Photocopies & Videotapes

Shani Mootoo at the CAG
Comments by Keith Wallace; Review by Sur Mehat

Share Article

Shani Mootoo has been working with colour photocopies and video for about three years. When I approached her about having an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery, this work had been seen only in group shows. It was a timely moment to provide a larger representation of her work in a solo exhibition. Colour photocopying is an expensive process, so we decided to contact Xerox and inquire into the possibility of using one of their machines to produce new work for the exhibition. They generously agreed and after some initial negotiation and several frustrating days in the busy demonstration room at corporate headquarters, Xerox left Shani to work alone after hours with their latest machines.

Shani's working time on the photocopiers was compressed into about a three week period. Not a long time, but she was prepared. Having gathered images and ideas in the previous months, she arrived at corporate headquarters lugging a large box full of material—both photographic images that she had collected or taken herself, and actual objects such as plants and food. Word circulated through the office about the squid that graced the pristine glass of the new Xerox Majestic Series 5765. But the evidence was absent the next morning and although Shani was questioned about this, they smiled and let her carry on.

Many hours were spent working the machines. I joined Shani for a few evenings during production of the xerox publication which accompanied the exhibition. One night we spent ten hours running three machines. While Shani created the edition of new photocopy prints for the publication, I kept count and fed the machines for Monika Kin Gagnon's text discussing Shani's work. Watching the new flow-er photocopy emerge through many printings and colour checks was instructive. What I had assumed was a fairly straightforward process revealed itself as one filled with complexities. Shani quietly concentrated on getting the density of the background right, creating clarity and a sense of spatial depth, synthesizing positive and negative images, pumping up the greens and reds and cropping the image to fully accentuate its suggestive possibilities.

The content in Shani's work is provocative. The exhibition did not appear cohesive except forthe discreet inclusion of self portraits throughout. One wall emphasized the ambiguity of sexuality, another wall presented snapshot images of everyday street images, while another revelled in the lush sensuality of food and flowers. All were bound together however by a sense of identity that explores one's shifting position in a world of fragmentary signs and territories. We do not perceive the world form one point of view but from many.

Representatives from Xerox came to see the exhibition. I was in a T-shirt when they arrived and quickly changed into a striped dress shirt to try and present an image of the responsible curator. The first piece in the exhibition spoke of Shani's coming out as a lesbian to her father. I worried about what Xerox didn't realize they were getting into. They listened to my discussion of her work, watched the videos and upon leaving said, "Thank you." I believe they meant it.

— Keith Wallace

It comes as something of a surprise to see a demonstration of the potential of colour xerography. The result is a full-fledged wonder, a visual feast. With the same impact as a kaleidoscope fitted with a clear lens instead of permanently affixed glass chips (to render the ever changing optical effect all the more engaging because what is reflected and distorted is the world in real time), the viewer of Shani Mootoo's current work at the Contemporary Art Gallery (Vancouver, BC) is shown a view that is nothing less than visually stunning. Colours and repetitive patterns jump out from smooth surfaces that belie the actual physical feather weight of the material.

Mootoo has been producing work for thirteen years in Vancouver. She was born in Dublin, Ireland and raised in Trinidad. After receiving a BFA from the University of Western Ontario and completing a postgraduate year at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design, she began to branch out from painting into other media. In the last three years, she has produced videos, short stories, poems and photocopy-based work.

Ranging from lushly reproduced images to pencil-crayon quality copies, the images vary from stretched street scenes, to lingeringly familiar pattern repetitions and food mandalas, to the terrain of the body. The scale is consistently human—the smallest work being approximately a foot in its longest dimension and the largest being a direct pasteup that is approximately 12' by 16'. The videos are shown in a series on one large screen TV in the west side of the gallery.

Two things come to mind when viewing this show. The first has already been mentioned above—the kaleidoscopic quality of the work. The second, which emerges upon closer examination, is a method of determining position. Prior to the development of establishing longitude through different time zones, sailors used a method called 'dead reckoning' to find their position while at sea, by recording courses sailed and distances travelled in each course. Mootoo's strategy seems to be a similarone—executed on dry land. The record of her courses and distances travelled are detectable through the use of the four cardinal points (north, south, east and west) in placing her various works. Here we have a situation of the gallery as map. The mapping structure allows the viewer to bridge the distance between the four points using composition, colour and subject guideposts.

The works are, in their most deliberately humble description, photocopies and videotapes, mechanically reproduced versions of the real thing. They are replicas, reproductions, extrapolations and derivations achieved through xerography (a process of copying that utilizes light, electrical force and chemical fusion). The concept of the invaluable, unreplacable original is not humoured here. As the idea of existence is to the experience of existence, so are Mootoo's copies to the originals: ill-fitting but malleable and ultimately something else all together—capable of achieving a distinct presence.

