Ready Player Two, at NAC, is not one exhibition (in four chapters, you might say) but (at least) two. They’re not separate entities, but blend together, offering a progression from the Plate Glass Gallery (The Kitchen) to the Dennis Tourbin Space (The Rec Room) and finally the end point – the maturity, and I’ll revisit that term later – of the Showroom Gallery (The Comic Book Shop and The Arcade). This is appropriate, that the components sift one into the other. Brendan Lee Salish Tang and Sonny Assu’s works in Ready are often collaborative (literally and conceptually) but have aspects and characteristics unique to each (Tang’s Manga Ormolu 5.0-q or Assu’s Quantum Warp Theory are both lovely “signature” works). Many pieces (such as Broken Treaties) have facets showing both artist’s personal aesthetic, but also details displaying a shared creation.
The installation of the work, the nature of the NAC space, however, may engender an interaction with Ready Player Two different than intended. I doubt that’d bother Tang and Assu, as in their talk at the opening reception, a sense of playfulness and interactivity with viewers was clear. Before we step inside the gallery, you and I, and rest a moment on the Rec Room green couch amidst wood panelling and patterned carpet, with Memento Mori: VCR, Late-night Programming looping infinitely, comics (Alpha Flight!) and magazines that immerse you in a nostalgic bubble of youth, memory and sentiment, I proffer the curatorial statement: An art exhibit about the joys of gaming, sci-fi, and comics; About cultural identity, pop culture, and growing up a ‘geek’; Partly nostalgic for an adolescence spent living in the rec-rooms of the 1980s and 90s; Also humourous, imaginative, and executed with a great level of craft.
The previous incarnation of Ready Player Two was at The Reach Gallery, curated by Laura Schneider. More curatorial words: [the artists] combine elements from science fiction, comic book, and gaming cultures to consider how these forms alternately reinforce and transcend racial boundaries in youth culture. In their individual practices, Tang and Assu frequently negotiate the material and conceptual dynamics of culture and ethnicity. Informed by their mixed-race backgrounds and experiences of Canadian life in the 1980s and 1990s, for this exhibition the artists bring together found objects, selections from previous bodies of work, and new collaborative pieces to create immersive spaces that evoke the adolescent sanctuaries of their time: the basement, the arcade, and the comic book store.
This is a dense show, as multi faceted as its multidisciplinary and meticulous. I reserve the right to revisit Ready and talk about it in different ways, with different artworks, in the future. This multiplicity of potential interpretations is a mark of the excellence of Assu and Tang’s art. My initial response was to interpret the multiple spaces through a lens of experiences that impress themselves upon you and thus form you into the person – the man – you are. Assu, in his talk, spoke of a formative aspect of his being / practice that encapsulates this. To quote his bio: Sonny Assu (Liǥwildaʼx̱w of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations) was raised in North Delta, BC, over 250 km away from his home ancestral home on Vancouver Island. Having been raised as your everyday average suburbanite, it wasn’t until he was eight years old that he discovered his Liǥwildax̱w/Kwakwaka’wakw heritage. Later in life, this discovery would be the conceptual focal point that helped launch his unique art practice.
Hence the Kitchen painting by Assu (Doesn’t Look Like Anyone Lives Here. Let’s Live Here!) illustrated aspects of how terra nullius, this denial of what was here “before” 1867, the #Canada150 national imaginary, manifests in people, not just in pictures or places…
Nostalgia is most pervasive in The Rec Room. This can lead visitors to simply be swayed by the evocation of communal experiences, and happy, with rose coloured glasses looking backwards sentimentality. After all, I remember reading the Alpha Flight comics there, and the characters now seem so stilted and stereotyped, so token and flat…..but its an uncomfortable fact that Shaman and Talisman were the first Indigenous super heroes I read, and enjoyed. History is difficult, and complex, and it is not something we stand outside of, as its participatory as well as problematic.
The Showroom Gallery – ideally the end of your traverse from outside to the Tourbin space – is the “art” of the exhibition, but this doesn’t mean its any less “playful”, simply that its “mature”, to revisit that loaded term. Standing in Shop or Arcade, you see the adults that were formed by the experiences in the other spaces, and you experience an aspect of how there is no point when “now” begins and “then” ends, in our personal – and public – (his)stories.
