Can we blame Rob Ford? The legacy of the G20? Or is it perhaps something more universal? Wherever we choose to locate the anxiety, it’s clear that the galleries at 401 Richmond are currently overrun with concerns about how individuals relate to one another within the modern city . Urbanspace, WORKshop, and The Red Head Gallery have all recently presented exhibitions which speak to both the personal isolation and political dissent seemingly inherent to life in Toronto. With the newly-opened Micropolis 2.0, it is Open Studio’s turn to reflect the city’s image back to its own inhabitants.
And what an alarming image it is. Micropolis is urban Canada through a fun house mirror, a kaleidoscope of garish colours and fantastical figures each sharing the sidewalk that now wraps around the interior of Open Studio. The work’s distinctive visual style comes from the unique partnership between Montreal-based artists Arthur Desmarteaux and Allison Moore. Desmarteaux cites Pop Art, video games, and graphic novels as major points of inspiration, while Moore’s experience with puppetry and preference for “absurdity, humor, and surrealism” gives the piece a more childlike, whimsical feel. Imagine a metropolis where Robert Crumb bumps elbows with Dr. Seuss.
But while the illustrative style wouldn’t be out of place in a children’s picture book, the subject matter is decidedly more adult. Homeless men beg for change while uncaring lizards stroll by and rudimentary cartoon women, complete with body hair, promise “danseuse neus” and “lap dancing” (the city may be fantastical, but it still respects Canada’s bilingual language laws). The world of Micropolis is one of incredibly disparate viewpoints, all fighting for dominance over the din of crowd. Childish innocence conflicts with adult cynicism, and imagination intertwines with the more harsh reality.
While the majority of the city’s residents are drawn in a cartoon style both whimsical and vulgar, the inclusion of photographs and an LCD screen forces the viewer to acknowledge reality while still immersed in the wonderland. Instead of offering up a consistent interpretation of city life, Micropolis fragments itself and ensures that no viewer could take this as a representation of a real place. Further undermining its purpose is its lack of a singular setting. Micropolis takes its inspiration from Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec city; incredibly diverse cities whose identities and desires are not easily reconciled within one piece of art, no matter how ambitious. There are distinguishing features which identify each city (the ubiquitous “HOT male models wanted” posters plastered over Toronto, Ajisen Ramen’s cartoon mascot who slings noodles on Spadina Avenue), but Micropolis definitely represents more of the artists’ interior vision than than exterior one indicated by realistic inclusions. It is both a place and a non-place, tied to real cities yet failing to represent them.
In case we are confused by Micropolis’ contradictions, the exhibit’s summary instructs the viewer on the proper emotional response, preparing us to feel “a sense of wonder, awe and contemplation.” Wonder and awe are certainly plausible, as there’s no denying that Desmarteaux and Moore have both talent and ambition. But it is in the contemplation that their work falls flat. Perhaps the duo are looking to represent the disorientation and apathy of modern life, certainly a valid aspiration in our culture of endless technological advancement and globalization. But without any further exploration into the causes behind this response, it feels as though the artists are reveling in this emotional disconnect and placating the viewer with childish imagery to appeal to the one emotion no modern person can seemingly shed: nostalgia.
Micropolis 2.0 runs from January 12 – February 18, 2012