There's something touching and sweetly hopeful in the idea of artists reaching for contact with whatever public they can find, bypassing galleries in the hope that unspoiled strangers will chance upon their work and see its merit. This impulse lies behind many of the exhibitions that shelter every May under the umbrella of Contact, the Toronto Photography Festival, which shows the work of some 400 photographers in 165 spaces for about four weeks.
Over the years I've found photographs hung in law schools and broken-down old garages, in abandoned factories and ice-cream parlours. This year Contact has put photographs before my grateful eyes in a subway station, in the windows of a chic new hotel, in transit shelters and on billboards. Every May, Contact catalogue in hand, I make my way toward the exhibitions that sound most inviting. But what I most enjoy are those moments when the work sneaks up on me and I'm surprised once again by the joy of photography, ideally photography that has a fresh theme in an unfamiliar style.
Early this month, even before acquiring my copy of the catalogue, I got off the subway in all innocence at the midtown Museum station. Suddenly I was confronted, in that unlikely underground setting, by 26 big landscape photos.
They all looked engaging but at first they also presented a puzzle (another pleasant quality of photos encountered in places where art is unfamiliar). Placed in the trackside spaces usually filled by ViaCOM advertising posters, they all showed wintry leafless trees in isolated countryside, mostly fields reduced to stubble. Each of the trees held a few planks stuck together, clusters of wood arranged so haphazardly that they looked like the nests of otherworldly birds the size of whooping cranes. I didn't discover the meaning of the planks, or the meaning of the photographs, until finally I located the exhibition's poster, which is placed where you have to hunt for it, viewable only as you ride up to street level on the escalator.
The photographer, Vid Ingelevics, has given his show a punning title, Platform. We viewers are on a subway platform, and the photographs show platforms stuck in trees, built by deer hunters as perches from which to shoot. On these odd and uncomfortable-looking little structures, silent men wait in lonely anticipation for the appearance of a deer. There are no humans in the pictures, but we understand that these ramshackle images suggest a shadowy narrative about the taste for blood and violence.
Some platforms have canvas tent shapes to shelter the hunter, some have ladders (all of them seem dangerous), and one platform looks as if it should be atop the mast of a sailing vessel. They seem to be hammered together in haste, by hunters eager to bag the first unsuspecting deer that comes along. The platforms are probably abandoned when the deer season ends.
For this kind of photography, talent must be supported by patience and resourcefulness. Ingelevics has scoured rural southern Ontario in search of these strange remnants. They share only one quality with the other examples I've encountered of photography in public spaces: They are not pictures of the world we usually see, but visual accounts that explorers have brought back from otherwise invisible places, sometimes places of the imagination and sometimes places we might see ourselves with great difficulty.
There are three exhibitions in this category stretched along Queen Street West in the quickly enlarging gallery and entertainment district. In a series of transit shelters, normally filled by ads, David Shrigley of Glasgow has placed photographs that are 65 by 44 inches. These are large prints with small ideas, unassumingly sly and cute notions involving surprise and contradiction.
One picture shows a black notebook lying on the sidewalk, marked in white lettering: "Please do not return this to me. I do not want it back." Another shows a lawn with a sign resting on it, black lettering on red paper: "Imagine the green is red." A leaf in a pile of leaves bears lettering: "One day a big wind will come and ..." What Shrigley offers is a charm that's his alone. His work is pure play, but adult play. I'd be delighted to find one of his pieces in every bus shelter I enter.
Lisa Klapstock of Toronto, whose three huge self-portraits are showing in the windows of the too-cool-to-contemplate Drake Hotel, has found a way to work herself and her art into the fabric of the city. She calls her show Living Room and chooses some odd places to live. First she finds a laneway, as cluttered and worn-looking as possible, untouched by fresh paint in decades. Next she locates a discarded piece of furniture, puts on a white jumpsuit (the kind you might wear while entering a contaminated building), sits in her newly discovered chair, and clicks her shutter with a remote-control button in her hand, all the time glaring into the camera, defying us to ignore her accomplishment.
While the overly familiar idea of an artist's head-on confrontation with the viewer runs the danger of annoying the audience, it works for her. Her subject is not so much Klapstock as the decaying corners of the city she chooses as stage sets for her little dramas. She's directing our sensibilities, telling us to see the beauty in places we usually don't even glance at. Her rich theme is the poetry inherent in visual decomposition, and she works it with an expert eye.
Decomposition also dominates the four remarkable billboards to be found on Queen West till the end of the month. Each has a blown-up photograph shot by Robert Polidari, a Montreal-born New Yorker, when he visited the poisoned and abandoned cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl in Ukraine.
These are ghost towns inhabited only by the ghosts of modern science and engineering. Pripyat was the bedroom community for Chernobyl workers until the nuclear catastrophe of April 26, 1986, forced 116,000 people out of the area. The photographs, some of which also appear in Polidari's book, Zones of Exclusion, show looted and vandalized rooms. The most touching, perhaps, is the wrecked and littered operating room in the Pripyat hospital. No people are in the picture, but evidence of the human capacity for destruction fills the room like a choking gas.