Last week I spent 4 days in Toronto. I went there to visit an academic at Ryerson University and to experience some of the art scene, but I was also obsessed with making a trip to Niagara Falls.
Toronto is hard to describe. Parts of it, especially around the west end of trendy Queen Street which is known as the Indie capital of the city, are reminiscent of Melbourne’s Brunswick Street, but the rest of it is more like Brisbane, a clash between anonymous, towering high rise buildings, highly contemporary architecture and beautiful older buildings such as those of the University of Toronto which offer a more classical oasis in the centre of the city.
I stayed at the Gladstone Hotel on Queen Street, one of two art hotels within a stone’s throw of each other. (The other is the Drake.) The Gladstone is the oldest continuously operating hotel in Toronto and it feels more like staying in a big friendly rambling house than a regular hotel. It runs music events in the Melody Bar most nights of the week, holds exhibitions on each floor of the hotel, has a great café and each room is individually designed by a different artist. It is a busy week when I arrive, and I don’t get to choose the room I want to stay in because the hotel is fully booked. I had however, investigated the rooms online and decided that as long as I didn’t get the Red Room or the Biker Room, I would be happy. So after I check in, one of the staff gives me a ride in the hand operated lift and opens the door to the Red Room. I let out a little gasp.
The Red Room is very red. It has red walls, red curtains, red furniture, red artwork displayed in red frames, a red carpet, red bedspread and a red bathroom. The only things that are not red are the pillows on the bed and the plumbing fixtures. I laugh to myself and lie on the red bed, which is actually very comfortable. The view out the window is across Queen Street of a street car stop and a rather unattractive café. It is also raining – not heavily, but very steadily.
Despite the weather, I decide to take a stroll to take in the local area before dinner. I am only about 20 metres from the hotel when an older man who looks homeless comes straight up to me, shakily holding out something in his hand directly under my nose. I am a bit startled, because he is so close, almost right under my umbrella with me. His speech is a bit awkward but he tells me a story about how he doesn’t do drugs or alcohol but desperately needs to buy new trousers. I am stuck beneath the umbrella with him, not sure what to do. I don’t have change or any small notes, I’m juggling the umbrella, I feel a bit worried about opening my wallet with one hand, but in the end I manage to take out $20 and hand it over. He runs off without a word and I’m not sure whether I feel good or bad about our exchange. Usually, if someone is busking or telling a great story on the subway, I am happy to make a contribution, but in this case, I felt cornered. But at the same time I tell myself that I have never had to ask strangers for money and I could easily have blown $20 on something quite useless. Nevertheless, it is an unsettling start to the trip.
The next day I set out on an itinerary that has been suggested by Vid Ingelevics, the artist and academic I am here to visit. Vid is a professor at Ryerson University, at the Image Centre, and we also share a Latvian heritage – while my parents were WWII refugees taken in by Australia, his were accepted by Canada. I included some of Vid’s work in an exhibition I curated for the Plimsoll Gallery in 2011 that featured artists who use the archive as a source of inspiration or as a strategy in their practice. Vid has been working with the archive and teaching courses built around the theme of the archive for many years and has made some very beautiful work about his Latvian heritage, about the history and documentation of museums, and about the remnants of the Berlin Wall (amongst other themes). He had suggested that I stay at the Gladstone and he also mapped out a list of art destinations that would give me an overall feel for the art scene in Toronto.
There is a lot of walking involved in Vid’s itinerary, but walking is always the best way to see a place and get a feel for it. I set off mid morning, heading east along Queen Street, which is lined with lots of low level shops, interesting cafes, small design showrooms and retro fashion stores. It’s still raining and it’s about 10:30 and the street seems unusually quiet. The majority of shops are closed and most don’t open until 11 or 12. There are also many store fronts that look abandoned or neglected, so I almost feel like I’m in a ghost town. The main activity I see is people sitting on stoops and in shop doorways, some of them drinking quite openly and some of them clearly on drugs. But it is a fascinating walk and as I get close to the centre of town, the street gets much livelier. My task is to get to Spadina Avenue, turn south and then east into Richmond Street to visit the art and design centre at number 401.
401 Richmond is an art and design complex that houses galleries, design stores, artist studios, architectural firms and a café in an old converted warehouse. The building is beautifully renovated and features a combination of exposed brickwork, timber, steel and glass. I explore the different floors, getting lost down some of the endless corridors and finding a few galleries with some interesting photographic work.