Photocopies & Videotapes is, in its most reduced terms, just that. If one were to view the exhibition solely for its aesthetic merits, the 22 wall pieces and four videos would have resonance. However, there is more here than just aesthetically arresting work.

Some of the works are distorted copies of photographs, stretched to fill a predetermined space. Others are patterns that unfold kaleido-scopically over several panels. Some show fantastic sequences of natural beauty: people canoeing on a clear azure lake, snow-covered mountains, a travelogue type of desire for adventure. It is work with barely a ripple on its surface. Mootoo has never been an artist for remaining within established frames of reference. Her current work demonstrates the manipulation of images using collage, juxtaposition, reflection, distortion and mirror imaging with a style that seems, for the most part, free of convention. Here is the complexity and fragmentation of identity without the use of tired frameworks, linked thematically to each of the four cardinal points.

On the east wall hang collages of flowers, betel nut, spices, fruits and translucent octopus. Some of the five works are complexly disorienting while others flow continuously. None bear the slightest trace of spatial depth to contextualize or explain into the commonplace the choice of images. No sign of the human presence grounds the work except in the deliberateness of the arrangements. The pieces of this wall display strong composition and colour skill of considerable calibre.

The octopus as subject seems a perplexing choice at first, but slyly becomes compelling upon further consideration. The octopus is found worldwide and generally in warm waters. Its skin is light- and texture-sensitive and can change quickly to blend in with its surroundings. It has a very well developed brain and nervous system and is also capable of growing back an arm in case one is damaged. The octopus is a highly intelligent and adaptable creature who hunts with stealth. The first writing ink was made from pigment found in the octopus' ink sac. Having mentioned such brief facts regarding this animal, it is interesting to note that these do not diminish the sense of mystery and even menace most people associate with the octopus' rather sinister image. Does the fact that we consume this animal change anything?

And what about cultural differences and corresponding rates of consumption? It seems without question that no amount of information to the contrary will change our desire, our pleasure, in maintaining fear of the octopus even when it is quite dead on our plates. Indeed, we relish in ingesting the object of our anxiety. Perhaps it is, after all, a fitting metaphor for the 'East', or more to the point, to the East as it exists in each of us in the diaspora— a different register of understanding for each individual, varying sets of symbols, a little elusive but resilient and carried everywhere.

The north wall holds six street scenes that place the South Asian presence in the Western urban environment. Five of the six pieces consist of three rectangular copies of photographs butted up against each other to form single triadic pieces. The upper left had image is upright and stretched horizontally, the lower left image is of the same dimension but sometimes upside-down (a mirror image with differing reflection) and one vertically stretched image on the right hand side. There are no frames, no glass.

What is strongest here is the quietness of the urban, rural and single gestural image combinations. All of these elements are combined with varying degrees of distortion to suppose, consider and explore the individual's placement. These five are the most successful of the works in the show. They display experiential and representational coherence without being unduly heavy-handed or overloaded. Just enough is here, but not too much and certainly not everything.

The west wall is the only one with xeroxes pasted directly on to its surface. A myriad of images repeat: an advertisement for Indian pizza that uses the Taj Mahal as a backdrop, people at carnival, sea-horses copulating with the line, "I'd really rather not be a theory," over top. It is the same technique used on the street—posters, flyers and ads up on walls or plywood fencing at construction sites or on the sides of derelict buildings. Mootoo uses the same sensibility and technique as posterers as well when she pastes several of the same image in a row. In contemporary times, the 'West' has become synonymous with ruthless selfishness and excess, the medium is often no longer the message. The product is now the point.

What typifies the West more exactly than marketable incongruity? Just bizarre enough to bring in a crowd or sell the product but not so strange it becomes scary. What does the image of anything mean any more when there are oceans of them that just keep on coming without any end? What does the Taj Mahal mean these days? For those of us of Indian descent it's meaning is rather double-edged. The history of its construction makes people close their eyes in horror. Oh, it started out well enough with a shah wanting to show a begum how much he loved her by building this unprecedented structure, but it gets much worse as the details of that construction process are told. Hands amputated and eyes permanently blinded so that they would never be able to reproduce it, the people who built the Taj Mahal were enslaved to its splendoured completion. But what does it mean any more? It is a great feat of architectural ingenuity, despite its history. It is still an example of the power an aristocracy can wield to have its bidding done. After so long, after all the marketing and sightseeing, the Taj Mahal has become the symbol of India itself. According to the West's rule of thumb, there is no need to get into the details of history when the perfect logo, the infectious jingle, the unforgettable catch-phrase comes your way. And, if you are really lucky (or really good), history can be made irrelevant, if not altogether invisible.