I could talk about each of the many pieces back here, as a locus of interpretation of Ready Player Two, but the pieces that pulled me in aesthetically, and then in their details and considered execution held me, are by Assu. These works face each other across the gallery space. Giant Sized Spectacular #1, #3, #6, #7, #9, #10, #11 and #12 (all 2017, all acrylic, ink and comic book pages) and a series along the back wall (including We All Must Deal With the Monster Within, You have betrayed the dream and SNIKT, also all 2017, also painted “samples” of comic book pages on panel).
Pop culture has undergone a radical repositioning in the “proper” art world in recent decades (I can remember being challenged for citing Gaiman’s Sandman series, in post grad writing, yet two years later academics were falling all over themselves to “discourse” about Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the best TV series, ever, perhaps, but its besmirching to see the weather vane acolytes of academia try to “own” something they previously dismissed…).
In light of this, with Spectacular, I was reminded of one of the most powerful stories I ever read – in any media: the original (1981) X Men two-issue Days of Future Past, which was nowhere near as “sanitized” as cinematic versions. It’s a time travel story (taking place in 1980 / 2014, and plays upon that standard trope of time travel in sci fi – do you prevent the future, or do you contribute to the inevitable?) but what makes it relevant here is that it took the idea of genocide – that mutants like the X Men are hated simply for existing, and that many want to see them eradicated in a “final solution” – further than ever. A classic scene is the adult Kate Pryde walking through the concentration camp, passing graves of “classic” Marvel superheroes (i.e. Fantastic Four and Spider Man). Several years later, the X Men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, an even more powerful and controversial take on Mutant Genocide appeared: featuring religious fanatic convinced he does the “Lord’s” work by wiping out all mutants, and he eagerly embraces a bloody means to “justify” his ends. (That story begins with the murder of two Mutant children, bodies hung in swing sets as warnings: shades of Emmett Till, perhaps…)
I’ll add a dangerous side note. In God Loves, Man Kills, one of the X Men gets into a fistfight with a human (both teenagers, just out for an evening, no superhero drama here) as the human calls her a “Mutie Lover.” Kitty Pryde is the angry Mutant teen. When her friend, Stevie, a human friend / teacher, tells her “they’re only words, child”, Kitty screams at her African American friend: “What if he’d called me a n**ger Lover, Stevie, would they be “just words” then?”
It’s unflinchingly raw and cuts to truth brooking no facade of gentility. Back to “reality”: a meme in social media has been asking, in light of the John A. MacDonald statue removal, where would you like the statue of the man who tried to massacre your grandmother installed? In light of the ongoing institutional (intentional?) failures of the TRC, of MMIW, of the Canadian Catholic Church getting a pass on their part in “Rez Schools”, one can understand why an Indigenous artist and activist like Assu would find the X Men so relevant. Oh, did I offend you? Good, it means you’re paying attention. Its easier to see the truth of our reality through a story than what is in front of us…
There’s also an undercurrent of masculine identity here: formative and playful, but also that idea that, instead of no longer being a child and “putting away childish things”, to examine them for the lessons learned, or ideas proliferated that may have been exposed as propaganda. Two male artists of colour examining the tools and toys of masculinity is one way to approach Ready Player Two, and is what I mean when I say I plan to revisit and consider other works not discussed here, at a later date. Thankfully, Ready is open until December.
Assu’s painted collages are formal contrasts between the strength and solidity of his “referencing” the stories that are smaller, delicate, yet vivid in a different way from his painted layering. Palimpsest – where the “original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain” – isn’t new, but here Assu employs this, enhancing and enriching through combination the “surface” and the “ground.” The delicate blues, the gentle pinks, seem almost too “soft” for what’s being shown. In this instance, the punctilious nature of both artists is a means to an idea. (I offer an apology to Brendan Tang, one of my favourite artists, for not focusing as much on the exquisite works like Manga Ormolu Prototype 1 & 2. A work recently on display at Rodman Hall even reminded a Brock official that RHAC is more than they assume, ahem – but Ready Player Two has so much, too much, and I’m not disingenuous when I say I may revisit it, like I’ve done with Up Close and In Motion at RHAC).
Ready Player Two is almost too much, to be honest. Perhaps that’s why the couch of Rec Room is attractive, as you can pause and return to examine the determining, shaping stories alluded to in Kitchen (In Lieu of Expansion and Fear I choose to Take my Chances and Roll the Dice by Tang) or explore the implications of toys and what they teach us (G.I. PoC, in the Shop, also by Tang). Both artists have extensive web sites (Brendan’s is here, Sonny’s can be seen here), and these can only assist in making sure that the numerous works are considered as fully as they deserve.
This exhibition is at NAC until December 7th, 2018. All images courtesy Niagara Artist Centre.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.