Gladstone Hotel/Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival
April 30 – May 30, 2016
Ian Willms describes “We Shall See” as a “photographic diary about the loss of my father” in the wake of a devastating motorcycle crash. The exhibition comprises either twenty-three or twenty-eight images (depending on how we count them) of varying dimensions, placed in different hallways and rooms. Immediately to the right of Willms’ artist statement is a large-scale photo of the South African mountain range where his father’s accident occurred; this is either one image and/or six, having been split and then pieced together in a grid. This rending and mending echoes the corporeal shattering that occurred in that place, but with a key difference: here, the photographer controls the scene. A broken body is never as neatly fractured as this image, with its square prints and measured gaps between them; the photograph of the spine X-ray, Nine Pins, paralyzed (2014) makes this painfully clear. The photo grid evokes a storyboard or editing table, where decisions are made about how best to frame a story’s form and breadth and sequence. Together, this artist statement and photo emphasize the act of storytelling as a way to arrange messy and sprawling details into a coherent, if tenuous, narrative. “We Shall See” is a story about the death of Willms’ father, but it is also, inextricably, a story about the telling of it, and thus about the teller.
The pairing of statement and image recalls the origins of the story on Instagram. From the time of his father’s accident in November 2014 to the launch of “We Shall See” two years later, Willms has shared hundreds of photographs with thousands of Instagram followers around the world. In making the intensely intimate details of his father’s hospital successes and failures, and his own reactions to them so broadly public, Willms renders himself, for the first time, a subject in his own story. As a photographer accustomed to documenting the traumas of others (he just returned to Toronto from shooting the wild fires in Fort McMurray, for example), this is new terrain. We see Willms in this show, though always obliquely: in a photograph of a photograph, as a cast shadow, as a spectral reflection.
In mounting his very personal project, Willms eschews formal gallery conventions, printing his artist statement and photo captions directly on the wall. His pencil marks (rather boyish, faint, and erasable) metonymize the body writing them—the vulnerable body of a son and artist. Willms redoubles this vulnerability with other curatorial choices. The photographs are printed on semi-transparent paper that refuses easy distinctions between surface and depth; they are both translucent and opaque, depending on your perspective. This paper reminds me of the thin, inscribed skin of the balloons pictured in He said, “I never thought I’d live to see 2015” (2015)—so delicate, so fleeting. Some of the photographs are fastened with double-sided tape—tiny squares that we can see through the prints—on all four corners; others by their top corners only. The breezes that blow in from The Gladstone’s balcony or are created in the wake of a passerby stir the ostensibly “still” photographs: they lift and bend and curl like a curtains, creating shadows on the wall beneath it that morph in shape and shade.
As I return again and again to this body of work—a returning that echoes repeated hospital visits—I note that “We Shall See” collects signs of wear and tear (not unlike the father’s body). The prints accrue ripples and creases; they are marked by and stand as a record of various encounters and passing time. They are susceptible, and I cannot help but associate the absence of protective glass (the prints are unframed) with a motorcyclist exposed to the elements. I find it difficult not to reach out and touch the photographs (reader, I did). By my second visit, a sign forbade such touching (“Please do not touch the Artwork”), though I suspect Willms wouldn’t mind my feeling. Fittingly, Willms’ curatorial choices invite contact in ways typically verboten in gallery spaces.
The experience of contemporary photography is often so distant and so digital, and as such, far removed from the haptic. In the translation of this story from Instagram to gallery, from the virtual to the tangible, I’m struck by the frequency with which hands make the cut in this necessarily tight edit. In Sister and I at the hospital (2014), Willms’ hand is reflected in the act of taking a photo of himself and his sister; in another photo, his sister’s hand gently touches their father’s forehead; in yet another (I started smoking with my sister ), we see what hands leave behind—the remnants of cigarette butts in an ashtray that looks like a clock face (cigarettes become the hands of this clock; you can rest them at 12, 3, 6, or 9). Willms also documents his father’s hands both with and without agency: humorously giving his photographer-son the finger, determinedly pointing to a letter (“I”) on a communication board when he has lost his voice (He couldn’t speak for months ), posthumously resting on his own hips (His last photograph ). Willms shows us hands that make and caretake, hands that hold and let go, hands to hold and to let go.
In some ways, the titular phrase is a cliché, a painfully inadequate platitude uttered when (other? better?) words fail. “We Shall See” is a truncated placeholder for impossible questions that Willms’ photographs engage—questions of life and death and love and loss and pain and anger. It is the unsatisfactory answer to sundry questions. Will the meds work? Will dad live? How will I survive his death? At The Gladstone Hotel, in and around hotel furniture, guests, and staff, Willms’ work—not just the photographs but mounting them on the first anniversary of his father’s death—also throws into relief the need to do something when there is nothing to do, when there is time (simultaneously interminable and ephemeral) to kill in the waiting room, by the bedside, at the funeral, after (it) all.