Then I head back to Spadina to find number 80, which has galleries on the 2nd and 3rd floors, including one that features the work of Ryerson students. Alas, I only find one gallery open (most don’t open until Wednesday and today is Tuesday) which is showing a rather strange exhibition of miniature scenarios of different rooms in an apartment block, all fashioned from ceramics. There is a woman in her bathroom with her head hung over the toilet bowl, a man and a woman watching tv, a couple have sex, a man in front of his computer, and so on.
I’m back on Spadina and now I head south down to the waterfront, under a huge motorway, past lots of construction sites and along pedestrian unfriendly walkways to the Harbourfront Cultural Centre and the Powerplant gallery. Unfortunately, the Powerplant, which is a very impressive contemporary art space, is between shows, so it is closed, and the Harbourfront, another huge complex, seems almost devoid of people, with the exception of the odd group of children here and there who are doing summer holiday workshops. I feel more and more as if I am in an abandoned city. But the Harbourfront has a couple of interesting exhibitions and I take those in before heading out to the waterfront again.
There is an Inuit Museum close by, inside a shopping mall, and I feel quite excited when I find it, but the museum, which is normally open every day is closed while it undergoes a major rehaul of its regular exhibition. I’m starting to feel exhausted and rather disappointed in myself for not organising my Toronto trip in a more timely manner. I walk up Young street into the financial district, and catch a cab that takes me through the beautiful grounds of the University to the Royal Ontario Museum – the ROM – with its rather crazy crystal-like Daniel Liebeskind designed entrance. Here, at last, it seems that Toronto has come alive for me and I spend the last 2 hours of the day completely overwhelmed by a stunning exhibition of photographs by Sebastiao Salgado. The show is called Genesis, and features large black and white landscapes of the Arctic, Papua New Guinea, Africa, South America, Lapland and other remote areas of the world. There are also images of animals, birds and fish, and people from tribes that are living examples of their traditional culture. I find myself completely mesmerised in front of certain images – the fin of a giant whale, hundreds of reindeer trekking across an icy plain, a misty scene in a forest, an abstraction of black and white mountains in Tibet, women wearing huge plates in their lower lips, others with strange horn-like protuberances fitted into their chins – the detail and the subject matter and the sensitivity with which it is captured are just extraordinary. Seeing these images makes me want to start taking photos in black and white.
I return to the Gladstone exhausted. This is my last night in the Red Room. For reasons not clear to me, I am being moved to another room for the final two nights of my stay. I ask the receptionist which room I will be going to, and I also tell him that before I arrived, I had decided that there were only two rooms I didn’t want to stay in – the Red and the Biker.
“Please don’t tell me I’m staying in the Biker”, I ask.
“Let me check… Hmm, guess what? You’re being moved to the Biker!”
We both burst out laughing. He assured me that the Biker was a very nice room, in a very quiet part of the building, and I would be very comfortable there. The Biker was actually not bad – certainly much better than the Red Room, which was not very relaxing and made it very difficult to see. (I wear red lipstick and in the mirror, I couldn’t tell how much red lipstick I had applied.) Of course, the Red room also has other connotations that I don’t really need to spell out. So, the Biker was distinguished by a black leather bedhead, a red, white and blue colour scheme with mainly white walls (thank heavens), images of Peter Fonda, and bed lamps that were made from two black bike helmets sitting on top of each other. I was fine and it was indeed a very quiet room.
Just outside my room is a big L-shaped open area where exhibitions are held. When I arrived, a number of people were in the process of hanging their work for the next show, called That’s so Gay: say it to my face, which features the work of gay, lesbian and transgender artists. I meet the curator and she gives me a guided tour of the works, which include a number of drawings by the Australian artist Textaqueen, who creates extraordinary images using felt tip pens.
On my second day, I head off very excitedly on a bus tour to Niagara Falls. I read a wonderful book a number of years ago called Too close to the falls, by Catherine Gildiner, which is a memoir of her rather eccentric childhood growing up in Lewiston, a small town in upstate New York not far from the Canadian border. Ever since reading Gildener’s award winning book, which was on the New York Times and Globe best seller lists for over 100 weeks, I have been particularly inspired to visit Niagara Falls.
