Presentation House's C.1983, Part 1 is a refreshing photo flashback

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C.1983, Part 1

At Presentation House Gallery until March 11

Our city is so well known internationally as a centre for photo-based art that a collective term long ago emerged to describe its major proponents: the Vancouver School. Although the artists originally and most frequently associated with this group have assumed quite different approaches to their chosen media, which include film, video, text, and installation as well as still photography, the term has stuck. What has also stuck is the sense that unless you have a penis, you can’t be a member of this vaunted club.

The apparent penis requirement is one of the reasons that c.1983, Part 1, the first installment of a Presentation House Gallery survey of photo-based practice in Vancouver in the years 1981 to 1987, is so delightful and refreshing. Six of the 10 artists represented here are women and they bring to the exhibition a kind of visual poetics that has since been overwhelmed by the more assertive and analytical productions of the Vancouver School.

In fairness, some of the men whose early photo-based art is on view also reveal an unexpected lyricism, and a commitment to the small-scale and ephemeral rather than the monumental. Among the 13 works in the show are still photographs, offset-printed chapbooks, found images, newsprint handouts, and experimental film and video.

Laiwan, one of the artists included in c.1983, happened to be in the gallery when I was there, and observed that the exhibition registers a “pre-digital sensibility…a vulnerability and an intimacy” quite distinct from what is happening in Vancouver now. Her delicate, small-scale slide installation, she who has scanned the flowers of the world…, certainly reveals those qualities. It consists of flower petals of various species, hues, and degrees of translucence, pressed into slide mounts and projected continuously onto a small screen, using an old-fashioned, carousel-style projector.

During the course of the exhibition, under the searing light of the projector, the petals will dry, fade, and crack; their colours and the delicate traceries of their veins and stamens will evanesce. Laiwan’s work is not only an investigation of light’s defining relationship to photography, but also a kind of deconstruction of the still-life genre. Its fleeting beauty is a reminder of the inexorable cycle of life, death, and decay that defines our existence.

Laiwan’s presence during my visit was particularly serendipitous, since she was the artist responsible for founding the Or Gallery in 1983. The historical moment cited in the show’s title, curator Helga Pakasaar writes in the brochure, was one of intense cultural change in Vancouver. For instance, it saw the emergence of a number of local artist-run centres and initiatives, including the Or, Artspeak, Noncommercial Culture, and the Convertible Showroom. “Experimental and conceptualist approaches to image making,” Pakasaar continues, were an important consideration of such venues at the time, and many of the works in c.1983 were first exhibited through them.

Elizabeth Vander Zaag’s short video, Through the Holes, expands and disrupts visual and aural elements of television; Ellie Epp’s even shorter film, Current, abstracts images of venetian blinds into fluctuating vertical lines and bars of light and darkness. Both works play, beautifully and mesmerically, with the impact of then-modern technologies on the way we perceive the world.

Marian Penner Bancroft’s photo-collage, spiritland, Octopus Books Fourth Avenue, is large in scale but somehow intimate in mood and insight. This wall-mounted work consists of a fragment of a poem by Jack Spicer together with five big, overlapping, silver gelatin prints, unframed and curling, scroll-like, at the top and bottom. Together, the prints form a panoramic view of a vacant lot in the middle of a stretch of West 4th Avenue, a lot where a much-loved bookstore once stood. Pakasaar sees the gap left by the disappeared store as an image of absence and economic instability, and also as an imaginative space. I read it as a lament, in many shades of ghostly grey, for a lost sense of community.

Ken Lum’s Historical Portraits also speaks of community, but in terms of presence rather than absence. Its two folded sheets of newsprint bear the straight-up, often passportlike portraits of 16 individuals, accompanied by the name, birth date, and place of birth of each. Some people are recognizable as members of Vancouver’s art community; others suggest a cross-cultural survey of individuals from many lands. Paradoxically, given the work’s title, an alternative rather than mainstream history is suggested by these portraits, whose smiling or sombre expressions cannot begin to articulate the narratives they represent. Presumptuous as it may be, we are left to imagine the journey each person has taken, the blessings bestowed or hardships suffered, and the unseen thread that binds each to the other.

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