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Cadaverous Collaboration at Les Territoires

Cadaverous Collaboration at Les Territoires
(Alejandro Garcia Contreras)

In describing the title for "Espejo Negro" ("Black Mirror"), his upcoming project at Montreal's Les Territoires gallery, Mexican artist Alejandro Garcia Contreras starts with an origin myth of sorts: proverbial man looks into a mirror, and encounters the image of his existence as man while simultaneously acknowledging the fragility of such an illusion. The chromatic touch in the exhibition’s title, Contreras continues, comes from the black stone (usually obsidian) used for ancient mirrors; one’s reflection stays mired in darkness.  Black imagery serves as the focal point in "Espejo Negro," a dark and spirited exhibition currently in month-three of a summer-long collaborative project. 

 The exhibition's heady, slightly morbid concept extends to Contreras's ongoing blog created for the "Espejo Negro," titled “Muerte Mamona,” an admittedly macabre compendium of video clips, visual art, and text passages on death, dying, and memory. The blog’s interests range from French artist Christian Boltanski’s lyrical, monumental installations to YouTube footage of a dog burying its newly deceased puppy in the Iraq desert. In his own practice, Contreras works with an equally eclectic range: in a variety of media, he plunders the pop cultural idioms of death (zombies, corpses, Grim Reapers) to spin elaborate, almost kitsch, assemblages that speak to the casual approach to the visual culture of dying taken in his own cultural background. In the folkloric death imagery of Mexico and Latin America, death is treated often with celebratory irreverence – mournful and perhaps tragic, but inevitable, eventful, comic, and at times, seemingly very much ‘alive’. Contreras explains: “In Mexico, we love death, but we love death not because we think it’s unimportant; we love it because we understand it’s going to happen, it’s part of nature. You live and die.”

But such is one cultural approach: with “Espejo Negro,” set to open in early August, Contreras assembled a Canadian team of artists as collaborators in the second edition of Les Territoires’s “Creation Workshop,” in the hopes of tackling his thorny subject matter from a variety of viewpoints and angles. An effort to bring together and support emerging artists from a broad cultural spectrum, the Creation Workshop selects one artist to oversee a four-month project developed with five other artists in a studio just below the gallery’s exhibition space in Montreal’s Belgo Building. The initiative, as Territoires General Director Marie-Josée Parent tells ARTINFO Canada, is an attempt to both fill Montreal’s void of residency programs for artists and to provide a secure professional environment for artists new to Montreal and North America. Last year, Iranian-born artist Sayeh Sarfaraz led a project based on the themes of political belonging and fantasy. For Contreras’ incarnation of the workshop, the theme is, unsurprisingly, death.

Following an application process, Contreras chose artists Ben Clarkson, Isabelle Guimond, Mat O’Hara, Naghmeh Sharifi, and Chris Simonite, each working in separate media and arriving in Montreal from different parts of the country. As Sharifi explained in a group conversation with ARTINFO Canada, “I went to see [last year’s Creative Workshop exhibition], and the whole idea of a workshop that leads to an exhibition and a collective of artists working together was really appealing to me. As a painter, you’re very isolated. I saw the open call, and I knew that it was a very interesting experience. The theme was death, which right away attracted me for different reasons, personal and otherwise.”

The six artists developed an idea for a stop-motion film,  stopping at the idea of concept and allowing free-form collaboration per the group’s aesthetic sensibilities and long-term production process. The medium, Contreras offered, suits the exhibition’s content: “When you think of stop-motion, it’s something that is dead — it cannot move. But you’re trying to create the illusion of some kind of life” — animation on multiple levels.  “Espejo Negro” also takes cues from other visual languages of death and the occult, from the iconography of ancient Egyptian, Aztec, and Inca cultures, to the postwar pop mysticism of American filmmaker Kenneth Anger, to British spiritualist Aleister Crowley and his religion Thelema. In some ways, the group’s synthetic vernacular for describing death speaks to a process of mixing and matching, a collaborative and open-ended attempt to describe and express a condition as opaque as immense as death.

At press time, the film’s table-length backdrop already seemed to epitomize the Creation Workshop’s creative sensibility, featuring a tableau of molded organic forms, distressed environmental details, and expressive, illustrative flourishes with a heavy dose of polyurethane (think Allison Schulnik’s films or a miniaturized version of Tricia Middleton’s installation work). As Clarkson described the setting, “When we were first starting on the table for the landscape, no matter what we ended up doing, Alejandro and I described it as ‘Dollarama-techno-hell’,” referencing the ubiquitous Canadian discount store chain. Contreras cites Brueghel the Elder’s painting "The Triumph of Death" (ca. 1562) as a source of artistic inspiration for the group, with its episodic composition and ghoulish subject matter.

The result is the sort of imaginary landscape suitable to an open-ended, exploratory creative process, somewhat of a palimpsest that archives and transcribes each artist’s contribution to a larger, sprawling project. For Parent, this is a required artistic condition to sufficiently capture the quality of artistic experimentation: “The artists can play together as if it were a necessity to create a space where they can interact and share their practices. That could only happen in a world that was created by all of them together.” As Clarkson describes, “It’s like this strange space, and everyone has their objects they’re working on and their characters. As we come into the space more and more, people complete things, and then we want to participate in what they’re doing or one-up each other.”

That’s not to say the project is a complete utopia of artistic innovation and practice (and so often collaborative practice is billed as the inevitable and necessary future for visual art): the group mentions competing work schedules, disagreements, cultural differences, and stop-motion’s technical difficulty, not to mention the upcoming August deadline. With the concluding exhibition and opening day performance by Simonite, the workshop’s hope is that something will emerge otherwise impossible with a single-artist endeavor. “Only good things can come from other people’s expertise,” says Clarkson. “Working with other people’s knowledge and their desires to do things a certain way can only strengthen a project or aesthetic. Otherwise it looks like a formula, it looks like one thing.”