It is a wonderful and relaxing day. The rain has stopped, the sun is out, and I feel like a real tourist. I’m in a bus with about 30 other people and I’m enjoying the ride and the commentary. I’m sitting next to an Egyptian gentleman whose name I simply can’t remember, but who is visiting Toronto for his son’s graduation. We have a very pleasant conversation, talking about our children, our families and our travel experiences. But when we get to the falls, I meet up with the wonderful Arlene and Carolyn, two intrepid travellers from Ohio. We end up going on the Maid of the Mist together (the boat that takes you almost too close to the falls!), eating lunch together, and generally enjoying each other’s company. We even have our photo taken as a threesome by the Maid of the Mist commercial photographers, looking lovely and dry and composed in front of the falls.
The falls themselves are truly amazing. I didn’t realise this, but they are divided into two sections by a strip of land. So there are the smaller American falls on one side, and the much larger, more impressive Canadian falls, which are in the shape of a horseshoe, on the other. We take photos from viewing areas near the horseshoe falls, and then our bus driver takes us to the area where we board the Maid of the Mist, which is closer to the American side. I’m with Arlene and Carolyn. We line up, have our photos taken, and then we’re given blue raincoats, which we all put on too early and end up sweltering in the heat while we wait to board the next available boat. I encourage Arlene and Carolyn to ride on the top of the boat rather than staying in the enclosed downstairs and we all grab the side of the rail for extra security. Then off we go. At first, it’s a pretty calm ride and it’s easy to take photos because the mist from the falls is very light. But as the boat moves closer and closer to the American falls, we gradually start getting wetter, and then it edges its way right into the hollow of the horseshoe falls and stays there for what seems like far too long. We get wetter and wetter, the blue raincoat offering very minimal protection. It is a sublime moment – I imagine Turner, the Romantic English painter, lashing himself to the mast of a steamboat in a storm, as he apparently may have done to experience the full emotional impact of the wild weather – and I feel both the thrill and the danger of being so very close to this powerful natural wonder.
The first person to go over the falls in a barrel and survive was Annie Edson Taylor, a 63 year old woman who was looking for fame and fortune and a way out of poverty. She did the deed on her birthday, October 24th, 1901, emerging rather battered and shocked after a 20 minute ride in a custom made barrel, padded with a mattress. Unfortunately, she never made the money she hoped to make from her crazy venture.
The bus trip also takes us to the town of Niagara and we stop to take a scenic photo of Lewiston on the way, the place where Catherine Gildiner grew up. The trip is complete.
The next day is my meeting with Vid at Ryerson University. He is a truly charming man and shows me around the Image Centre and introduces me to a number of colleagues and students. The Image Centre has been recently renovated and it is a very impressive building, with excellent gallery spaces for professional exhibitions as well as student shows. I envy both the galleries and the facilities behind the scenes with ample storage and large practical work areas. We then head for the Art Gallery of Ontario, known as AGO, which is about a 15 minute walk away, passing OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design Univeristy), a remarkable building that seems to float above the street like a giant lego block construction. Vid taught there before he joined Ryerson about 4 years ago. He said it is rather ordinary on the inside.
The AGO is a real treat. The building’s renovations were designed by Frank Gehry who has incorporated beautiful organic timber features such as coiling staircases that look like they are almost alive. There is a huge atrium towards the back of the gallery constructed with what look like the ribs of a massive boat. It is a very beautiful space and a delight to get lost in.
We head straight for one of the upper floors to see work by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller who are internationally renowned for their soundscapes that are merged with installations. Vid was under the impression that there were just two works on display – Paradise Institute, which represented Canada at the 2001 Venice Biennale and won both the La Biennale di Venezia Special Award and the Benesse Prize, and The Forty Part Motet, also from 2001, which has been shown to great acclaim internationally. The Motet is probably Cardiff’s best known work and consists of 40 high-fidelity speakers on vertical stands that are arranged in an oval configuration. As you move around the space and from speaker to speaker, you hear the individually recorded voices of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing a 1573 choral composition by Thomas Tallis. It is a moving and deeply meditative experience, and Vid and I find a group of people sitting in the centre of the circle of speakers, eyes closed, focusing intently on the music. The work is further enhanced by being shown in the Henry Moore gallery, with his dramatic modernist sculptures of women and other figures providing an evocative backdrop to the beautiful voices of the choir. I note that this stunning work will be shown at The Cloisters, the medieval art annex of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, later in the year. Having recently visited the Cloisters, which is a converted monastery on the upper west side of Manhattan, I can confidently say that Motet will be site-specifically perfect.
