The Human Lair

Arsenal Contemporary’s Crawling Out of a Hidden Place | Toronto


Catherine Telford-Keogh, Tentaculum™ (Dental Dam) Fixation Pro Vital Series, 2018, Vinyl Image Mounted on Plexiglas® , 47 x 47 in

“We emerge, tentatively, from the uncertain shadows of the past months into the light of a world fundamentally transformed” states the curatorial summary of Arsenal Contemporary’s fall group show. 

Initially operating as a physical exhibition, the multimedia works which lived within walls now exist through a digital series of images– a world to access for those who still must live in the hidden place. This now-virtual show caught my interest with its multi-media strangeness – an intermingling of glass, soap, skin, and yarn – of beings coexisting under stark fluorescent lighting, the kind of gloominess that would be found in a medical clinic - a world of shifting grey.

The spatial framework of the gallery space is built through chronological pictures - a series of walls and rooms, nooks and crannies, in which vastly varied works found tentative space to live. The arrangement to me is not unlike objects in a home – things that have found their role by being placed and forgotten, meshing into a small ecosystem that things acquire when being left on their own.  As I click, I pass through shed skin and undulating plaster forms expelled to the floor. Soap bars, draped skin prints, crocheted bodies, organ outgrowths and wall peepholes are arranged, timidly interconnected, peeking at each other like curious strangers. Even through the distance of the digital image, the crocheted bodies exist charged with a certain life and urgency, and the large soap bricks propped on wooden legs glimmer with a relatable glycerine grittiness. A connection is there, yet I could only guess at the details from the distant, single frame images. The push and pull nature of this exhibition format works operates like an exposed soft underbelly – an invitation for intimacy, but one that is fragile - a kind of vulnerability still curious enough to reach out and say, “I’m not you but I’m not unlike you”.

The lack of artist information beside each work leads me to interpret this curious set as a communal mindscape – an anonymous representation of the bodily, the hygienic, and the medical. Of certain thoughts and apparitions that visit us in this isolating time. To me, this accumulative portrait narrates an emergence from a fragmented world, where the impact of domestication leads to complexities that fizzle and unfold through an awakening to the modalities of self.

Further research about the nine exhibiting artists proves that public feeling of intimacy comes from personal space. The drooping skin print belongs to Nicholas Aiden, who investigates and challenges notions of selfhood through the lens of gender and sexuality. Ghazaleh Avarzamani created the soap structures to explore systems of power and communication, using soap as a delicate medium to memorialize the impossibility of a clean slate. Chason Yeboah crochets anatomical dolls to celebrate bodies, and in the process, celebrating herself. Along with the other exhibiting artists, the works attain a more explicit context. Directly, this show explores the exposed vulnerabilities and fissures within ourselves and the social fabric of the modern pandemic age. The viewer is to consider the perception of the self and others through the subjects of medicine, technology, language and identity.

For me however, the interpreted closeness created by lack of information within the gallery space was surprisingly valuable. And although the documentation is slightly distant and general rather than detailed, it points to an environment that is flickering and ambiguous – where the beginnings and ends are unresolved, creating a continuity, a guesswork, of what might appear around the next bend of the wall.

Visceral, disjointed and unannounced, the works manage to mirror us - fleshy creatures squinting from flat harsh lighting. Operating themselves by themselves, they create a communal intimacy, a coexisting sense of transition and questioning that might happen in the space of a home we fear to leave and fear to stay in.

"Crawling out of a hidden place" was exhibited Sept 9 - Oct 17, 2020, with current virtual documentation