Remembering is a decidedly melancholy activity in “Mnemonic Devices,” the current exhibition at Oakville Galleries in Gairloch Gardens. For it, curator Matthew Hyland assembles works from the gallery’s permanent collection that survey artistic analysis of memory. And while that’s an intriguing premise in itself—with the complexities of memory taking shape here in free associations, acts of tribute, storytelling and more—the historical and personal content of these individual works makes for a deeply affecting show.
The title refers, of course, to those clever codes we create to trigger remembrance. In some ways, that might be what artists generally do most of the time. But in this context, the idea is particularly apt.
A politically topical choice of work is Stephen Andrews’s Facsimile II, a kind of ode to victims of HIV/AIDS. Faces are rendered on graphite-and-oil-rubbed wax tablets. Because they’re reproduced from faxed images (these faces appeared in “Proud Lives,” an obituary column in Toronto’s queer community paper, Xtra), the details are pixellated, smudgy. What remains is the sober record of a group of people now gone.
A parallel comes in Colette Whiten’s Vows Vengeance. Whiten saved a newspaper image of Abkhazian women mourning lost soldiers and used it to create a pattern for a meticulously crafted black-and-white bead curtain. Like the faces in Facsimile II, the details of the original image have blurred. The curtain is a remarkable show of craftsmanship and an example of how investment of time, care and quality is connected to memory. This is a subtle theme found throughout the show, too. Here art counteracts iPhones, digital cameras and the rest of those technological devices that seem to make the past more disposable than ever.
Paulette Phillips also inspires reverence in her work Floating House. Off the coast of Nova Scotia, Phillips filmed the sinking of an old Gothic revival house. It bobs along the water, furniture escaping from the windows, and evocations of personal history with it. A haunting soundtrack tinkling with voices grows louder as the film cycles five times, ingraining the process but seeming to reveal new elements each time.
Water, of course, has long served as a poetic metaphor for time. We encounter it again in Janet Cardiff’s A Large Slow River, an audio artwork created specifically for Gairloch Gardens. Cardiff draws a veil of mystery over the lakeside Eden by narrating a guided tour through a young man’s memory, replete with the sound of shoes on stone steps and waves crashing against the shore. Of course, gardens change over time, as do pathways into memory. Despite this, these “Mnemonic Devices” are bound to be remembered for some time to come. (1306 Lakeshore Rd E, Oakville ON)