Our lives, or how we understand and mark the time between birth and death, is shaped by ritual. These rituals can range from the everyday idiosyncratic variety such as shaking hands upon meeting someone new or the collective custom of wearing particular colours to weddings and funeral. Ritual is one of the ways in which we assert the value of ceremony and the usefulness in the occasional abandonment of logic and pragmatism. It allows for us to consider how
the influence and agency in minor gestures might prompt real, tangible change in our real lives.
For Toronto-based Australian artist Chris Flanagan, invoking ritual is one of the many strategies deployed in his multifaceted installation practice. His previous projects have combined meticulous and provisional approaches to object making with cobbled together narratives informed by urban and musical mythologies.
Whereas others might consider the term “speculator” to be a pejorative designation, Flanagan takes it on, and comfortably so. The speculator understands his or her task as a risky search without the promise of “getting it right”. Flanagan’s previous projects have incorporated very public personas in his speculations. In the video- installation titled Canada Cold (2009), we encounter an oddly scaled figure modeled on the Jamaican Reggae star Yellowman and video tracing this figure as it wanders awkwardly through a wintery Ontario landscape. Equally strange, but far more mischievous is the photo-documentary project I put a spell on You (2005), which illustrated the production of a Haitian Zombie concoction and it effects on Australia’s former right-wing foreign minister Alexander Downer. In each of these projects, as well as his new project for KW|AG, Flanagan stages a mystical communion with exotic flora and fauna.
Part amusement-park ride, part Cargo Cult offering, Sympathetic Magic is Flanagan’s response to the invitation to produce a new multi-media work in response to Kitchener’s 2012 centenary. To be clear, Flanagan’s familiarity with the city’s urban core and history was far from encyclopedic. Any curatorial suspicions that he would be deterred by such a regional focus, however, proved false. His response to the invitation was both curious, questionable, and only marginally connected to the city of Kitchener. The barely-there connection strangely became more plausible as the time of the exhibition approach. The core claim of Flanagan’s project revolves around the 1973 album “Berlin”, by the highly influential musician Lou Reed, which some speculate was the catalyst for the troubled German capital’s revitalization. Is it too late for that other Berlin (now known as Kitchener) to simply follow the example of its former namesake? Yes. Flanagan proposes that a more powerful intervention is needed.
Borrowing from the traditional Cargo Cult practice of intercepting material wealth destined for the Western world, through the building of symbolic ports which awkwardly reference a real-world equivalent, Flanagan alludes to the collision of technologically advanced and pre-industrial societies. One could argue that such collisions are not unfamiliar within Kitchener, given its shift from manufacturing to knowledge-based industry.
A clandestine quality pervades much of Sympathetic Magic: the false front entrance which greets visitors to the space was modeled on the now demolished Barra Castle, one of several folly castles which have punctuated the region within the last century. A graffito inscription outside the façade informs visitors to attempt to make a fictional Kitchener-specific hand gesture to gain entrance to this space. The use of pneumatics in lieu of actual sorcery is a clever nod to the animatronic displays which are typical of fantasy theme-parks.
Once inside the space we encounter a series of stations which function like alters to both Reed and suggestibility. One motion-activiated component feature three fabricated Datura Stramonium, or Devil’s Trumpet plants. As one leans towards them they rise and descend to the tune of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman, believed to be a favourite of Reed’s. The presence of the Datura is Flanagan’s subtle allusion to the notion of Zombification, a type of altered state prompted by the ingestion of parts of the Datura plant. Explorer and writer Wade Davis has written extensively on the subject and his text titled The Serpent and the Rainbow has continually influenced Flanagan’s work. On the subject of the Datura’s effects, Davis offers:
…I reviewed the toxic and psychoactive plants I had become familiar with during my six year association with the Botanical Museum. I thought of plants that could kill, and others that could lead one past the edge of consciousness. There was only one that even nominally met the criteria of the zombie poison. It was also the one plant that during all my investigations, and through all my travels, I had dared not imbibe – a hallucinogenic plant so dangerous that even Schultes, for all his stoic experimentation, had never sampled. It is a plant that has been called the drug of choice of poisoners, criminals, and black magicians throughout the world. Its name is datura, “the holy flower of the North Star.”
Flanagan leads us through the space with other seemingly hallucinogenic examples of an altered natural world. A bear sits stoically atop a crumbling faux-concrete platform. Sporting a wig reminiscent of the comical hairpiece worn by Reed contemporary and collaborator, Andy Warhol, the bear is the solitary motionless component of the exhibition. And yet, there is a glint in its eyes that suggests that perhaps, if one stares with enough persistence, we might witness it becoming animate. A short distance from the bear sits a downy white owl atop another crumbling surface, occasionally hooting a clip from Laurie Anderson’s song O Superman (1981). The sound is hypnotic and reinforces a sense of hallucinatory encounter.
Logically, if Reed was able to transform a major city with a single album, convincing him to record an ode to Kitchener should result in a dramatic and extremely positive outcome for the city, right? One knows better than to assume this would be an easy task. On several occasions attempts were made to lure Reed here to undertake the task. All attempts were made through conventional, albeit ineffective means of correspondence. Then in January, Flanagan managed to meet Laurie Anderson, Reed’s partner, during her visit to Region. It seemed hopeful, yet there was no sense of definitive progress in his quest to connect with Reed directly. Not about to abandon the desire to have L. Reed as a collaborator, Flanagan eventually connected with a mysterious L. Reed whose actual identity remains hidden from visitors to the gallery.
Though one cannot verify whether or not the voice belongs to the L. Reed, there is no mistaking that the voice performing the modified, yet still banal lyrics of Berlin provide a haunting soundtrack to the gallery space. The song accompanies a video projection of a non-descript urban block which would seem at home in Kitchener’s urban cord. Inhabitants appear in the windows of the buildings, each a member Flanagan’s circle of family and friends. The inhabitants seem to sing along with Reed, lush CG foliage and rainbows spring from the tops of the buildings in what sees like an illustration of extreme positivity. As the song ends, the inhabitants disappear like apparitions, only to reappear when visitors lean over an alter combining ready-made battery-operated tea lights and hand-drawn replica of the original Berlin album, with Kitchener in a lazy scrawl subbed in for its European namesake.
All of these connections may at first seem tenuous, however with time they become concrete and seductive. Believing in the transformative power of Lou Reed or animate plants if only part of the story.