ivan Morison’s collection of science fiction novels with flowers folded into their pages hold together an archival instinct and a desire to dream up new potential realities.
Looking backward and forward at once, Tamar Guimarães and Kasper Akhøj’s film Captain Gervasio’s Family (2013-2014) juxtaposes modernist utopian visions with the activities of psychic mediums in Palmelo, Brazil. Ostensibly a documentary about a fascinating community of civil servants who double as mediums in a town that has sprouted up around a sanitarium and healing centre devoted to the method of the “magnetic chain,” the story takes on a suspicious air: there’s never quite enough detail to establish a context for these mysterious activities. It’s not entirely clear, either, whether the static footage of cool modernist architecture is a depiction of one medium’s journey to an astral city, or an absurd inversion of it. The modernist milieu is mimicked around the projector by a series of blocky concrete-and-local-wood seats, uncomfortable to sit on, but poetically drawing the filmic world into the physical space of the gallery.
Guy Maddin’s 11-channel installation of unfinished and never-made films overtakes the backmost space of the gallery in a sensory overload of silent film captions and weird horror movie tropes. In a small gallery alongside, Soda_Jerk’s bricolage of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford films attest to the cyclical quality of narrative. Side-by-side footage projected on the gallery’s walls lets one sleep while the other encounters various expressions of gothic melodrama. The two never meet, and instead trudge through a set of hauntings that destabilize time and flatten each actress’s career into a series of spooky recurrences.
Though the works in the show are by turns magical, revisionist and idealistic, Séance Fiction is fundamentally a meditation on narrative. Like the powerful artifacts in Shana Moulton’s The Undiscovered Drawer, the entire exhibition consists of pockets that open storied worlds of history and futurity. But, the show isn’t utopian—it’s not about envisioning possible better realities. Rather, it’s about locating a kind of ethereal sweet spot between the conventions of narrative and the experience of real time. It’s about replicating in the gallery what all good stories do: briefly unfasten a worldly experience to produce the illusion that something as real, as engrossing, is going on in some other reality.
Alison Cooley is a writer, curator, and educator based in Toronto. Her work deals with the intersection of natural history and visual culture, socially engaged artistic practice, craft histories, and experiential modes of art criticism. She is the 2014 co-recipient of the Middlebrook Prize for Young Curators, and her critical writing has appeared in FUSE, Canadian Art and KAPSULA, among others. She is also the host and producer of What It Looks Like, a podcast about art in Canada.