The Blue Hour
At the Contemporary Art Gallery until June 24
The Blue Hour is the evocative title of a theory-driven show at the Contemporary Art Gallery. While launching the Capture Photography Festival, the exhibition challenges our understanding of that medium’s relationship to time. The “blue hour” is the name given to the 20 minutes of twilight, at dawn and at dusk, when the sun is a certain number of degrees below the horizon and the blue colour spectrum predominates. It’s a period, curator Kimberly Phillips says during the show’s media preview, when time seems to be suspended. The Canadian and international artists in the show, Joi T. Arcand, Kapwani Kiwanga, Colin Miner, Grace Ndiritu, and Kara Uzelman, employ a wide range of ostensible subjects in their creative practices, from Prairie streetscapes to tectonic plates to a perpetual-motion machine. They all, however, mess with the past-present-future tense of photographic time, often using collage and assemblage to pose images, objects, and ideas against each other.
Phillips’s curatorial premise riffs on a declaration made by critic Elizabeth Eastlake in 1857, that the photographic image “approaches us from the future and arrives in the present”. This assertion directly contradicts the established belief that the moment caught in the photograph is already past and is, therefore, irrevocable. The future Eastlake was referring to was probably related to the experiments and advances in photographic technologies of her contemporaries. Phillips, however, uses her words in a metaphysical sense, proposing that the photograph can be about “futurity” and therefore has “speculative potential”.
From a distance, Arcand’s street-front photographs of Saskatchewan towns are reminiscent of Danny Singer’s acclaimed photos of similar subjects; they are suggestive of a nostalgic notion of Prairie settler culture that seems to be lodged in the mid-20th century. Up close, however, nostalgia is powerfully repudiated. In Arcand’s images of small-town businesses, including a hotel, a general store, and a pawn shop, all the English signage has been digitally replaced with Cree syllabics. The effect is wonderfully disorienting: Arcand’s art inverts Canada’s colonial history, which has been one of erasing Indigenous culture, here signified by language. The artist uses different Cree dialects to assert a pre-contact and enduring Aboriginal presence—to bring the past forward to the present and then to project it into the future.
Uzelman bases her photographic and mixed-media assemblage on objects found on what had been her grandfather’s farm, one he lost, we’re told, because he became obsessed with the idea of inventing a perpetual-motion machine. It’s quite a story, and Uzelman approaches it—her grandfather’s squandering of his past and present on an unrealizable idea of the future—by reproducing his drawings and notes alongside her shots of everyday objects unearthed at the farm, fragments of actual artifacts, splatters of paint, and ruined photos of unreadable subjects.
In her folded and overlaid photographs of rock samples from the European and North African sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, Kiwanga conflates a colonial past, a postcolonial present, and a vastly distant future—200 million years hence—when, it is hypothesized, all the Earth’s continents will re-merge into one megacontinent and, notably for her message here, Europe will be overridden by Africa.
Time is suspended in Miner’s diverse congregation of images and objects, ranging from a much-enlarged shot of silver emulsion on a photographic plate to polymerized gypsum casts of dust covers for old photographic equipment, and from wall-mounted neon sculptures to a tiny video, playing on an iPad mini, of a barely moving Peruvian snail.
A Quest for Meaning, Ndiritu’s ongoing photographic archive and installation, is cosmologically ambitious—a kind of creation story. As Phillips writes in her curatorial essay, Ndiritu asserts that “each photograph that comes into existence…is a microcosmic instance of the macrocosm of the universe.” A small selection of the archive she has been assembling since 2010 is on view in the CAG’s Alvin Balkind Gallery (along with an installation of images and texts in the CAG’s Nelson Street windows). Some of these photos are old and appropriated and others are new and original, and none is identified; their origins as well as their relationships to each other—and to the beginning and end of time—are somewhat mysterious. Still, the overall effect of Ndiritu’s work—as with that of the other artists represented here—is engaging and engrossing. We stand before it, suspended in time.