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The Obscure Union installation, by artists Laure Prouvost and Jonas Staal, is on display at Toronto's Mercer Union gallery space.

toni hafkenscheid

In the centre of the Mercer Union’s gallery space in Toronto, an octopus extends its oleaginous tentacles and grasps first an orange, then a wooden stick. It’s only virtually present, of course, but the high-definition image projected on the floor is hallucinatorily real and instantly disarming. What world have we stepped into?

One created by the French visual artist Laure Prouvost, the engineer of surreal spaces where disembodied humans co-exist with animals and objects in some elusive future state. At last year’s Venice Biennale, there were hours-long lineups to see Deep See Blue Surrounding You, her transformation of the French pavilion into a watery and ramshackle cinema. There, visitors watched a dream-like video in which a troupe of cultural pilgrims travel to the art exhibition itself; that travelogue also evoked the migrant crisis, while the installation around it included an antique globe, a discarded cellphone and tossed cigarette butts, as well as a live dove and that signature octopus, a creature known for its intelligence. The work hinted at a world where humans surrender their idiocy … and their primacy. Now, for this smaller Toronto installation, entitled Obscure Union, Prouvost’s collaborator Jonas Staal makes the politics of these juxtapositions more explicit.

Visually, the two artists’ work could not be more different. Staal’s is all right angles and contrasting colours; Prouvost’s is biomorphic and darkly shaded.

toni hafkenscheid

Staal is a Dutch artist and activist whose work combines installations with real political meetings, and includes the creation of a parliament for blacklisted organizations, many of them separatist movements considered terrorist by various nation states. Here, he takes his inspiration from the Russian Constructivists – those revolutionary architects, sculptors and poster makers of the early Soviet era who believed their materials needed to be liberated too – and creates a constructivist scaffolding for Prouvost’s installation. It’s a plain white framework, topped off with big red pennant-shaped triangles, that corrals the visitor into the central space where Prouvost’s video is playing on the floor.

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Visually, the two artists’ work could not be more different; Staal’s is all right angles and contrasting colours; Prouvost’s is biomorphic and darkly shaded. And they are well aware of it: Prouvost wittily undercuts her collaborator’s geometry by hiding little mounds of pink flesh and nipples in corners of the framework. The stylistic contrast certainly makes this a less aesthetic experience than her much larger Venice installation, but it also forces a kind of Brechtian alienation on the viewer, a position of inquiry rather than immersion.

You enter through ceramic gates of twisting limbs as a sibilant voice (Prouvost’s) welcomes you as a voyeur. So, you’ve been identified as secondary in a space that includes stuffed dummies sitting in corners, stuffed arms and hands wrapped around the framework and the video showing both the octopus and a human hand darting out from beneath a belly-like ceramic dish holding some fruit. The implication is that these things have their own life apart from us. Perhaps visitors will believe that when they leave the gallery the art will pick up one of the protest signs standing in the corner and declare “We are your camarade” and “We want to touch you” or “We are unionized.” Or perhaps, visitors will only agree with the sign that reads “All will be obscure.”

Visitors enter through ceramic gates of twisting limbs.

toni hafkenscheid

Mercer Union’s programming for the show includes a series of (fictional) lectures, workshops and performances such as “Proletarian Plants: Workers of Toxic Soils Unite” and a tree-training session, “They Can’t Sea Us: Camouflage as Counter-Power.” Prouvost and Staal love purposeful misspellings and puns: The title Obscure Union combines references to their continuing collaboration in something they dub the parliament of the Obscure, to the Mercer Union and perhaps even a wink at their odd artistic collaboration itself.

Yet, beneath that humour, there’s some very serious intent. Both Prouvost and Staal have a utopian streak, a dangerous philosophy when it escapes into the real world of politics but immensely creative in the artistic sphere. (In that regard, the history of the Constructivists, brilliant artists and early enthusiasts for a bloody regime, is pertinent.) As the world burns, will animals and minerals rise up? Is a posthuman future no more than an artistic fantasy? At the Mercer Union, at least these notions are intriguing.

Obscure Union continues at the Mercer Union to Feb. 22

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