Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Diane Borsato - National Post / May 1, 2004

When does a private act become a performance? Is watering house plants or pretending to be a plant, a work of art? Ask Diane Borsato, an artist whose performances are so discreet they are rarely detected by anyone other than herself.

Borsato's fame for making subtle art started in 2001 with a performance at the Montreal artist-run centre, Skol, where she created the world's longest paper-clip chain. For 24 hours 60 people linked a million paper clips. Borsato built a rectangular rack to string it up like a huge curtain which she then lit so it shimmered like water.

Titled, How To Make A Sculpture In An Emergency, the performance/art is now listed on page 24 of the Guinness Book of World Records. "It was a found performance that turned into this sublime modern sculpture," she says.

After finishing grad school at Concordia, Borsato did an MA in performance at NYU, but found it difficult living in New York after September 11, when post-traumatic tension was still very palpable. She ended up staying inside a lot, making art with her plants in her apartment.

One performance she did in 2002 while still in New York was titled Carrying My Heavy Bag, where she had porters at luxury hotels carry her backpack into the lobby and back out again. "It was just so they could experience the weight of my life," she says. A year later, during a residency in Nice, France she performed Warm Things to Chew for the Dead, where offerings of food were left at grave stones.

Squeeze the Cat is a performance based on not doing something. "I didn't squeeze the cat," she says about the titled non-performance. "I was thinking about Yves Klein's famous Leap Into the Void and that not leaping into the void seemed as much a gesture." It was also a critique of the macho history of performance, "all that death defying stuff," she says referring to performers like Vito Acconci or Australia's Mike Parr who recently nailed his arm to a wall.

Borsato also started to wonder if completing a task was all that necessary. "It's important that I complete a task," she says, "but not feel restricted by that." That lead to what she calls "eating light." In a room of plants Borsato found in a seminary in Quebec she acted like a plant by sitting still in the room for a day emulating the grace of plants. "The priests seemed to know what I was doing. They’d ask me if I was doing a mediation of the sky." I'd say 'kind of,' and they'd just accept that. It showed me how performance and religion are quite engaged. All I did was sit and act like a plant. It was as if I learned how to eat light."

Borsato does do some live performances but not often, and usually they are non-theatrical, like the paper-clip project, or her Twitching Project (Le Projet Tic) performed at Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec last year. On the museum site there is an old prison with six small cells that are occasionally used for art. Borsato had six performers sit in each cell and twitch their legs. She made an electrical device that calculated a certain amount of twitching into one stride, and then the number of strides in a kilometer, to represent the energy being expelled as a walking distance from the prison. "I had developed a kind of tick when I was in New York from all the stress," she says about the inspiration for the piece. "It seemed symbolic, like I was trying to get back to Canada."

Every twitch made a click so the noise of six twitching legs was quite anxious. "I see my neurosis is a kind of energy. When I was in New York, it was more obvious. In France I was way more relaxed, drinking wine, and pretending to be a plant."

Borsato's Touching 1000 Peopleproject, based on the belief that touching can heal, involves her discreetly touching 1000 people over a given period. She has performed the project in Montreal where she touched 1000 people in one month, and in Vancouver where the time frame was sped up to 10 days. "It was a full-time job in Vancouver. I was constantly focussed on my distance from other people."

She also noticed a few social patterns emerging, like teenagers were impossible to touch. "They just notice you more." Men and older people are easier, and it was easier to touch in Montreal than in Vancouver.

Many of Borsato's performances only exist however as photographs and as text which she writes as a record of her actions. They are the only evidence there is indeed sound when a tree falls and no one is around to hear it. Her photographs are part of this month's Contact Photography Festival. Warm Things To Chew For The Dead opens at Gallery TPW 96 Spadina Ave on May 6 and runs until June 5. - Catherine Osborne

Contact Photography Fest - National Post May 1, 2004

Art historian Penny Cousineau-Levine recently published an important book called Faking Death where she describes how and why Canadian photographers are obsessed with death. That idea is nothing new when you think how many times the same thing has been said about Canadian films and Can lit. Also considering our tedious habit for defining ourselves by what we are not (i.e. we're not Americans, we're not at war in Iraq). Not being leaves a big hole of nothingness to gapple with.

It's the old identity struggle of the Great North, but Cousineau-Levine's book is the first of its kind to connect a national state of mind to the photographic image, and to point out how art photographers here prefer to use the camera for its metaphoric potential rather than as straight documentation. As she puts it, borrowing from Rene Magritte's famous "Ceci n'est pas une pipe": "A pipe in a Canadian photograph isn't usually a pipe. It's probably a crucifix."

What better time to test her death theory than during this month's Contact Photography Festival, when 400 Canadian and international photo exhibitions are up at 145 venues around the city.

