Sifting treasure from contemporary trash

A look at the Musée d’art contemporain’s fall season

He might not have known at the time, but when Marcel Duchamp stuck a urinal to a plinth, signed it, and called it a “readymade,” he stretched the limits of art far beyond what anyone would have imagined. And though this has allowed for unprecedented experimentation and discovery, and resulted in some very stimulating and revelatory artworks, the lack of constraints has also meant that mediocrity can easily sneak in the door. Today, faced with a barrage of new art and no criteria for judging any of it – besides curators telling us what’s good – it becomes increasingly difficult for audiences to distinguish the gems from the duds. It seems the best we can do is let our subjective tastes breathe.

I was confronted with such a task on my recent visit to the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC). The museum’s fall season, which opened on October 10, showcases the work of artists Tricia Middleton, Tacita Dean, and Francine Savard.

Middleton’s Dark Souls is a multi-media installation that brings together a hodgepodge of found objects, sculpture, painting, video projection, and sound bites into a dim, cave-like setting. The installation addresses “the transformation and destruction of materials” involved in the industrial production cycle.

The title – alluding to Nikolai Gogol’s socially charged novel, Dead Souls – hints at an attempt at social criticism. Directed toward both the over-consumption and material-obsession that form the culture of twenty-first century capitalism, Dark Souls’ piles of found objects and oozing metallic substances embody the waste and decay of our society. Remnants of nature seem to gasp for air under the suffocation of the waste, signalled by vines peeking through cracks in the wall, or a large projection of a forest scene in a back room.

While there’s no accounting for taste, this struck me as the kind of thing that makes people view art as pretentious, elitist, and meaningless. There’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about Dark Souls’ garish colours and piles of junk. And absent the MAC’s elaborate curatorial blurb, it’d be hard to discern any intelligible message.

The second exhibition, a film installation by Tacita Dean, uses John Cage’s infamous 4’33” – a composition consisting of musicians not playing anything – as a jumping -off point. For the film, Dean asked Merce Cunningham (Cage’s long-time collaborator and life partner) to perform a dance to Cage’s piece. The result is a gallery space filled with six screens, each displaying a different version of Cunningham’s choreography.

Cunningham’s contribution, titled STILLNESS, depicts him sitting, immobile before a wall of mirrors. The film could easily be mistaken for freeze-frames, if not for those fleeting moments between each of 4’33”’s movements where Cunningham adjusts his position very slightly.

Though Cunningham’s participation lends a degree of legitimacy to the project, one may nevertheless wonder whether Dean is simply riding on the back of 4’33”’s notoriety. Though Dean’s mixed-media approach succeeds in casting 4’33” in a new light, the underlying idea nevertheless felt stale. The beauty of 4’33” lay in its ability to shock, outrage, and incite people to question their general assumptions about the nature of music and sound. Devoid of that force and vitality, Dean’s installation is confined to arousing interest, and nothing more.

Finally reaching the third exhibition, I was relieved to step into a well-lit, white-walled gallery space with colourful paintings hanging on the wall. The mid-career retrospective of Montreal artist Francine Savard – collecting some 60 works produced between 1992 and 2009 – is the undoubted highlight of the MAC’s fall season. Savard’s oddly shaped, bright monochromatic canvases address the nature of painting through the use of art historical, literary, and geographical references.

In one series of paintings, Savard depicts fragments of found epigraphs on variously shaped canvases. The typographical presentation of the words resembles an e.e. cummings poem: each word is isolated on its own different plane, and rendered in soft pastel colours. The result is a powerful demonstration of the emotional force words can have when observed individually. The artist is able to transform theoretical texts into concrete poetry, while simultaneously transforming the textual source into the visual realm.

The exhibit’s dramatic conclusion is a large, awe-inspiring sculptural rendition of the colour chart, entitled “Tu m’, un dernier tableau.” The title references Duchamp’s work “Tu m’”, which similarly addresses the limits of visual art. The subtitle – “a final painting” – gets at the ongoing debate about painting as a dying art, nicely summing up Savard’s oeuvre. If for no other reason, the intellectually sophisticated and visually beautiful works of Francine Savard should bring you down to the MAC this fall.