Anne Low: Chair for a woman
Aslan Gaisumov: If No One Asks
At the Contemporary Art Gallery until March 24
Born in Grozny, Chechnya, in 1991, artist Aslan Gaisumov was three years old at the start of the First Chechen War, and eight at the start of the Second. He spent most of his growing-up years in refugee camps, and when he returned to Grozny, where he is still based, it had been largely destroyed. It seems clear that these early experiences, along with the stories told by his elders of other wars and other displacements, bind his art to themes of conflict, exile, absence, and the brutal exercise of power.
Gaisumov’s solo show at the Contemporary Art Gallery is composed of two quite different works. At first, both seem quiet and understated; on closer viewing, however, they seethe beneath their silences, commanding the viewer’s act of witness. Memories of War consists simply of a small page from a found book, its text entirely redacted by thick black ink with the exception of a single word. By contrast, People of No Consequence is a single-channel video. Projected in a darkened gallery, it opens with a précis of the history that underlies it. In February 1944, the Russians, under Stalin, deported entire populations of Chechen and Ingush peoples from their North Caucasus homes, to forced labour camps in Central Asia. During their exile, which ended in 1957, more than half the Chechen population perished.
In 2016, Gaisumov arranged for 119 aged returnees—survivors of the mass expulsion—to come together in Grozny, and filmed them as they assembled in a municipal hall set with rows and rows of empty chairs. In the video no one speaks, and the only sounds are the shuffling and subdued hubbub as the aged people, many of them stooped and leaning on canes, enter the room and take their seats. Men come in first, wearing plain tunics and astrakhan hats; women follow, dressed in long skirts, patterned blouses, and kerchiefs. When they are all seated, the video ends—again, without a word.
It’s an immensely powerful work, in which the ghosts of the dead and lost seem to take their place among the silent survivors, upon whose elderly bodies are written the terrible truths of history. If those truths can ever be known.
Also on view at the CAG is Anne Low’s intriguing show Chair for a woman. Based in Montreal, Low established her reputation in Vancouver as a textile artist committed to learning historic weaving techniques and investigating the knowledge “embedded” within them. Here, her interest has shifted to furniture and related decorative arts, her references ranging from ancient Egypt to Edwardian England. The show includes a little writing desk, a low wooden chair, a decorative fire screen, a stool, and a set of upholstered bed steps, all mounted on a specially constructed plinth. As well, there’s a large wall piece, Bedchamber of a paper stainer (wall).
In many of these works, the fine craftsmanship is undermined by formal interventions (shifts in scale in Chair for a woman; cutaways in the wall and door of Bedchamber) or the insertion of odd, anachronistic, or, as curator Kimberly Phillips describes them in her brochure essay, “uncanny” elements (two pencils hovering a centimetre above the top of the writing desk, Ancestress).
Invested in these objects are histories of gender and class, as well as endangered or obsolete forms of artisanship. Low also makes a few somewhat arcane cultural references (to filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and novelist Edith Wharton, for instance). Taken together with their mode of display, the artist also asks us to consider how museum practices of exhibitry and curation influence our reading of these objects. And while many of her references may sail right past us, the weird beauty of the work continues to compel our interest.