A political action. Apolitical action. A poetical action.
These represent just some of the interpretations of The revolution is called Atlantis, University of Ottawa MFA student Guillermo Trejo’s exhibit at the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG). The statements, which sit right outside the main exhibit room, inform Trejo’s vision: the ambiguity of political propaganda.
A little preface about my introduction to the exhibit. A man, gazing intently at one piece, comes up to me. He asks: “Do you understand this? Do you understand art?” It makes me think about critique style. The approach is not to “understand” art, but rather to find the process of interpretation that best suits the piece you’re critiquing. This notion is particularly significant for Trejo’s exhibit, as the only way to appreciate his pieces is if you get some historical context. The most extreme example is T.S. Eliot’s historically and mythically dense poem The Waste Land.
Trejo seems to agree: “I open the question and I really think that the viewer can find their own interpretation. I don’t want to have a closed answer. However, it’s evident that I have a political position.”
Trejo grew up in Mexico. In 2010, during the centennial celebrations of Mexico’s famous revolution, Trejo witnessed something that would weave his way into his psyche and, two years later while in his adopted country of Canada, be expressed in the form of a thesis exhibit. Being in Canada gives him enough distance to more objectively judge political events in his home country, and he does not like what he sees. “It pushed me to do art that has to do with political ideas,” he says.
The first piece of the two-piece project (though each piece is also strong enough as a stand-alone) is simply called “Billboard”. In Mexico, billboards are a central medium in political advertisements. The centennial provided authorities the perfect excuse to promote politics of the day as well. But beyond the country-specific use, true to its format, Billboard is an example of the layering of messages. And not just any messages, but the contradictory ones. A billboard does not discriminate between viewpoint and political position. It can be called upon to propagate war inasmuch as it can promote peace. Political messages, moreover, are never as simple as the billboard boasts. The events behind the message are what Trejo wants to explore.
He does this via the technique of ripping layers to show the messages underneath – done with traditional billboard letterpress prints. And it is damning, as the rips are strategically done in the silhouette of a politician’s head. His head is, therefore, bursting with the messages underneath, including “la lucha continua” (meaning the struggle continues). The apparent lesson? Don’t take anything on surface value. The story is complex in its layers – be it regarding current politics, or those of the revolution. Revolution is not a finished product, and is as untenable as the exhibit title (the mythical city of Atlantis) suggests.
The second piece, “Monument 1”, is also a destroyed political monument of sorts. Originally a statue, plaster pieces and dust coat the floor, while the only remnants are the legs (fully intact up to the thighs) and one arm.
Trejo began the piece by questioning the motive behind the statues put up during the centennial, which he noted were only taken out of storage and placed around town for the celebrations, after which they would be taken down again. He became sceptical.
“Are they just ploys in a government’s attempt to justify abuse of power?” he asks. “The problems are: they don’t mean anything, they’re just objects. But somehow, the system [puts] meaning in such objects. I was thinking that maybe we can destroy these things. Not just physically, but conceptually. So we are somehow liberated from this historical past.”
Trejo discusses the cyclical nature in the development of monuments. Upon revolution, one monument is destroyed and the hero of the day replaces it. The most immediate reference point for any westerner occurred when Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It’s the modern, media-saturated version of the regime changes from previous eras.
Monument 1 is also abundant in subtext. The material used underneath the plaster is a pair of jeans. Jeans are partly used for utilitarian purposes: they harden more than other materials when starch is applied. But, unintentional or not, the leisure material also symbolizes a thing rarely found in monument form: the regular guy. From one perspective, it can mean that the citizen is partly destroyed when his sense of fixed history is destroyed. But two things appropriately disassemble this argument: the still-intact legs and the arm, which stands in an erect position, clinched fist towards the sky. It’s defiant. It will surge on, even when in shambles.
However you interpret it, one thing is certain: the transitional nature of something seemingly permanent like a statue signifies that the only thing that is certain – especially in the world of politics – is change.
And that change is present as much as it is past. Case in point: I am struck by the image in front of me of a boy sitting on the floor, playing with the pieces of plaster, much like a scene that could have taken place in real life. Destruction is, and will always be, fodder for creation.
The day of the opening was (pun alert) monumental for Trejo in few ways, as it was also the after party to his successful thesis defence just hours earlier. And the day’s events have implications for Ottawa’s art scene in general. The University of Ottawa’s partnership with the OAG is a fairly new initiative that allows students from the university’s Visual Arts program to exhibit at established galleries across Ottawa. “It’s really a bridge between being a student and becoming a professional artist,” says Taline Bedrossian, communications manager at the OAG.
So what’s in it for the galleries in question? They get to exhibit new art from emerging artists (students are chosen by gallery curators), and are also able to show their support for the local scene.
“We’re excited to be showing new works from people who work in Ottawa – the gallery wants to make sure that our artists are supported and that there’s an industry there for them,” says Bedrossian.
The exhibit runs until September 9, 2012. Click here for more information.