Review | Two Exhibits at UofT's Art Museum | Toronto

The two exhibitions on display at The University of Toronto's Art Museum, by intention or not, create a diptych. Miao Ying: A Field Guide to Ideology at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery—part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival—and Nations by Artists at the Art Centre are both provocative, incendiary, and hilarious investigations into the ways that ideology makes our world. These shows articulate the distress one can feel of being on the inside, and the danger of being outside, of the 'Nation'. However, there are also emancipatory moments for personal and collective action, jokes and proposals for resistance, like jokes.

​​Miao Ying: A Field Guide to Ideology

The Canadian debut by Shanghai/New York artist, Miao Ying, is split between two installations: Chinternet Plus (亲特网+, 2016) and it's sequel, Hardcore Digital Detox (硬核数据排毒, 2018). Both pieces are available online as their own respective websites, but their IRL manifestations at the Barnicke Gallery, curated by Yan Wu, serve the ideas she explores with tactility, scale, and a little ambiance. The two pieces are based around a détournement of China's "Internet Plus", an economic strategy that incorporates cloud computing into traditional industries while maintaining an ideological consistency through browsing restrictions.

This isn't the same old song excoriating Chinese censorship however, a track that tends to ignore the ideological formulations at play on the other side of 'The Great Firewall'. Chinternet Plus is a 'counterfeit ideology' presenting itself as a gift. It comes in a big drywall box—punctured with breathing holes. The many bows on it imply they might be barely holding something inside. Peeking in, as the peeling wallpaper scratches against your mask, reveals a mixture of glitching website design and people livestreaming. Miao Ying has compared using the Chinese Internet to Stockholm Syndrome, which is a counterfeit affection for surviving reality. The tongue-in-cheek use of its blue and chartreuse waiting-symbol logo is ironically optimistic: there's something beyond this restriction.

Hardcore Digital Detox (HDD) is a sharper satire of a free and personalized internet that still manages to warp consciousness. The animation "Happily Contained" has a cookie defecating dove-dinosaur with multiple narwhal horns curling from its back and many other not-unicorns (ie. start-ups valued at $1 billion) wandering a garden of virtual delights. The narration murmurs through the room menacingly before fading to a harrowing scene of climate refugees, "post-Ideology can enable the deepest blindest form of ideology". HDD is a partial cure for addictive nihilism on the internet, you can browse unintuitively to confuse your filter bubbles or log off and craft selfies by hand, but there's no return to before the flood.


Nations by Artists

The horse is so large that the curators of Nations by Artists, Mikinaak Migwans and Sarah Robayo, had it disassembled to fit through the door. The replica of King Edward VII Equestrian Statue lies in three pieces on the hardwood floor. It doesn’t look buoyant at all, yet the video shows it drifting lazily with the current. In 2017, Toronto's art-comedy duo, Life of a Craphead, floated the complete Styrofoam statue down the Don River. Seeing it in person however, its polished surface belies how brittle it really is.

There are other examples of anti-monumentalism. Decolonize This Place has an instructional poster for toppling actual statues. Flame Test (2009), by Will Kwan, is a hall of flags printed to appear in mid-burn. Conversely, there are also vestiges of nations that are latent in the artists' imaginations. Lorri Millan and Shawna Dempsey's video, Lesbian National Parks and Services: A Force of Nature (2002), proposes hilariously a nationhood that exists entirely on the periphery—borderless but protected from interlopers by their stalwart rangers. Greg Hill's Kanata Project (2000), is another video polling Ottawans on the imminent reversion of Canada to its original Haudenosaunee name. Like Millan and Dempsey's work, the video is quite funny, but there's an urgency and potential for everyday imagination from the people interviewed that's still relevant.

This exhibit rewards time and is filled with poems and manifestos from artists and struggles around the world, across decades—I Want a President (1992) by Zoe Leonard, A Nation is a Massacre (2018) by Demian DinéYazhi & R.I.S.E, and Yael Bartana's ...and Europe will be Stunned (2012). Many of these are free to take but you must stay for the video essays­ by Iman Issa, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, and Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s viscerally rendered projection of Edward Said's After the Last Sky. These works directly engage with conceptual valence of Nations by Artists, that nations are both a form of centralized authority collective fictions.


Author: Miles Forrester

Dates: February 8–April 2, 2022

Venue: Art Museum at the University of Toronto

Tickets: artmuseum.utoronto.ca/exhibition/miao-ying-a-field-guide-to-ideology