Tu–Su: 12–6 pm; M: closed
Writing in 1857, only a few short decades after the “invention” of photography, the art historian and critic Elizabeth Eastlake describes the photographic image as “one that approaches us from the future and arrives in the present.” While referring to new technologies in chemical photography at the time, Eastlake’s comment might also be interpreted more portentously, as critical theorist Kaja Silverman suggests in The Miracle of Analogy: or, The History of Photography, Part 1, as an invitation to upend canonical readings of photographs, which emphasize their simultaneous demonstration of “this-has-been” and “this-is-no-more.” The presumption that what we see when we look at a photograph is unalterable, Silverman suggests, “contributes to the political despair that afflicts so many of us today: our sense that the future is ‘all used up.’” Instead, she posits, we should consider photography as “the world’s primary way of revealing itself to us—of demonstrating that it exists, and that it will forever exceed us.” Here, the photograph becomes a tool with speculative potential rather than one with simply the power to memorialize.
The Blue Hour extends from this radical premise to rethink our assumptions about the photograph’s relationship to time. The exhibition presents work by five Canadian and international artists—Joi T. Arcand, Kapwani Kiwanga, Colin Miner, Grace Ndiritu, and Kara Uzelman—and acts as a proposition to consider the futurity of the photographic image. The exhibition’s title makes reference to the brief period of twilight at dawn and dusk when the linearity of time appears to hover in a state of suspension. We might understand this “blue hour” as analogous to the photographic event, which, as literary theorist Eduardo Cadava has claimed, “interrupts the present; … occurs between the present and itself, between the movement of time and itself.” The space of radical potentiality—whether political, geological, cosmological, or philosophical—that opens up within this state of suspension forms the central inquiry of this exhibition.
Joi T. Arcand is from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in central Saskatchewan, Treaty 6 territory. Her practice is concerned with the invisibility of Indigeneity in contemporary Canadian culture and, in particular, how erasures of Indigenous presence, culture, and histories have been enacted in space and through language. While Cree is one of three Indigenous languages that, according to Statistics Canada, remains “viable,” Arcand realized that her own inability to speak the language meant that, in her family, the language was in fact extinct. Here on Future Earth (2009) first appears as a series of nostalgic, soft-edged views of small-town Saskatchewan streetscapes. However, Arcand’s intervention quickly reveals itself. In a simple act of détournement, performed in her desire to “see things where they weren’t,” she manipulates all visible street signage in the images, replacing English words with Cree syllabics. In so doing, Arcand proposes a radical shift to an Indigenous-centred worldview enacted through language. In bending our presumptions of the photograph as a document of time past, she images an alternative past/present/future, at once “a present beside itself,” to quote Cree writer and theorist Billy-Ray Belcourt, and a future within arm’s length. As a public intervention, three images from the series are reproduced on the facades of Vancouver’s three downtown Canada Line stations: Vancouver City Centre, Yaletown–Roundhouse, and Waterfront (Granville South Entrance). Returned to the street, the photographs’ Cree wordage challenges the visual cacophony of existing images and signage of this settler city built upon unceded Indigenous ground.
Kapwani Kiwanga’s practice also plays with the elastic potential of photographic time. Drawing upon both archival and invented documents, her process is at once investigative and imaginative. With research interests ranging from speculative fiction and science fiction to the anti-colonial struggle, as well as investigations into more apocryphal histories that have, as she says, “fallen through the cracks,” the Paris-based Canadian artist persistently weaves together fiction and fact. Kiwanga’s Subduction Studies (2017) proposes an intersection of geology and the imaginary. The title references a geological term describing the sites where the earth’s tectonic plates constantly converge and collide, forcing one plate to sink beneath the other into the earth’s mantle. The series considers the geological hypothesis Pangaea Ultima, which predicts a remerger of all continents into a single supercontinent, with Europe sliding underneath Africa some 200 million years in the future. For each work, Kiwanga selects two geological samples from the collection of the Museum of Natural History in Paris and photographs them. On one image, a rock from the European side of the Strait of Gibraltar, and on the other, a sample originating in a North African country on the Mediterranean shore. By creasing the photographic prints, Kiwanga aligns the two dissimilar rocks—fold line becomes fault line—and effectively enacts the eons-long geologic process of tectonic convergence. Through this straightforward material manipulation, the artist proposes a future collision of the African and European continents, and—given the current reception of migrant communities in Europe—one can read the work as materializing deeply lodged colonial anxieties about the African “Other.”
