The Blue Hour
Joi T. Arcand, Kapwani Kiwanga, Colin Miner, Grace Ndiritu, Kara Uzelman
April 6 – June 24, 2018
Writing in 1857, only a few short decades after the “invention” of photography, the art historian and critic Elizabeth Eastlake describes the photographic image as one that approaches us from the future and arrives in the present. While referring to the new technologies in chemical photography at the time, Eastlake’s comment might also be interpreted more portentously, as critical theorist Kaja Silverman suggests in The Miracle of Analogy: The History of Photography, Part I, as an invitation to upend canonical readings of photographs, which emphasize their simultaneous demonstration of “this-has-been” and “this-is-no-more.” The presumption that what we see when we look at a photograph is unalterable, Silverman suggests, “contributes to the political despair that afflicts so many of us today: our sense that the future is ‘all used up.’” Instead, she posits, we should consider photography as “the world’s primary way of revealing itself to us – of demonstrating that it exists, and that it will forever exceed us.” Here, the photograph becomes a tool with speculative potential, rather than one with simply the power to memorialize.
The Blue Hour extends from this premise to rethink our assumptions about the photograph’s relationship to time. Making reference to the brief period of twilight at dawn and dusk when temporal linearity appears to momentarily hover in a state of suspension, the exhibition presents works by five Canadian and international artists – Joi T. Arcand, Kapwani Kiwanga, Colin Miner, Grace Ndiritu, and Kara Uzelman – that collectively act as a proposition to consider the futurity of the photographic image. We might understand this “blue hour” as analogous to the photographic event, whether political, geological, cosmological or philosophical, which as literary theorist Eduardo Cadava has claimed, “interrupts the present; […] occurs between the present and itself, between the movement of time and itself.”
Joi T. Arcand is from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in central Saskatchewan, Treaty 6 Territory. Her practice is concerned with the invisibility of Indigeneity in contemporary Canadian culture and, in particular, how erasures of Indigenous presence, culture and histories have been enacted in space and through language. While Cree has been named one of the three Indigenous languages that remain ‘viable’ by Statistics Canada, Arcand realized that her own inability to speak the language meant that in her family, the language was extinct. Here on Future Earth (2009) first appears as a series of nostalgic, soft-edged views of small-town Saskatchewan streetscapes. However, Arcand’s intervention quickly reveals itself in a simple act of détournement, performed in her desire to “see things where they weren’t.” By manipulating all visible street signage in the images, replacing English with Cree syllabics, Arcand proposes a radical shift to an Indigenous-centred worldview enacted through language. In bending our presumptions of the photograph as a document of past-time, she imagines an alternative past/present/future, at once “a present beside itself,” to quote Cree writer and theorist Billy-Ray Belcourt, and a future within arm’s length. As a public intervention, three images from the series are reproduced on the facades of Vancouver’s three downtown Canada Line stations: City Centre, Yaletown-Roundhouse and Waterfront. Returned to the street, the photographs’ Cree wordage challenges the visual cacophony of existing images and signage of this settler city built upon unceded Indigenous ground.
Kapwani Kiwanga’s practice also plays with the elastic potential of photographic time. Drawing upon both archival and invented documents, her process is at once investigative and imaginative. With research interests ranging from Afrofuturism and science fiction to the anti-colonial struggle, as well as investigations into more apocryphal histories that have, as she says, “fallen through the cracks,” the Paris-based Canadian artist persistently weaves together fiction and fact. Subduction Studies (2017) proposes an intersection of geology and the imaginary, the title describing the sites where the earth’s tectonic plates converge and collide. The series considers the geological hypothesis Pangaea Ultima, which predicts a re-merger of all continents into a single supercontinent, with Europe sliding underneath Africa some 200 million years in the future. In each work, Kiwanga selects two geological samples from the collection of the Natural History Museum in Paris and photographs them. By creasing the prints, Kiwanga aligns the two dissimilar rocks; one image, a rock from the European side of the strait of Gibraltar, the other a sample originating in a North African country on the Mediterranean shore – whereby fold line becomes fault line – and effectively enacts the eons-long geologic process of tectonic convergence. Through this straightforward material manipulation, the artist proposes a future collision of the African and European continents, and –given the current reception of migrant communities by Europeans – one can read the work as materializing colonial anxieties about the African “Other.”
