From Henry Moore to Mike Nelson – a visitor’s impressions of culture in Toronto

A large scale exhibition was being installed at the Art Gallery of Toronto. The museum has benefited from a long term relationship between Henry Moore and this city. A huge scale bronze sits well outside, in the space between old brickwork and modernist developments. ‘Terror and Beauty’ is the title of the Francis Bacon/Henry Moore exhibition but we found that Wednesday is the day for viewing drawings and prints held in this building and a range of Moore’s drawings was set out on easels. You could view them up and close with no glass between you and the marks. My wife and my companion on this trip, Christine Morrison, is a visual artist by training and one who has recently been rediscovering the direct joy of drawing.

We studied one of the drawings Moore made in air-raid shelters during World War II. Wax and wash, pen and ink, somehow conveyed three dimensions from the work on paper. We moved to an exhibition wittily titled ‘Words On Paper’. Bruce Nauman (American born 1941). This was a questing, questioning poetry. Words in mirror image, from the printing, or drawn in mirror-image to print as you would expect to see the word. You lost the security that comes from recognizing words in your own language. Phrases became strange or elusive. A video installation consisted of two screens. An actor read words out loud, on each. It was the same list of words but the intonation and delivery made them menacing or reassuring.

tumblr_leo0xnHs7e1qds7upo1_1280The development of the building is itself a sculpture by Frank Gehry. Laminated beams curved forever. The shapes were as graceful as the artifacts of indigenous peoples, installed, throughout the building. These sometimes told stories. A bow-drill, in bone, was etched with the details of a hunt.

That evening we went to hear 20 poets compete in presenting five minute samples from recent books. It was not a slam contest and many stories were told in a short time. ‘Battle of the Bards’ is a test in choosing and presenting work which could represent the poet well in this tight structure. Narrative was usually more to the fore than the act of seeking or drawing, with language as the medium to fascinate poet and audience.  There were aphorisms and there were lyrics. The standard of presentation was astonishing, as if there is a long culture of presenting poems in public. A long table was piled with recently published poetry books, all well-produced and all as expensive as editions in the UK. I have not been able to find out who this year’s winner was but I’d suggest taking a look at the work of last year’s winner, available on line:

Also on Toronto’s waterfront, we explored The Power Plant, a pristine and large scale space for contemporary art. Another British artist was installed – a large scale show by Mike Nelson, who has travelled extensively in North America. One dense installation is composed of found objects from the coastline of Vancouver.


In another space, the personal possessions of a Canadian of Orcadian descent, who was killed in a climbing accident in Scotland, are arranged and placed behind a screen. A procession of images from ongoing journeys in this continent all show vestiges of human interventions on the landscape. Like many of the poems heard the night before, the work conveyed a sense of the absence of one particular person, from the world.

Another large area is given over to ‘Quiver of Arrows’. Four aluminium trailers, once the epitomy of streamlined development, are joined and parted from their wheels. You step up into an evocation of lives suggested by a few pertinent personal effects. You tiptoe in case there is a body dozing in one of the bunks:

But the work that moved me most could be described as a poem. A wide room suggests a functional office space, peopled with photocopiers. Printouts are taped to provide elusive traces of a story. Some phrases are blown up to highlight them and you realise that the fragments are picked up and echoed or progressed by the paper spewed from other machines. It was the diary of another journey. But it was also an unnerving one-sided conversation with his dead friend.

Like Nauman’s work, the appearance of the language and its presentation is fascinating in itself but it seems to me that in both bodies of work, it is the language itself that is the central concern.



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