Fall Cultural Preview: Alexandre Castonguay launches the season in visual arts: In his Elements

In his Elements

Castonguay muses on the museum
Photo: Tony Fouhse

Alexandre Castonguay enters the establishment with his first solo show at the Musée d'art contemporain

To those of us who feel old in our 20s, 36 doesn’t quite equate spring chicken. Anything past the big 3-0 pretty much sounds the alarm of "old" to your inner child, admit it – but in the visual arts, 36 is positively infantile. If you’re lucky, it’s the age at which you may get your first grant. Or better yet, it’s the age at which you may graduate from being a "young" artist to an "established" one. If you’re lucky. Like Alexandre Castonguay.

The Outaouais-based media artist, notable for his playful, user-friendly technological art, will remain a babe in the art-world woods until September 22, when he launches his first solo exhibition in a major museum. Elements is pretty much the hottest thing on the fall roster at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain, and for Castonguay, it’s peaches and cream.

"It’s pretty fantastic," he exclaims from his brand new lab in Ottawa, hard at work with his team on the exhibition’s finishing touches. "For a young artist, it means so much. And it’s a solo! Imagine how lucky I am."

Castonguay may be as remarkable for his humility and kind character as for the impressive breadth of his young career. You may recall his photographic works Le Dessin des passions from last year’s new acquisitions exhibition at the MMFA, or his interactive video piece at Pierre-François Ouellette last summer, Digitale, which typified his ability to make art accessible, involving and fun for the viewer.

"His is a career I’ve been following for many years," says Sandra Grant-Marchand, curator at the MAC. "He puts into question various elements we’ve inherited from the history of art – artistic discourses, techniques too – and throughout that investigation he constantly renews his relationship with people. I’ve always been captivated by the relationship with our environment that he expresses in his work."

What Castonguay is planning for Elements is a room filled with eight old school projectors (slide projectors, Super-8 projectors, 16 mm projectors), each of which has been retrofitted with an LCD screen, a sensor and a small camera. During our conversation he spent generous amounts of time and energy trying to convey the technology behind the project, but sadly, I turned into the Simpsons dog and heard gobbledygook. What it translates to, however, is a room filled with glowing circular shapes at times reflecting the very viewers in the room observing it, at times reverting to prerecorded material Castonguay and his studio mates – Étienne Poisson, Siraj Sabihuddin, Normand Fisher, Dimitrios Katsoulis and Mathieu Bouchard – are busy programming now.

"I’m borrowing from screen savers, among other things, as a source of inspiration," boasts Castonguay. "I’m borrowing from our interactive culture, like you move your arm and something happens – and I put it all into play with the help of a theatrical technique, whereby we will be controlling the museum’s lighting system. Darkness comes, and then the projectors kick in with the prerecorded sequences. The room will be bare, we show the art’s structure… It’s like we’re asking people to suspend their suspension of disbelief," he laughs.

Castonguay’s taste for the lighter side of life translates into an art career that is seductive as well as conscientious – the thrill he gets from creating programs for his works is one he shares willingly, inviting anyone in the web community to surf to his sites (http://artengine.ca/gridflow and http://puredata.org) and pilfer his programming for their purposes. "The open source movement is very important, and I believe it’s to artists’ advantage to inspire ourselves from it," he says. "There’s a whole counterculture that exists in technology, and it’s great – you take a little, and give back too. I’m happy to be able to work that way."

"He loves to show what goes on backstage," adds Grant-Marchand. "He does it to demystify technology and to show that it’s just another medium with which to transmit experiences."

"I don’t think we can overestimate what a show like this brings," Castonguay beams, in conclusion. "It’s given me the opportunity to imagine something big – it’s been a challenge for me to think in a larger format, while preserving a sense of intimacy and complicity with the spectator."

Alexandre Castonguay: Elements
At the MAC, Sept. 22 to Jan. 8
Meet the artist Sept. 21 at 5:30 p.m.

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Elements isn’t the only thing lighting a fire under fall-time programming in the visual arts – there are a few things to watch, including a solo exhibition by Montreal comic queen Julie Doucet at Galerie Clark, to April 22; a photo show by David Hlynsky at Art Mûr, to Oct. 1; and a radical flower arrangement exhibition and demonstration by Japanese ikebana master Mieko Watanabe at the Shambhala Meditation Centre (460 Ste-Catherine W.), to Sept. 4, as well as later, on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. There’s also all kinds of goods surrounding the Mois de la Photo, including a Destiny Deacon and Evergon duo at Concordia’s Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery, to Oct. 1; and Trading Places, a group photography exhibition based on the switching of identities, at the Saidye’s Liane and Danny Taran Gallery, also on Oct. 1. These are the things the pros had to recommend.

"We’ve got a beautiful exhibition starting on Sept. 10 for the Mois de la Photo of Iain Baxter, one of Canada’s first conceptual artists," beams VOX gallery’s general co-ordinator Claudine Roger. "It’s a big, big exhibition, it’s a retrospective, which we very rarely do in artist-run centres – we’re presenting his work from ’65 to today. So it’s pretty much going to be the ‘must’ for our fall programming." (Sept. 10 to Oct. 22)

"We’ve got Cynthia Girard, who’s showing some new painting, and then Ramona Ramlochand in the large room as part of the Mois de la Photo," says Optica’s Dagmara Stephan. "Ramlochand’s are going to be large panoramic travel photographs taken mainly in Africa, with elements integrated from Montreal, so that one of the images is a Jeep driving through the desert, and then there’s this lamppost. And Cynthia’s – they’re paintings based on Québécois fantasy or mythology, really colourful and full of birds and tree stumps and stuff like that." (Sept. 10 to Oct. 15)

Cheryl Sim, co-ordinator for Oboro, exclaims at a role reversal this autumn: "There’s two great fall shows that are both amazing, and they’re both women – we sometimes have this crazy thing where it’s all boys and toys in a row, so this actually reverses it. Girls making automated works with their own hands and minds!" Oboro is showing Diane Landry, from Quebec, who Sim says reinvents beds for us. "Sabrina Raff is bringing a bunch of works from Chicago that are robotic and kinetic. For instance there’s this one piece called Grower, where it’s a little robot with a sensor on him that senses temperature, and then there’s a temperature brain on the wall of the room, and he draws a line on a wall in green according to the fluctuations in temperature. When you get to the end of the exhibition he’ll have drawn a jaggedy line in all the walls, and it looks like grass. I love it. It’s got environmental conscience and it’s playful and it also harnesses artists using new technology – with content, dammit!" (Landry runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, Raff runs from Nov. 5 to Dec. 11.)

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