For Kenyan British artist Grace Ndiritu, photographic time stretches beyond the geological to the cosmological: each photograph that comes into existence, she attests, is a microcosmic instance of the macrocosm of the universe. Since 2010, Ndiritu has been developing an encyclopedic archive of images, A Quest For Meaning (AQFM). Originating through non-rational methodologies and shamanic journeys, it proposes a universal narrative spoken through the photographic image, a creation story from the beginning of time itself, linking seemingly disparate objects and events from the flash of light that was the Big Bang—the original photographic event, one might argue—until our present day, by conjuring new connections between them. The interconnected themes in AQFM perpetually expand, each time it is exhibited, to create new photographic constellations, suggestive of Silverman’s assertion that “photography is … an ontological calling card: it helps us to see that each of us is a node in a vast constellation of analogies.” Installed upon colour-blocked walls that Ndiritu calls “Bright Young Things,” the artist’s material and compositional strategies work to disrupt and confound her viewers’ presumptions about what they are looking at (the installation’s subtitle is Painting as a Medium of Photography). Was the small photograph of Eugène Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1827) hanging in the Louvre, for example, taken by the artist, or was it ripped from the pages of an early edition of Gardner’s Art through the Ages textbook? The scale, composition, and colouring of the image make it difficult to discern. Are the archival images captured during the Rif War between Morocco and Spain original or rephotographed? It is hard not to read them through current tensions over contemporary migration from both North and Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. As a further play on expansion and proliferation, a special edition of Ndiritu’s AQFM newspaper, featuring the artist’s essay “The End of History,” is available free to take away and “colonizes” the CAG’s ground-floor windows.
Kara Uzelman’s artistic practice marks an interruption in our collective drive toward mega-production and the disposable object, and consistently re-evaluates the object’s potential for alternative sources of meaning beyond what is understood on the surface. Engaging with the processes of excavating, gathering, and inventing as a kind of self-directed study of her surroundings, the artist works with scavenged materials and the specificities of site to speculate on possible stories embedded in found and discarded materials. The act of collecting, for Uzelman, becomes a means to explore time as a non-linear form. While the past, as literary theorist Susan Stewart argues, “is constructed from a set of presently existing pieces,” the collection looks to the future. In the way the collection is never static, Uzelman’s work is experimental: there is no completion of the collection until the collector’s demise. Perpetual Motion (2018) is part of an ongoing series of works initiated through a field trip to an abandoned farmyard near Speers, Saskatchewan. Once occupied by the artist’s grandfather, the farm was eventually lost and Uzelman’s grandfather became focused on designing a perpetual motion machine. Despite having met him only a handful of times, Uzelman inherited his notes and drawings. By way of delving into this history, in Perpetual Motion the photograph becomes the conduit medium that unites site with collected objects and information, functioning as the “glue” in an assemblage. As Cadava suggests in Words of Light, “the photograph is always related to something other than itself. Sealing the traces of the past within its space-crossed image, it also lets itself be (re)touched by its relation to the future.” Through the manipulation of the collected materials, chronology becomes dislocated and photographs become tools for future use in an as yet unnamed context.
The fugitive and cyclical are ongoing sources of research for Colin Miner, whose work traces the ontological anxiety that, in his words, “shadows” the photographic. Considering photography’s most basic articulation through qualities of lightness, darkness, reflection, and refraction, Miner seeks to evoke, rather than capture, photography’s qualities of relation. In The Blue Hour, a constellation of disparate objects and images—photographs in their “expanded” form—are brought together to create converging lines of inquiry, which elliptically surface and resurface across the installation. Here, Miner approaches the photograph as a state of suspension—a manifestation of “space-crossed time.” Plaster and latex casts of dust covers for photographic equipment (collected by the artist for potential future use) are tinted by different hues of red light thrown by two neon sculptures (2017 and 2018), whose spiral forms recall early twentieth-century Czech physician Jan Purkinje’s empirical studies of afterimages in the eye. A large-scale print portrays the slippage of silver emulsion across the surface of a photographic plate—quite literally, an image of photography’s unfixed state. This movement of glittering emulsion is echoed once again in the diminutive but mesmerizing video Untitled (snail) (2017), which follows, in an endless loop, the barely perceptible movement of a large Peruvian snail—an animal that, one might argue, both secretes time and carries it upon its back. As writer Jacqueline Mabey remarks about Miner’s work, in a statement that might also be applied to the conditions of photography as a whole, “you can try to fix the image, but it will never stick. The temporality of the photograph is not the ‘there-then’ but contains the kernel of potential futures, held in eternal ‘yet-could-be.’”
Grace Ndiritu is generously supported by the British Council.