Well, there is a great surprise in store for us, because there are not just two works by Cardiff and Miller, there is an entire exhibition of their sound installations, called Lost in the memory palace, and it features about 8 works, each installed in an individual room. Vid and I go from one space to another and sit through the entire loop of each work. There is the fabulous Opera for a small room, 2005, which creates the space of an eclectic music lover, complete with chandelier and hundreds of long playing records; there is The Storm Room, 2009, where you enter a dark, abandoned space and experience all the nuances of a huge thunderstorm, with lightning and water dripping into buckets; and there is the sic-fi inspired Killing Machine, 2007, in which a robot-like mechanism performs operations on an invisible body lying in what looks like a dentist’s chair. Each room is magic: some are constructed so that you have to view the work voyeuristically from the outside, peering in through windows or holes in the walls; others are complete rooms that you enter and interact with directly, becoming part of the work. Each work has an evocative narrative and Cardiff and Miller have married sound with that narrative and the particular objects featured in each installation in an incredibly finely tuned manner. I am in awe. It is the best art experience I have had so far on this journey.
Afterward, Vid takes me to his home and I get to see the rusted steel extension to his home that some of the neighbours are not so happy about, and meet his daughter Inta. We then walk to a local Italian restaurant where his wife Anne and artist John Armstrong, who is going on a trip to Australia soon, join us for a meal and very pleasant evening. I try to convince John that Hobart is the new Sydney and he must try to visit if he can, especially to see MONA, but I don’t know how successful I am.
The following morning is my last in Toronto and I have a rather odd start to the day. A couple of days ago I had noticed some rather arty people in the café when I was having breakfast one morning. There was a tall thin man with frizzy dark hair and distinctive cat’s eye glasses accompanied by two women, one older and one younger, and they were noticeable because of their bohemian outfits and because they were also a little loud. I wondered who they were and why they were here. As I check out at the reception desk, I get to meet the older woman who overhears me telling the receptionist that I am an artist. Her name is Eileen Kaminsky and it turns out she runs an arts foundation in New Jersey with great studios and a residency program and we have a fast and intense conversation about the possibilities of all this. Before I know it I have been swept into the café to meet Yigal Ozeri, the artist with the cat’s eye glasses. He had an opening last night at the Angel Gallery on Ossington Street and they are all heading there in a few minutes and would I like to join them and see his wonderful photo-realist work? Well, I was planning to go back to the AGO to see the Patti Smith exhibition, so this would be on the way, so why not? Eileen disappears to some task in her room and as I wait for her return, I try to have a conversation with Yigal and the younger woman, who turns out to be his daughter. They are polite, but they certainly don’t invite a two way conversation, and very soon I get the impression that it would be better to just leave, so I ask them to pass on my apologies to Eileen, and say I will try to see Yigal’s show on my way back from the AGO. But as I am leaving, I run into Eileen in the lobby and the next thing I know, the four of us are walking to the Angel Gallery. Eileen is extremely friendly and talkative and when we reach the gallery there is great effusion over Yigal’s images. There are two paintings but the other works are large scale digital images, all of them depict young girls floating Ophelia-like in water. I ask Yigal if I can take a photo of him standing near his work and I just manage to take a picture before the gallerist has ordered everyone out because he has arranged for Yigal, his daughter and Eileen to have a private tour of the AGO. In a flash they have bundled themselves into a cab and are off. I wave goodbye and assure them I am fine – there is no room for me anyway – I will take the street car.
I spend my last two hours in the AGO, revisiting Cardiff’s Motet and viewing an exhibition of Patti Smith’s work called Camera Solo – it seems she is turning up everywhere. It is a poignant show, with many small photographs and drawings, accompanied by very special objects displayed in glass vitrines, such as a prayer cloth, Pope Benedict XV’s slippers (how did she get hold of these?) and a stone from the river where Virginia Woolf drowned herself. Many of the photographs are taken in cemeteries – the tomb of Baudelaire, the resting place of Sontag…
And then it’s time to go back to the Gladstone, collect my bag, and head for Pearson airport and back to New York. The Toronto Trip is over.