Cinder-block alleys and undulating projection screens establish the haunting vestiges of an imagined city at Forest City Gallery. The exhibition, Archaeological Infrastructures, is a collaborative installation by artists Jen Aitken and Aryen Hoekstra. Close-up images of Aitken’s multimedia sculptures are projected onto screens that hang from rope tied between the tops of white cinder-block towers. The towers, of varying heights, form a kind of abandoned neighbourhood, inviting exploration down constructed backstreets between cinder blocks and behind hanging laundry, otherwise recognized as draped projection screens. These screens recall human presence among concrete, built environments. The installation evokes a spectral city emptied of its citizens.
Upon entering the gallery, I am confronted with a movable wall introducing the show. It hides the constructed city and, for a moment, I question whether I have the right place. But, once I round the corner, I am greeted with a quiet discovery of my own. Walking through the dimly lit exhibition, I unavoidably cross in front of various projectors, casting a shadow onto the screens. My shadow, itself walking across the projected images, points to not only the absence of humans in the built remains, but also to the ghostly effect of the installation. It makes for a silent companion as I walk through this city of shadows. Yet this absence is only noticeable by the presence of visitors to the exhibition. This absence / presence relation speaks to the changing forms of urban development, a mainstay of Hoekstra’s artistic practice. Overzealous urban growth often breeds vacancy and demolition – what once was no longer exists. This binary also highlights the imaginary nature of the installation. While it conjures notions of a city, it is not based on any real place.
Continuing through the exhibition, I begin to pay particular attention to the projected images. While they are disorienting close-ups of Aitken’s sculptures, made from concrete, wood, and foam, the photographs could just as easily be striated moonscapes dotted with craters. The sculptures are entirely unrecognizable in the photos; instead, the artists intentionally obfuscate the works so that strange angles are pictured with no sense of scale. Some images reveal the occasional dash of colour, owing to an abraded surface layer. The photos are continuously projected, with each image displayed for a brief 20 seconds before moving on. At the opening reception, the artists noted that they aimed for quantity rather than paying particular attention to the details of the photographs. In the photos, it’s all angles and textures, creating an industrial aesthetic that complements their imagined city. The close-ups contribute to a sense of fragmentation that runs throughout the exhibition space. While the artists’ aim for quantity of photographs successfully conveys a transitory feeling central to the show, I nonetheless find myself drawn to the photographic details. I find myself wondering just how large the sculptures really are, and what shape they take. The close-up photographs play their part well.
The images are projected onto unevenly hung screens that seem to ripple in a non-existent breeze. I can almost feel the soft wind on my face, but, of course, it isn’t really there. The screens’ spectral character echoes the ghosts of the pictured sculptures, which are rightfully absent from the exhibition. The softness of the screens combined with the hard concrete blocks reflects the artists’ statement, which describes how the exhibition “investigates the stability of these seemingly fixed, concrete limits, proposing instead that the city’s demarcations are imprecise and illusory.” There is certainly an element of transition that permeates the show. Aitken tells me the screens may also recall construction tarps. Temporary by nature, construction sites highlight the transformation of larger urban topographies. Further working to this effect, extension cords and power bars are left in plain sight, creating sinuous pathways for visitors to navigate their way through the exhibition. The projectors and media players placed atop cinder blocks take on an architectural aesthetic of their own. Aside from the projectors, the installation consists of only three materials: rope, cinder blocks, and projector screens. The simplicity of materials is important to the artists as it points to the formal elements of the installation.
Aitken and Hoekstra met while completing their MFAs at Guelph University. Both artists lead individual practices, but it is Hoekstra who brings his filmic projections and his interest in formalism to the exhibition, while Aitken incorporates her signature sustained contemplation and her ability to render familiar materials ambiguous. Together, their practices combine to make for a strong exhibition with many complementary layers at play.
According to the artists’ statement, “George Steiner wrote that, ‘it is not the past that dominates us, it is images of the past,’ and similarly cities are haunted by their ruins; afterimages of formerly imagined utopias that both produce and are produced by their own signification.” The built environments we encounter every day are effectively constructed in Archaeological Infrastructures, but through an imaginary lens. And it is fiction that can perhaps open up more possibilities than reality ever can.
Archaeological Infrastructures is on from April 22—June 3, 2016 at Forest City Gallery.
Artist talk and online publication launch Thursday, May 26th 7:00-8:30 p.m.
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