Academic journal article Afterimage

Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival

Academic journal article Afterimage

Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival

Article excerpt

In its eighteenth year, Toronto's annual CONTACT festival has grown to become one of the world's largest photography shows. As much as the festival offered something for everyone, CONTACT's current burnished incarnation served up few surprises or thrills of discovery. This year's festival theme of (the construction of) "identity" also did little to frame or unify the widely disparate artworks on display.

Spread across almost two hundred venues throughout the city, exhibitions ranged from a public installation of expanded full-length, full-color portraits hanging on bustling King Street, to photographic prints opaquely paying homage to Josef Albers and Sol LeWitt installed in an out-of-the-way gallery. As expected, CONTACT also featured portfolio reviews with gallerists, a "how to" on curat-ing and collecting photographs for the private collector, and dozens of events ranging from opening parties and after-parties to public talks by curators and artists. High-profile corporate prizes, such as the Scotiabank Photography Award (valued at CAD$50,000) and the much less lucrative BMW Exhibition Prize (worth CAD$5,000) rounded out the festival's offerings.

The featured solo exhibition for the year, at the Ryerson Image Centre, was of Stan Douglas's work--one of the perks of his 2013 designation as the Scotiabank Photography Award winner. Famous for his use of compositing and digital technologies as well as his use of staging devices to portray impossible yet seemingly truthful portraits, the exhibition displayed Douglas's most iconic works. Every Building on 100 West Hastings (2001), a mammoth sixteen-foot photographic panorama, captures the run-down, seedy businesses and flop hotels on one of Vancouver's most infamous blocks in skid row. The markers of both contested urban space and extreme poverty are evident on both the number of "FOR SALE/LEASE" signs on the Edwardian-era buildings and in the harsh neon fluorescent lights illuminating clinical powder-blue, low-income living spaces. Also on display in the exhibition were the iconic series Der Sandmann (1995) and Detroit Photos (1999), in which Douglas grapples with the unreal physicality of staged sets (in the former) and the weirdly hyperreal set-like realities of dramatically repurposed, formerly abandoned spaces (in the latter).

The exhibition turned its attention to human-based possibilities for staging and construction with its series Disco Angola (2012), including the seemingly documentary Kung-fu Fighting, 1975. In this photograph, a bespectacled African American man in shiny brown polyester slacks vigorously punches the air in the foreground, to the mild bemusement of a white man clad in V-neck T-shirt and black velvet pants seated in the background. All of the markers in this photograph--from the fashion choices of its actors, to the decor and furniture of the surroundings, to the race of the individuals and their respective coded roles--suggest that this photograph was taken, as the title suggests, in 1975. It is a playful intervention that unearths the past and disrupts the present, particularly today, with 1970s hipster fashion resurfacing with a vengeance. Guest curator Robert Bean took pains to step the participant through Douglas's depictions of the unreality of things, then places, then persons. This curating of Douglas's often dislocating, unsettling works made for a curiously informative, user-friendly experience.

Meanwhile, the attempts by Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) to engage wholeheartedly with the theme of identity felt stilted at times, as did the presentation of the University of Toronto Art Centre's Through the Body: Lens-Based Works by Contemporary Chinese Women Artists. While the MOCCA's exhibition of a number of international photographers working on different aspects of representation was scattered in focus, Through the Body was uneven and superficial. Neither offered a satisfying engagement with the nuance or the multiplicity of identities inherent in identity construction. …

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