Cold, Hard Look

TEXT Jennifer Davis
FILM STILLS Mark Lewis/Monte Clark Gallery/Clark & Faria/Galerie Serge Le Borgne

It is possible for the throngs of art connoisseurs, once setting foot inside the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale Art Exhibition, to momentarily escape the crush of heat and crowds outside and enter a chillier place.

From a nose-pressed-to-glass perspective, viewers of the 2009 film TD Centre, 54th Floor get a plan view of an intersection during early morning rush hour, its patterns of car and pedestrian movement predictable. Black mullions slowly slide by, indicating that the video camera has the privileged vantage point from within a skyscraper looming above. A familiar vertiginous perspective that is simultaneously enthralling and terrifying.

Though the Biennale’s true nexus lies inside the 29 national pavilions in the Giardini Publicci, promoting national cultural agendas are pass. Coveted spots are increasingly awarded because of an artist’s presence at the leading edge of contemporary art production. The Germans, for example, boldly featured British artist Liam Gillick. Canada did otherwise.

The Canada Pavilion went homegrown, featuring artist Mark Lewis’s Cold Morning, a suite of four silent, looped non-narrative films, one of which is TD Centre, 54th Floor. With the commission to shoot three new films for the Biennale exhibit, the time was right for Lewis–who lives in London–to cast a familiar eye on his previous home of Toronto. Using this specific city as a place to act out his penchant for filming the generic corners of cities that are often ignored, Lewis provokes the viewer to reflect on the social and temporal disjunctions inherent in the built city.

He is not explicitly interested in Canadian identity as subject matter, but by filming Toronto’s generic urban environment, he inadvertently points to aspects of Canadian culture that we ourselves often overlook. These images present us with the uncomfortable challenge of defining a contemporary Canadian identity that contrasts our persistent romance with architectural landmarks and wilderness postcards.

An astute viewer from Toronto, knowing the title of TD Centre, begins to recognize details that shift the image from a generic scene to a specific place. The white-panelled cladding of the BMO tower across the street marks the intersection of Bay and King Streets in the financial district. The I-beam mullion profile is the hallmark detail of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture, dutifully implemented in the Toronto-Dominion (TD) Centre, one of his most rigorous and complete projects.

This famous bank headquarters was the tallest building in Canada when it was completed in 1967, and embodied Toronto’s zeitgeist during this period of growth and optimism. This building announced to the world, and reinforced to Torontonians, the city’s aspirations to be “world-class.” By commissioning the internationally recognizable yet universally unplaceable architecture of Mies, Toronto got its High Modern edifice and gained entry into the ideals it embodied. Rational egos could improve the city of today and tomorrow, offering the good life on a scale larger than ever imagined.

Lewis’s film turns its back on the TD Centre, usually represented in glossy architectural photos as objects on a nascent Toronto skyline. By stealthily placing his camera at the floor plate’s edge to look outwards, the building becomes an aperture from which to examine the city spaces in between. From this view, the icon is negated, and the viewer is faced with an urban banality that has increased over the past 42 years.

Projected on the pavilion wall two metres from TD Centre is a lower, grimier view of Toronto. The film Cold Morning, the namesake of the exhibition, depicts the sidewalks at Bay and Queen Streets on a frigid winter day. Amid shrivelled snow banks, a homeless man rouses from a bone-chilling night spent huddled atop a steaming subway vent. He folds his sleeping bags and rearranges his belongings, preparing for another day on the streets. For seven minutes, an unmoving camera lens fixes upon him conducting routine chores as well-dressed commuters proceed past him, steering well clear. This scene of infrastructure-turned-makeshift-hearth is at once generic and specific. His identity obscured by a hood, the gestures of housekeeping are understood as the universal human tendency to make a home. His situation is exacerbated by, and particular to, the streets of the cold-climate cities of Canada and the American northeast.

The curatorial decision to project TD Centre and Cold Morning side by side means that the viewer inevitably sees the two films simultaneously. These high and low viewpoints of the same neighbourhood close the perceptual distance between these two locations. The difficult, or possibly non-existent relationship between the people who share the city’s streets while occupying different physical and social strata is glaringly obvious.

But lamenting the failure of utopian social ideals of 1960s High Modernism is perhaps a hasty conclusion drawn from this pair of films.

Such a pessimistic interpretation is symptomatic of a contemporary Canadian identity that is attempting to define itself in a moment when time passes at such speed that the present almost immediately becomes history.

The designation of the TD Centre as a heritage building indicates that Modern edifices are becoming historical objects; relics of an epoch that we no longer identify with completely, but often romanticize as better days gone by. We could take comfort in its ideal still-to-come future. But despite our chronological distance from the High Modern era, there is an uneasy relationship with the ideological constructs embodied by landmark buildings that remain stubbornly in sight.

It is a new and disturbing phenomenon in many cities, including Toronto, that Modernist buildings are becoming antiquated. Perhaps it is an underlying awareness of this process that has prompted Toronto’s new identity campaign. It is ironic that the city’s most recent building boom has focused on renovating contemporary museums; landmark buildings that in themselves accelerate the process of historicizing the recent past. This attempt to build identifiable icons is an unoriginal approach, a tactic used during the office-building surge of the 1960s and ’70s. Toronto has also contracted the museum fever infecting every other “city of culture” at the moment. This is a generic method of identity-making, a borrowed way of envisioning possible futures that should be sui generis, and one which betrays Toronto’s insecurities.

In the Spaces Between

Lewis’s films focus on “in between” places and leftover people. By coolly resting his gaze on the overlooked, he heightens the viewer’s awareness and refines their observation. For example, Cold Morning is a collection of visual short stories that describes the potential of urban public spaces, accepting its generic nature with wide-eyed attentiveness and taking the time to digest the unintentional outcomes borne of unconventional perspectives.

This particular way of seeing recognizes the city as fragmented and full of many, often conflicting stories that occupy the same place and time. The films aestheticize the urban environment while deftly avoiding the temptation to romanticize or bloat with pathos. Lewis is particularly adept at capturing this moment because he avoids the sentimental traps of romanticizing Canadian identity as wilderness clichs, and simultaneously looks away from the urban architectural icons associated with past ambitions. He forces us to look at the genericness that surrounds us, and to work to pull out the specifics, never letting us forget that the outcomes can be splintered and unintentional.

These looping films of the Cold Morning exhibition s
uspend the present moment long enough so that we can interrogate the ordinariness existing around us. Lewis’s confidently iconoclastic approach to inherited ideals, when it comes to both subject and medium, is a refreshing way to look at the “here and now” that has contributed to the construction of a contemporary Canadian identity. CA

Mark Lewis: In a City is a companion exhibition to Cold Morning that runs at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto from September 8 to October 26, 2009. Both the Toronto and Venice shows are curated by Barbara Fischer.

Jennifer Davis spent the summer working at the Canadian Pavilion in Venice. She is currently pursuing a Master of Architecture degree at the University of Toronto, and has worked at firms in New York, Madrid and Toronto.