Astral Bodies, curated by York Lethbridge and currently on view at Mercer Union in Toronto, includes the work of five women whose individual practices address real or imagined spaces beyond physical realms—where the materiality of human existence is placed in relation to what may occur outside of our limited perceptual experience. Each artist’s engagement with the non-physical or astral realm is deeply personal, resulting in a multiplicity of positions brought together under Lethbridge’s curatorial theme. The result is an exhibition that allows viewers to speculate what the otherworldly may hold—and why it is predominantly women artists who are creating pathways into this metaphysical engagement.
Spring Hurlbut’s Sum Fong (2008-2016) is a visceral and haunting example of the delicacy and fleetingness of human existence, and perhaps most aptly reflects the exhibitions theme. For four minutes and twenty seconds the artist interacts with human ashes: against a black backdrop, the film captures the particles as they are released from a container into the atmosphere of the studio. The video momentarily makes visible the matter of the body that is left behind before it is swept back up into the fabric of the universe. In Hurlbut’s work, the astral body appears as conscious-flowing matter, imperceptible but for small moments of fixity in the hands of the artist.
Spring Hurlburt, Sum Fong, 2008–2016, video, 4 min 20 sec loop PHOTO TONI HAFKENSCHEID
Similar to Hurlbut’s dispersing body is Pamela Norrish’s Outfit for the Afterlife (2010-2015). Over a five-year period, the artist constructed a white T-shirt and blue jeans, made to fit her own body, using only glass beads and nylon thread. As the title suggests, Norrish hints at a hope that the sparkling outfit may be worn into a hypothetical afterlife. However, the configuration of the garments on a high plinth produces a clear scene in my imagination, one where the artist is dressed in her mortuary outfit and suddenly disappears from beneath, as though transported elsewhere. Rather than an outfit of passage, it becomes the solid artefact of a life.
Shuvinai Ashoona (b. 1961 Kinngait) LEFT Untitled, 2015, coloured pencil and ink, 76.7 x 35.1 cm RIGHT Untitled, 2009, coloured pencil and ink, 56.5 x 40 cm BOTH IMAGES © DORSET FINE ARTS
The precision with which Norrish’s work is displayed is not achieved in the configuration of Shuvinai Ashoona’s Untitled drawings. The fifteen works on paper are laid out between two tables and arranged to highlight consistent themes in Ashoona’s work. Absent of hierarchy of form or figure, there are objects and creatures that often reappear. As in much of her work globes are the most consistently featured imagery here, but are treated in vastly different ways. In one drawing, a woman uses the blue and green sphere as a step stool; and in another, a mystical creature urinates on the Earth. In a third, the Earth is repeated so often that the world itself becomes less special—an apt reflection of our current capitalist-driven relationship to the environment. Ashoona’s blend of imagination and reality results in works that operate on many levels, simultaneously highlighting the intersectional politics of being a female Inuk artist living in the North, including a critical perspective on the history of colonization; growing connectivity and simultaneous geographic isolation; the North-South divide; and patriarchal structures. Given the nuance and latent politics of such imagery, I wonder if Ashoona’s mystical world(s) might have been better represented with fewer works and a more traditional presentation strategy. In presenting the drawings under matte glass on low tables, the resulting display becomes too casual for such weighty work.
The exhibition is rounded out with Shary Boyle’s God’s Eye (2015) and Karen Azoulay’s The Astronomer’s Mime (2011). Azoulay’s video is comprised of hands sporting ruffled wrists holding lit candles. As the screen flashes, constellations of glowing hands appear and recede. Influenced by the Romantic artists of the 19th century, An Astronomer’s Mime is a contemporary recreation of tableaux vivant but simultaneously conjures allusions to 18th and 19th century botanical studies on black paper. While looking to the sky, Azoulay’s flickering illusion also points us back toward the earth, all mirrored in the dark globe of Shary Boyle’s God’s Eye. The small porcelain statue depicts a white male nymph extending himself backward to support the large, dark sphere. Taking a cue from Boyle’s title, the sphere gives visual form to an omnipresent force reflecting a warped version of myself and of Azoulay, Ashoona and Norrish’s works. Boyle’s piece does not reveal an alternate reality but rather reflects a lived, albeit distorted, one. In doing so, God’s Eye, like the other works of Astral Bodies, leaves space for perspectival slippage and the room to see matter (and, in particular, bodies) that were previously unseen.
Karen Azoulay, The Astronomer's Mime, 2011, single-channel video, 4 minutes
It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that across numerous histories women are found at the forefront of metaphysical practices and speculations, as engagements with the mystical provided them the power to occupy space and positions of authority that would not otherwise have been readily granted. In this light, Astral Bodies can be read as a rumination on both the perceptual and political possibilities that arise when peripheral experiences are made central. Despite this potential however, in positioning the mystical as a site of escape, the exhibition loses the urgency to harness these tools to begin or enact change.