A Play of His­tory

Canadian Art - - Contents - by Luis Ja­cob

“His­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity is the Achilles heel of Toronto art­mak­ing.” I wrote th­ese words in the Spring 2009 is­sue of Pub­lic—eight years ago! Re­flect­ing on this state­ment to­day, from a dif­fer­ent con­text and in a dif­fer­ent pub­li­ca­tion, raises the ques­tion, What does this mean?

Cer­tain thoughts come to mind in re­sponse. The first is that “his­tory” is not syn­ony­mous with the mere pass­ing of time. The fact that some­thing hap­pened in the past—an act of writ­ing nearly a decade ago, for in­stance—does not, in it­self, make that act his­tor­i­cal. Some­thing else is needed: a sub­se­quent act that bridges the past act of writ­ing, and re­lates it with the present act of con­nect­ing the dots. It is only at this sub­se­quent meet­ing point that past and present re­veal their his­tor­i­cal di­men­sions.

The sec­ond thought that comes to mind is: his­tory mat­ters. It’s worth rec­og­niz­ing the strange­ness of this tru­ism. Writ­ing in the cat­a­logue for the Power Plant’s in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tion, “Toronto: A Play of His­tory (Jeu d’his­toire)” in 1987, artist Ian Carr-har­ris put it like this: “His­tory is a bit like the tar-baby: stuff sticks to it.” A decade later, in her col­lec­tion of es­says Sym­bol­iza­tion and Its Dis­con­tents, critic Jeanne Ran­dolph de­scribed it in terms of the mag­netism of an amenable ob­ject: the “avail­abil­ity of an ob­ject to the elab­o­ra­tions, dis­tor­tions and yearn­ings of the per­son who is in­ter­act­ing with it…. The sub­con­scious…plucks from all sen­sa­tions, im­ages and con­cepts what it needs to keep go­ing.”

His­tory, then, does not sim­ply en­tail nar­rat­ing “what re­ally hap­pened.” Rather, his­tory is the process of de­ter­min­ing what, among past events, is use­ful and need­ful for pluck­ing in the present. What mat­ters? To tell his­tory is to re­spond to our present de­sires by adopt­ing past events; this is done as a way of mak­ing those un­re­solved as­pects of our present sit­u­a­tion ap­par­ent to us as if for the first time. Dif­fer­ent cul­tural en­vi­ron­ments have de­vel­oped their own ways of nar­rat­ing his­tory. In some places, sto­ries of dom­i­na­tion are the ones that stick. In other places, the sto­ries that take hold are those of loss and de­feat. In Toronto, we tend to­ward sto­ries that re­mind us of the mech­a­nisms of era­sure. As cu­ra­tor Wanda Nanibush re­cently ob­served, “This city tends to bury things—his­to­ries, neigh­bour­hoods, wa­ter­ways.” This is pre­cisely what makes his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives of era­sure so use­ful (so “amenable”) in this place.

What does “Achilles heel” mean? In Toronto, it means con­fus­ing era­sure for an ab­sence of his­tory. It means liv­ing in a place where acts of con­nect­ing-the-dots are in­ad­e­quate to the task of mak­ing sense of the ever-chang­ing, multi-di­men­sional place I call home.

A lot has hap­pened in Toronto since 2009. The greater metropoli­tan pop­u­la­tion sur­passed the six-mil­lion mark. All of the 588 schools in the Toronto Dis­trict School Board now start the day with an Indige­nous land ac­knowl­edge­ment. And Hon­est Ed’s—the fan­tas­ti­cally tacky land­mark lo­cated at the in­ter­sec­tion of Bloor and Bathurst Streets—closed its doors this past De­cem­ber, af­ter 73 years in busi­ness, to make way for new de­vel­op­ment. How do res­i­dents of non-bri­tish, non-euro­pean back­grounds chal­lenge Toronto’s ex­ist­ing hi­er­ar­chies? How do we de­velop forms of recog­ni­tion be­tween Indige­nous and non-indige­nous peo­ple within a colo­nial set­ting? How do we pre­serve the mark­ers that en­able cul­tural mem­ory in a cap­i­tal­ist city where profit alone de­ter­mines what has value and what does not?

Most ob­vi­ously, “Achilles heel” refers to our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties— those un­re­solved as­pects of our present sit­u­a­tion that make de­mands of us that we can­not ig­nore. It’s worth mak­ing friends with the ways in which our home makes its claim upon us. It is, af­ter all, on the ba­sis of our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that the de­sire arises to pluck, mag­ne­tize, elab­o­rate and re­ar­range the “stuff” that sur­rounds us—and to es­tab­lish new, some­times un­fore­see­able, points of de­par­ture. ■


In­stal­la­tion view of Luis Ja­cob’s “Habi­tat” at Gallery TPW, 2017 PHOTO TONI

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