The Taj Mahal may induce people to buy Indian pizza. In the end it is as much a novelty as the pyramids of Egypt of the Great Wall of China, and it is used as a lure for rich tourists eager to stare mutely until the inevitable question, "How'd they do that?" strikes them. This is the context in which we view these so-called wonders of the world and Mootoo clearly shows it.

The south wall bears the place of the self, of the sexual body and gender identification. A collage of a half-female, half-male Mootoo in a pair of white underwear characterizes the artist's wit and exploration into the realm of identity. The seven works here seem incongruous though indelibly linked to one of the videos, Lest I Burn, in which, among other things, Mootoo tells us in a poem of the suspicion of others concerning the wholeness of lesbianism. The photocopies here are not as strong as those on the other walls. There is less cohesion and a perplexing literalness with renders these works somewhat awkward and self-conscious.

A particularly disturbing series is one in which repeating images of female genitalia form the subject. The imagery is not treated with the same sensibility as the other works. Mootoo's usual wit, cleverness and subversive strategies are nowhere apparent. Reminiscent of the 'cunt art' of the 1970s, this piece plainly displays the xeroxed genitalia for the sheer pleasure of it. Pleasure on its own, however, is not enough in a context of compelling metaphors and complex juxtapositions. Whereas some of the images may not be as strong as others, this piece fails to meet the criteria Mootoo herself seems to have set for the whole.

The videos are run in series on a TV set on eye level of the seated viewer. The screen is large enough to necessitate the reduction of tunnel vision in order for the eye to catch everything. The result is that the field of vision is dominated by the video.

English Lesson is the first video. It is a three minute long lesson given by a man casually dressed in a T-shirt with the words, "Native West Indian" silkscreened on the front. He stands in a kitchen in front of a stove covered with pots and pans. While holding a pair of wooden spoons, he looks into the camera and cheerfully instructs the viewer of the Canadian pronunciation of 'tomato', 'man' (not 'mon'), and 'what' (not 'Wha'). In the last few seconds he smacks out a tune on the various kitchen paraphernalia with the spoons. Raising questions about the concept of correct versus incorrect dialect and the mutability of language, this video functions audibly as the paste of the west wall does visually. The strange borderlessness of the English language functioning as a sieve through which things pass.

Lest I Burn appears to correspond to the with the work on the south wall. Here are five minutes of Mootoo cruising Vancouver's Commercial Drive, an area peopled most conspicuously by lesbians. Mootoo's voiceover guides the viewer's eye as to what to look for, the gaze of a lesbian suspicious of another's 'authenticity.'

The third video is ten minutes long and is entitled A Paddle and a Compass. This collaboration between Mootoo and Wendy Oberlander is the most visually gratifying of the four videos and is also the one that ties all of the work together. Images of the not-altogether-tamed wilderness dominate this yearning for adventure in the great outdoors. Mootoo's monologue tells of experiences out of doors when she was a child in Trinidad not measuring up to the perfect picture of familial recreation she desired while Oberlander, in instructional tones, tells of adventurous outdoor women scaling mountains and doing other thing of similarly heroic proportions. The footage is unmistakably Canadian: people canoeing on clear lakes surrounded by forests of Ponderosa pines. As it weaves through terrain concerning ownership, after all that wishing and wanting, it ends on the sobering question of whose land this is anyway? This is an elusive, involved work that is as difficult to pinpoint as the locations of the street scenes on the north wall.

The last video, Wild Women in the Woods, is a narrative about a South Asian woman who, after a couple of disappointments (one of the romantic variety, the other of the personal tentativeness sort) comes upon a group of 'wild' South Asian women living in the woods replete with skis, hiking boots and saris. To read a description stirs interest but to see it is barely discordant. Strategies of subversion here really transgress.

With all of these separate works placed in the four coordinates, there emerges a map that refuses to give names, places , distances or legends. In Photocopies & Videotapes, Mootoo shows her characteristic skill with colour to render the effect of enjoying the map instead of simply using it as a means of guidance. This is not a voyage of fixed destination. It is a kaleidoscopic map not fixated on the cut and dried, the true and tried, the all or nothing. It is not like looking through a clear lens at a map of the world, it is like being inside of it, in the middle of all that reflection and distortion, all that possibility. And, as always, Mootoo turns the mirrors in precise ways that make quick work of established ways of looking and being viewed.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Keith Wallace
Keith Wallace is the curator at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC.
Sur Mehat
Sur Mehat is a visual artist living in Vancouver.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre