Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)
Aimia/AGO Photography Prize
Voting closes November 27, 2016. Exhibition until Jan 1, 2017
From the Turner Prize to the Pulitzers, the judging process of artistic competitions is fraught with controversy.
Established in 2007, the Aimia AGO photography prize, Canada’s optimum award for contemporary photography, was the first major art accolade to hand the general public the responsibility of choosing the winner – although an expert panel has already drawn up the list of contenders.
Deciding who most deserves the $50,000 prize money is no easy task when the line-up of four are so distinct from one another. Personally, I’m more comfortable leaving it to the experts.
The popular choice in Toronto could be the Canadian – Elizabeth Zvonar, who tells us she likes “the idea of hybridising processes”.
If that sounds abstract, the concrete result is collages drawn from eclectic sources that explore the tension between past and future.
With post-modern wit, irony, playfulness and feminism, she composes images made up of Louis XV’s balletic legs and an elegant gloved hand and in “Below Your Mind” places an ancient body under a bubbling, modern bright orange head.
The stand out is her take on Jean-August Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque – or the great concubine. Commissioned by Napoleon’s sister, the painting has been much criticised for the liberties it takes with anatomy – the odalisque’s back is unnaturally long.
Zwonar replaces the languid, soft flesh of the woman’s body in Ingres’ original with what looks like a crude plasterwork of a man, while retaining the odalisque’s legs and feather duster.
As a 21st-century woman artist, Zwonar is almost inevitably at a tangent with the predominantly male tradition of portraiture.
Washington-born Talia Chetrit’s reaction to centuries of male dominance is to depict her own body with the greatest possible intimacy.
Her point is that she is in control as her naked feet at the end of her naked legs operate the camera inserted into her vagina.
Her boyfriend is drawn in too for depictions of sex as it really is: “a somewhat messy and impulsive part of everyday life”.
After all the male-dominated decades, the only male finalist in this exhibition is Jimmy Robert.
Born in Guadeloupe, he lives and works in Bucharest, where he combines performance, photography, film, video and drawing.
If for a woman being a 21st-century artist is about redefining the rules drawn up by men in the past, for men, it’s coming to terms with their redefined role.
My favourite of the Jimmy Robert’s pieces shows his body draped over the tomb of Ompdrailles. Ompdrailles is a fictional character created by French 19th-century novelist Leon Cladel, who described him as a triumphant gladiator who commits suicide out of unrequited love.
We stand before the artistic monument to a character as real or as unreal as many of the characters in tombs we visit, pondering the levels of significance.
If Rogers conveys a sense of our own transience, Ursula Shultz-Dornburg contemplates the death of sinister regimes – once they have restricted any number of human lives.
The most politically-engaged in the classical sense of these four contemporary artists is Berlin-born Shultz-Dornburg, who has scoured the world to explore the relationships between people and power and the land and buildings where that relationship is played out.
She travelled to Kurchatov in Kazakhstan, which, as the centre for operations for the adjoining Semipalatinsk Test Site, was a closed city and one of the most secretive and restricted places in the Soviet Union.
Since testing, which the exhibition notes tell us was a “dystopian experiment”, ceased, the population has plummeted.
Shultz-Dornburg depicts bleak, deserted concrete structures in an empty landscape and what appears to be an irradiated dog.
Another of her journeys takes us into the St Petersburg Metro (2005) where young men ride the escalators with post-Soviet attitude.
Barbara Lewis © 2016.