At Centre A until December 20
There’s something odd and endearing about the way Louise Noguchi brings together images from sci-fi movies, rodeo sideshows, and identity politics. Her show at Centre A focuses on role-playing, with elements of past and present, gender and culture, aggression and passivity. Using video, performance, sculpture, and photography, the Toronto-based artist takes on these complex issues in an intellectually playful and visually delightful way.
Study/Sketch is a video installation comprising a large-scale projection and 10 monitors sitting on the floor in front of it. All play slow-motion versions of much the same scenario: a black-hatted cowboy throws knives at the periphery of a moving target. That the cowboy is a young white man and the target is Noguchi, a middle-aged Japanese Canadian woman, cannot be incidental.
Still, nothing here is quite what it seems. The knife thrower, Tom, is a rodeo cowboy with whom the artist studied trick roping and developed a trusting friendship. In an earlier exhibition catalogue, Noguchi reports Tom’s reluctance to take part in the videotaped performance, which he thought would be construed as misogynist. In fact, she argues with him, she usually plays the role of hunter, not prey or victim, in her art. Study/Sketch represents a reversal of the role reversals she’d previously engaged in.
The installation—with its multiple images of Noguchi secured to a large, red, rotating wheel and Tom pitching huge steel knives around her—is nothing short of gripping. The soundtrack adds to the tension: the scraping turns of the wheel, the rhythmic thunks of the knife blades landing in wood, and the occasional loud clanging sounds, as if a knife had hit metal.
The way in which Noguchi is affixed to the rotating wheel connotes a trophy, a living creature to be killed, stuffed, and mounted on a wall. Other evocations present themselves: for instance, as Centre A director Hank Bull toured me through the show, he mentioned that the work made him think of historical depictions of crucifixions and martyrdoms. In interviews, Noguchi herself speaks simply of her desire to tell stories about her own life and interests. Still, the story of her learning rodeo tricks and being the knife thrower’s assistant inevitably reverberates with pop-culture conceptions of colonizing the western frontier, and of tough-guy and tender-gal clichés.
Similar dynamics are suggested by Crack. In this beautiful, single-channel video, Noguchi again performs the role of vulnerable assistant, this time to an unseen, bullwhip-wielding cowboy. Dressed in a Japanese robe and holding white flowers, she evokes elements of her cultural history, including the fact that her parents were among the thousands of Japanese Canadians wrongfully interned by our government during the Second World War.
In a new and entirely different installation, Shanghai Dragon (Moisture Forms), Noguchi employs pink Styrofoam sculptures and multipanelled photographs to suggest images from a seemingly unrelated trio of movies. Phallic “vaporators” from a desert-outpost scene in Star Wars, a murder in a house of mirrors from The Lady From Shanghai, and a confrontation between good and evil in a mirrored room in Enter the Dragon are all curiously conflated. Again, preoccupations with the hunter and the hunted, pop-culture notions of frontiers, and the confrontation between male and female, East and West, seem to inform this puzzling—but charming—work.