For Kenyan/British artist Grace Ndiritu, photographic time stretches beyond the geological to the cosmological: each photograph that comes into existence, she attests, is a microcosmic instance of the macrocosm of the universe. Since 2010, Ndiritu has been developing an encyclopedic archive, A Quest For Meaning (AQFM). Originating through non-rational methodologies and shamanic journeys, it proposes a universal narrative spoken through the photographic image, a creation story from the beginning of time itself, linking seemingly disparate objects and events from the flash of light that was the Big Bang – the original photographic event, one might argue – until our present day. Each time it is exhibited, new photographic constellations perpetually expand the themes in AQFM, suggestive of Silverman’s assertion that “photography is […] an ontological calling card: it helps us to see that each of us is a node in a vast constellation of analogies.” Installed upon colour-blocked walls that Ndiritu calls “Bright Young Things,” the artist’s material and compositional strategies disrupt and confound her viewers’ presumptions about what they are looking at (the installation’s subtitle is Painting as a Medium of Photography). Is the small photograph of Eugène Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1827) hanging in the Louvre, for example, taken by the artist or ripped from the pages of an early edition of Gardner’s Art History textbook? The scale, composition and colouring of the image make it difficult to discern. Are the archival images captured during the Rif War between Morocco and Spain original or re-photographed? It is hard not to read them through current tensions over contemporary migration from both North and Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. As a further play on expansion and proliferation, a special edition of Ndiritu’s AQFM newspaper, featuring the artist’s essay “The End of History,” is available free to take away, and “colonizes” the CAG’s ground floor windows.
Kara Uzelman’s artistic practice suggests an interruption to mega-production and the disposable object and consistently re-evaluates the potential for alternative sources of meaning beyond what is understood on the surface. Uzelman’s processes of excavating, gathering and inventing act as a kind of self-directed study of her surroundings; the specificities of site and collecting become the means to speculate on possible stories embedded in found and discarded materials, as well as a way to explore time as a non-linear form. While the past, as literary theorist Susan Stewart argues, “is constructed from a set of presently existing pieces,” the collection looks to the future. In the way that a collection is never static, Uzelman’s work is experimental: there is no defined end-form or completion until the collector’s own demise. Perpetual Motion (2018) is part of an ongoing series of new works initiated through a field trip to an abandoned farmyard near Speers, Saskatchewan. Once occupied by the artist’s grandfather, the farm was eventually lost and Uzelman’s grandfather became focussed on designing a perpetual motion machine. Despite having met him only a handful of times, Uzelman inherited his notes and drawings. By way of delving into this history, in Perpetual Motion the photograph becomes the conduit that unites site with collected objects and information, functioning as the “glue” in an assemblage. As Cadava suggests in Words of Light, “the photograph is always related to something other than itself. Sealing the traces of the past within its space-crossed image, it also lets itself be (re)touched by its relation to the future.” Through the manipulation of the collected materials, chronology becomes dislocated, and photographs become tools for future use in an as-yet unnamed context.
The fugitive and cyclical are ongoing starting points for Colin Miner, whose work traces the ontological anxiety that, in his words, “shadows” the photographic. Considering qualities of lightness, darkness, reflection and refraction, Miner seeks to evoke rather than capture photography’s qualities of relation. In The Blue Hour, a constellation of disparate objects and images are brought together to create converging lines of inquiry, which elliptically surface and resurface. Here, Miner approaches the photograph as a state of suspension; a manifestation of “space-crossed time.” Plaster and latex casts of dust covers for photographic equipment (collected by the artist for potential future use) are tinted by different hues of red light thrown by two neon sculptures whose spiral forms recall early 20th century Czech physician Jan Purkinje’s empirical studies of afterimages in the eye. A large-scale print portrays the slippage of silver emulsion across the surface of a photographic plate – quite literally, an image of photography’s unfixed state. This movement of glittering emulsion is echoed once again in the diminutive but mesmerizing video Untitled (snail) (2017), which follows, in an endless loop, the barely perceptible movement of a large Peruvian snail – an animal which, one might argue, both secretes time and carries it upon its back. As writer Jacqueline Mabey remarks about Miner’s work, in a statement that might also be applied to the conditions of photography as a whole, “you can try to fix the image, but it will never stick. The temporality of the photograph is not the ‘there-then’ but contains the kernel of potential futures, held in eternal ‘yet-could-be.’”
Curated by Kimberly Phillips
Presented in partnership with Capture Photography Festival.
Grace Ndiritu is generously supported by The British Council.