Toronto – MKG127
Katie Bethune-Leamen, Dazzle Shizzle
MKG127, Toronto, February 13 –March 13, 2010
Cold War spies, nineteenth-century Arctic explorers, submarine camouflage and a 1980s experimental synthesizer band come together in unusual and intriguing ways in Katie Bethune-Leamen’s first solo exhibition at MKG127. Titled “Dazzle Shizzle,” the show furthers the artist’s ongoing interest in mining the intersections of language, pop culture and visuality in encoding and decoding experience: a preoccupation exemplified most recently in Bethune-Leamen’s 2009 Nuit Blanche performance Ghost Chorus: A Dirge for Dead Slang and earlier curatorial project “The Way I Are,” which put forth verbal slang as a metaphor for conceptual slippages in contemporary art.
Though it takes a great deal of research to fully appreciate the nuances of Bethune-Leamen’s historical references, “Dazzle Shizzle” also rewards the casual viewer with a wealth of visual sensations that invite close inspection and careful consideration. In the gallery’s front window, a giant, iridescent and scored sculpture that seems half-meteor, half-iceberg glimmers in teal, silver and pink shades atop a Plexiglas stand embossed with the title Really, It’s A Lot Bigger, A Lot Heavier, And A Lot Darker (2010). Just what “It” is is unclear, but on an adjacent wall, six paintings based on various permutations of an album cover designed by Peter Saville for the British band OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) declare themselves more openly. Reminiscent of Piet Mondrian’s geometric compositions, the covers also bring to mind the use of “dazzle camouflage” on World War I era submarines, meant to confuse enemy ships.
Three looping videos displayed opposite the paintings begin to illuminate Bethune-Leamen’s conceptual connections. In the first, Robert E. Peary First Sees Ahnighito (2010), an actor wearing a fur parka and rather unconvincing facial hair plays the explorer who recovered the Cape York meteorite from Greenland in 1894. Depicting the moment of his discovery, the video shows Peary’s looks of surprise and bewilderment as Ahnighito, the meteor-iceberg from the window, hovers above the icy terrain, constantly changing colours. On a monitor next to Peary, the SS OMD — a submarine covered in Saville’s designs — silently drifts across an arctic seascape, while on the final monitor, a fluorescent green ghost floats in black space in a Study for the Office of Dead Slang (2010). Nearby, on five glow-in-the-dark plinths, Bethune-Leamen displays a series of eerie cast metal hoods based on those worn by Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet spy who defected in 1945. Despite the recurring references to hiding and camouflage in the artist’s works, it becomes clear that Bethune-Leamen is here concerned with the way that forms can work a kind of subterfuge through visual confusion: the way that objects’ surfeit of visuality can paradoxically make them difficult to see. Unlike many overly cerebral, conceptually dense works, however, Bethune-Leamen’s projects are not interested in having us “get” their underlying references, but instead encourage visual speculation and imaginative cognitive connections.