Topping the list is the reigning queen of OWD (obsessed with death) Diane Thorneycroft, the Winnipeg artist who has taken the heat on censorship more than once for her dark (often twisted) depictions of bondage and for hanging dead rabbits from trees. Martyrs and Murder (opening May 20 at Justina M. Barnicke Gallery) is her latest series that copies the gore and death of biblical saints as they were once painted by the Old Masters. Here, she uses Barbie and Ken dolls as the saintly stand-ins and sets up environments using her usual bag of theatrical goth props -- doll heads, animal pelts, blood stained garments.

Far more understated, though just as seductive in framing death among the living, is Joan Kaufman's grainy black-and-whites of a Roman bathhouse and swimmers suspended by water safety gear and in rather dead-like positions, with arms and legs dangling as if they've been dragged from the bottom of the pool (at Red Head Gallery and Lonsdale Gallery). At Olga Korper Gallery, Christine Davis's new large-format photographs depict some of the artist's dresses on mannequins. Projected onto the judy forms are faint images of nude figures bound and tied. Is this an example of psychological duality as subject matter? Check. How about images of struggle with the inner psyche? Check. Or what Margaret Atwood once described as the "doomed and slaughtered animals" within us? Check.

Then there is Vid Ingelevics's photographs of the Ontario north in late fall. At the centre of each grassy field is a leafless tree with a little fort built of wood halfway up the trunk. The construction is a deer hunter's perch for scoping whitetails in the distance. Ingelevics has installed the photos like advertising posters at the Museum subway station (there is also a video at Stephen Bulger Gallery). His main interest is in environments that have only slight traces of human presence, but in this non-gallery context, posted at a busy subway platform, there are other macabre layers implied about nature verses man v. hunting v. survival v. random violence, etc., etc., etc.

Many more examples can be found proving Cousineau-Levine is dead right we are OWD (witness: Mark Lewis's videos of barren, alienating places at Monte Clarke Gallery and Stan Douglas's documentation of drug and crime infested West Hastings. On view from May 6 at Prefix). Jack Burman, a superb photographer of crystal-clear documentation of severed heads and detached hearts fresh from the morgue, is a noticeable exception among the metaphysical Canadian clique (from May 13 at Clint Roenisch Gallery).

Interestingly, a younger generation is also showing signs of mortality preoccupations. Chris Curreri's photo-based works, which are wildly popular among photography circles around town, are turn-of-the-century images he has altered by blocking out or surrounding selected faces with embroidery patterns sewn right onto the photographs. They look like some funeral-type ritual where the dead have been tenderly singled out from the crowd (at Edward Day Gallery).

Meanwhile P. Elaine Sharpe, whose earlier work dealt with surveillance, is now onto themes of crime and witness. Her photos of sites, such as a pathological laboratory and Hitler's suicide bunker, are loaded with horrors unseen. Sharpe doesn't really get us much closer to these images of evil as crime photography normally would. She's shot them out of focus, keeping us at a distance between knowing what we're looking at and not being able to get close (at Lee Ka-sing Gallery).

Actually, the official theme of this year's fest is death's close cousin, "Truth," according to the media release, and a number of exhibitions are showing some of the best photojournalism and travel photography around. Among them are Jeremy Taylor's exquisite portrait of Montreal in the 1960s (Loft Art), Robert Polidori's shots of devastating wreckage in Pripyat and Chernobly post-nuclear meltdown (on billboards along Queen Street West), Toronto photographer Donald Weber's recent photographs of Kurds in eastern Turkey (from May 7 at 3 Storey), as well as Jamaican-born Dennis Morris's photographs of east London in the 1970s. Morris was once the official photographer for the Sex Pistols (from May 2 at Shift Gallery. Morris lecture May 10 at Jackman Hall).

Another recurring topic is Toronto. Two exhibitions worth seeing include New Xanadu: Bay Street, David Hlynsky's "quasi-romantic" snapshots of blue suits at work in their office towers. Hlynsky’s camera is an outsider to their inner world and the cool remove captures both the power and tedious uniformity of corporate life (from May 4 at Delong Gallery).

The other is New York-based Noritoshi Hirakawa whose themes play around with public decency and personal urges. Hirakawa's backdrop is Thom Mayne's dramatic Graduate House at U of T, and his models are trusting strangers he has co-opted for the shoot. They are seen doing things like bending over a railing or necking in a corridor. Many dismiss Hirakawa as nothing but a soft-pornographer posing as art photographer. There is that, but his photographs have as much brain sex in them as they do regular sex sex titillation.

Two others not to be missed: French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Krief's short films on artists such as Jeff Wall and Nan Goldin among others (May 6 and 9, NFB Cinema), and Deborah Samuel's Dog portraits, which might even be better than Wegman's Weimaraners, since Samuel works with other people's pets, and that’s pretty tricky (from May 12 at Drabinsky Gallery). - Catherine Osborne

Contact Toronto Photography Festival runs until May 31 at 45 downtown locations. Most, but not all, exhibitions open today. Free programmes available at LCBO stores and at exhibition locations. Suggested Reading: Faking Death: Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination by Penny Cousineau-Levine, McGill-Queen's Press, 2003.