Waiting amid windy rooms and mirror images in Waiting For
We are stranded in an unnamed institution, peering into a small room with peach-coloured walls. Curtains of the same hue gently shift and billow against an open, light-filled window. Pinned to a bulletin board in the hallway, just outside the room, two pieces of paper—a floor plan and an indecipherable list of instructions, an evacuation plan, perhaps—yellow and curl with age. Wind blows through the scene in a low, sustained moan, a dirge for the dying. A lament for the living, too.
Eloquently compressed into Natalie Doonan’s endlessly looping video The Quiet Room is the theme of waiting that shapes this four-person show at Centre A. Doonan and her colleagues Matilda Aslizadeh, Gwenessa Lam, and Natasha McHardy meditate on various manifestations of the act of waiting while also responding to the history and architecture of the exhibition’s site. Centre A is located on the main floor of a 100-year-old, beaux-arts building at the corner of Hastings and Carrall streets. It originally served as both the administrative offices and tram depot of the British Columbia Electric Railway Company, which operated electric-light systems and tramways in Vancouver, New Westminster, and Victoria from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.
With its immense brick archways, now walled in, and its soaring ceiling, the place has the air of a secular cathedral. What these artists read into its original incarnation as a transit terminus, however, is a notion of waiting that includes ideas of migration and displacement, as well as expectation, transition, and a goodly dose of death.
Aslizadeh’s photographs and video play with the memento-mori messages woven into 17th-century still-life paintings. In her video, simply titled Still Life and evocative of A Little Death by British artist and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood, Aslizadeh uses digital animation and time-lapse techniques to create an unnerving drama of vitality, death, and decay—and vice versa. Flowers wilt and die, then perk up again. Fruit rots and falls apart, or is slashed open and disembowelled, then reconstitutes itself into luscious wholeness. And a few elements in this still life—a bunch of grapes, a fluttering butterfly—remain unchanged, alive and well throughout. Aslizadeh’s intention, it seems, is to unsettle what we commonly see as a linear journey from birth to death. In her artist’s statement, she likens the disruption of that chronology to the longing of migrants to “escape the regular constraints of time” in order to realize new lives and prosperity. Instead, “uncertainty and violence” are the too-frequent aspects of the migrant experience.
Lam’s small oil painting, of the interior of a railway car, and large wall drawing, of early telephone receptionists at a primitive switchboard, are derived from archival photographs related to the B.C. Electric Building. In some ways, they express the experience of putting in time—until the end of a tedious journey or a tiring shift. A straightforward reading of the original photos, however, is disrupted by Lam’s use of bilateral or split imagery. Like a Rorschach test, each of these intriguing works has a central seam, on either side of which the image is mirrored. This seam, curator Makiko Hara observes in her exhibition text, “reveals a visible rupture or shift that presents a state of anticipation and transition”. Lam’s art displaces the original photos from their intended narrative, from their history and their place.
Doonan’s video, The Quiet Room, shot in an abandoned hospital, and her two-channel video installation, Llorando/Crying, which riffs on Rebekah Del Rio’s version of the 1961 Roy Orbison hit “Crying”, are both infused with sadness, even sorrow. The latter communicates painful longing for a state of completion through requited love, the perhaps impossible desire, Doonan says in her statement, “to bridge the gap between self and other”. There is also a thwarted attempt here to bridge a cultural gap: the English speaker (Doonan) sings in Spanish and the Spanish speaker (Guadalupe Martinez) sings in English. Both perform in rounds, a cappella, but tellingly out of sync with each other.
McHardy’s site-specific installation, Salon, is the most complicated and puzzling work here. Its multiple components, made of cut-out and painted paper suspended in the air or mounted directly on the wall, attempt to use the towering arches on the building’s west wall as a theatrical backdrop, while juggling issues around gender roles, modes of representation, the construction of desire, and the mirroring of the feminine self to society’s expectations. It’s an ambitious but also paradoxical work: its components are too small, too numerous, and too visually unresolved to lay claim to the immense space they inhabit. Perhaps it is this unresolved condition that signifies the act of waiting, waiting, always waiting.
Waiting For is at Centre A until February 25.