A playful but political trip into Blue Republic’s toytown

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Oct. 28, 2011 5:00PM EDT

Blue Republic at Doris McCarthy Gallery

Until Nov. 2, 1265 Military Trail, University of Toronto Scarborough, Toronto; www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~dmg

Anna Passakas and Radoslaw Kudlinski, the internationally celebrated multimedia team known as Blue Republic, have yet to be given their proper due in Canada, despite their enviable exhibition history and projects undertaken in countries as diverse as Cambodia and their native Poland. But that’s what we do in this country, we let other countries discover our talents.

Super It, a new multipart exhibition of Blue Republic’s signature installations and performance documents/photographs at the Doris McCarthy Gallery – an exhibition in preparation for a Canadian tour – will undoubtedly disrupt all this Canadian-inferiority-complex, postcolonial-invisibility nonsense. It’s about time.

Made up of three more or less distinct sections (the works are too interrelated, visually and thematically, to label them separate exhibitions), Super It is an entrancing, metaphorically layered, but still very accessible display – one that invites everyone from the most critically engaged viewer to the casual, lucky bystander. Blue Republic’s work is nothing if not democratic.

The first section of the show, one that takes up the entire large room of the Doris McCarthy’s two-gallery space, is a metropolis in miniature.

Featuring fantastical towers made from cardboard tubes, blocks and old paint rollers (to name but a few of their props), all surrounded by a system of low, highway-like passages marked out by upright planks, wood slats and flat hunks of found metal, the “city” is a simultaneous junkyard dystopia and a tinker’s playground. The toytown towers are augmented and mounted with everything from plastic funnels to abandoned kitchen tools to tin cans to old coloured glass bottles to flat circles of cardboard, thus creating a phantasmagoric, somewhat unnerving (the works are very fragile) Emerald City in metallic and earth tones.

Surrounding this massive maquette is a series of integrated sub-spaces – the suburbs, so to speak. These creations include collections of discarded objects (chair-leg ends sprouting out of a wooden box, glass baubles encircled by re-purposed garden hose), plus several wall-mounted works, ranging from paintings on cardboard-box ends to murals made from electrical tape and pencil marks. Also, a smaller model city awaits, one made entirely with snowy white objects, such as Styrofoam packaging, an ice-cube tray and food containers.

Yes, there is rather a lot to look at here, not to mention absorb. And that’s only the first room. However, the works are laid out in a manner that unfolds gradually, thus creating an easily read growth/progress model, a low-to-high landscape that is as inviting as it is natural.

Unlike, for instance, the recent Thomas Hirschhorn junk pile (dis)assemblage at the Power Plant – a decidedly cranky, trashy and idiotically obvious (bloody doll heads, anyone?) work devised to cause repulsion in the viewer, if not contempt – the manufactured landscapes in Super It are overtly welcoming and innately understand the contract(s) that exist between gallery and gallerygoer. The Blue Republic artists revel in the inherent invitation to enter, engage and inspect that any open door creates, an invitation they reiterate with a sculptural composition strategy that stresses openness and approachability.

You will not be confronted by the excess, the sheer mass, but the reassuring opposite; you’ll be made to feel cozy and perhaps even as if you had, by virtue of viewing the work, in some way participated in its creation.

Arch anti-authoritarians, the Blue Republic artists understand that galleries are intimidating spaces. So, they give their viewers viable entry points, twinkling tendrils and generous, come-hither flowers that grow into a deliciously tangled garden.

In the smaller space at the Doris McCarthy, Blue Republic offers three works that play off the temporality that is an obvious component of the first room’s site-specific assemblages. (The artists tell me that no two “cities” are ever alike, even when the same props are employed.) The first of the smaller gallery works is a series of photo-documents of performance interventions the artists call Water Paintings. Nothing could be simpler, or more delightful.

Wandering around a rocky beach, the artists use available water to create paintings – images of ladders, clothes, a wheelchair, a cubic grid. But, of course, the paintings last only as long as the sun allows. A more concise statement about art’s built-in shelf life I cannot imagine.

The second work is a table covered in game parts that have been comically rearranged. In one sculpture, a bowling pin sits on a tiny chessboard, surrounded by a cluster of little chess pieces, reminiscent of the humanoids clawing the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In a related work, chess pieces are placed on a spiralling mandala, uncertain where to move when displaced from their orderly grid. As chess (and many other board games) are derived from war-strategy tools, one can’t help but read these works as commentaries on the absurdity of violent conflict – a reading that is supported by the third work, one that rests just next to the chess sculptures.

Made from white matte paper, the tabletop sculpture is another micro-city, but this time one besieged by a model tank. Mini-towers are presented in mid-tumble while shards and chunks of the buildings litter the anthill streets. How strange: an anti-model, a constructed destruction.

As political as it is playful, Super It asks viewers to engage, make connections and then
to reflect on the consequences of humanity’s frequent inability to do either.