Arsenal Contemporary Art
17 September 2021 –
18 December 2021
Miles Greenberg’s most recent project Late October took place at Arsenal Contemporary Art Toronto late last Fall. Precious Okoyomon’s poem “Late October » appeared as a sort of precursory libation at the entrance to the exhibition. The poem speaks to an interregnum that many of us have explicitly and implicitly come to feel. By interregnum here, we refer to the possible (felt) lull, in-between epochs, a sense of a staid impasse of moving from one season to another. Greenberg’s video performances and an expanded sculptural practice he presents throughout the exhibition inculcate the affective space of our present “late October,” thus evincing an acute allegorization of an autumnal “interregnum”, imbibing an even greater exasperation of the lulling “Octobers” of present lives. Greenberg’s Late October emits mist, melancholia and a deeply felt sense of an interregnum―his/their/this and other “late Octobers.” It is ensconced in a vacillation of our epoch’s social promises, the excruciatingly spectral and interminable senses of unfulfillment. Greenberg’s arduous allegory of impasse contends with an overcast autumnal mist and an enveloping fog.
This sense of a numbed in-between, of an endlessly gray vacillation is gleaned in the very atmospheres of Greenberg’s exhibition: sentiments of a prolonged pandemic late-liberal moment. Okoyomon writes as a backdrop to Greenberg’s show:
distance buffer song
hold that sound thickness
Tear that modular shift
The impossible interrogation
Late October is divided into three mediums in Arsenal’s space. This includes photographs of Greenberg’s seven-hour durational group performance, a video installation of that performance set amongst sand and sculptural vases or urns he has fashioned, and three life-size sculptures produced from scanning video stills of a performance that are then made into colossal objects, using the tweaked settings of a three-dimensional printer. Arsenal’s galleries are transformed into proto-receptacles for these three mediums. The various spaces show bodies at an impasse, in-between and seeking to emerge. The space is converted into a territory of multiple vistas (video installation and photographs) and proto-dioramas (of sculptures) of figures caught at the nexus of prostration, genuflection and supplication, which corresponds to Okoyomon’s allusion to notions of the opaque as the vitrine of our present. This infers an entity under the reign of an “impossible interrogation,” a figure seeking to break through and beyond a precipice, walking along a limit line with possible shifts of movement beyond the “holding patterns.”
The first room of the exhibition is filled with a combination of sand and water, which allows the viewers to navigate amongst strewn vase sculptures while we watch a video in which we see similar wayward bodies engaged in what feels like an endless circuit. In the video performance, lacquered indigo-black bodies handle vases similar to the ones in the installation while in liminal states. These bodies hardly move, incrementally exploring the space, which recalls butoh dancers inscribing space with time, and time with space. Moving into the main gallery space, we are confronted with one of the blackened bodies from the video now turned into an object and frozen in time as a solid block sculpture, having a mesmerizing presence over a pearly lagoon. Like the biblical Lot’s wife suddenly stuck in a solid material, Greenberg’s protagonist from the performance videos and photographs appears at once preternatural and resplendent with life. In this gallery space, transformed into an intense diorama, we are invited deeper into Greenberg’s uncanny valley of bodies. Transposed into sculpture from a video performance, these bodies are inanimate, yet still very alive entities.
These opaque and colossal sculptures move us further into Greenberg’s exploration of complex social identity and what appears to be excavations of his interests in the “more than human.” It is important to note, Greenberg refuses the notion that his work is merely steeped in the “representation” of a particular set of determined themes, instead he opts for what one might view as his own take on allegorical anathema. That is to say, yes, his bodies allegorize “something,” but they never allow social allegory to be just that in itself. Rather, these works wield a sort of mise-en-abyme of the social. Finding affinity with Rosalind Krauss’ notion of the expanded field of sculpture usurping the logic of monument, as well as challenging monuments’ plinths as immutable pedestals, Greenberg has his figures’ blackened bodies surreptitiously stepping up and down from their plinths. In the normative realm of monuments, there is the representation of the indispensable solid, flawless blocks as well as the narrative of glorified figures never stepping down from their fixed hubris. In this sense, Late October’s denizen of “statues” crush the notion of a pedestal as it has been an age-long mediator between the “actual site and the representational sign” (Krauss) inherent to monuments and their fixed meanings. Greenberg’s use of sculpture is an obvious next step to challenge Krauss’ “logic of monuments.” Here, the artist explores complex agencies and the fragmentation of normative ways that bodies and sculptures inhabit space and time.
A perfect example is his sculptural representation of Icarus, nimble and practically in flight, but also equivocal and well-landed. This piece is neither vainglorious nor fallen: it is not broken, but has descended well placed with hands gracefully swathing air and pushing sky. This first of the three sculptures on display is a divine guide-like entity, giving sway and opening up the pearly lagoon of green-blue clear liquids that also populate the installation space at Arsenal. Throughout the exhibition, Greenberg’s figures become quantum and fragmented reconstitutions of the allegory that his performative videos point towards. One possible reading to be extracted is of black(ened) bodies living under the auspices of art history’s steady white gaze and authorial rule. Other allegories to be gleaned are those of non-human presences, practicing their swathes through the realms of what feels like the zones of a non-space. In such a non-space, Greenberg’s Icarus is numinous in flight and yet also performs terrestrial tasks. His elegantly positioned arm and hand are possibly heralding some kind of future outcome.
With Greenberg’s next sculpture Narcissus, there is another extension of his worldbuilding from the performance videos on view. Together, all of the sculptures look as though they are moving in a kind of cohesion, with one body reaching over for another. Or, perhaps, it is one body, being the same one, but at different phases of its own history. Paeans to emergence? A stomach becoming a leg, a torso becoming another torso. Narcissus clearly marks a launch into the realm of mythos where the prostration we witnessed in the video performances now takes on the air of assemblages of bodies anchored in genuflection and supplication. Greenberg’s Orpheus, along with Icarus, buttress Narcissus. Orpheus threads carefully like a protectorate over Narcissus into the blue-white stream. Orpheus here walks and edges steadily, self-assured with temperance. Firmly planted, eliding. Fragmented yet whole. Greenberg’s Orpheus shows a bit of unease but still finds the steps towards a form of mutual support.
Late October’s three sculptural experiments have a certain nomadic sense to them. They viscerally depict an even greater exasperation of our present, never-ending lull of a never arriving “eventuality.” Krauss refers to sculpture in the expanded field as leaving behind the static, sedentary and easily identifiable representational characteristic of monuments. In response, Greenberg presents sculpture in its present tense and space as a piling up and subtracting, a putting on, taking off, apart, a putting together and an unpacking in the way of consistent recombinant and incessant assemblages. Sculpture in its present schema is an imploded, unpacked monument or moment, broken down into a schematic representation of what was once considered absolute and impenetrable and thus now is usurping the Western traditional consideration of sculpture as monolith. With this project, Greenberg follows the “expanded field of sculpture,” rendering no easily identifiable physical or affective anchoring. Throughout Late October, we encounter a repeating loop of performance videos, images and sculptures that embody dramatis personae, positioning us as contemplative viewers at the centre of an exhausted incessant set of tasks. Ultimately, we join Greenberg’s figures, pregnant with restrained agency.
James Oscar is a writer, art critic, and anthropological researcher. He studied closely under the direction of poet Édouard Glissant. He presently researches the sociology and anthropology of art at Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique. He is Curator in Residence 2022 at Fonderie Darling. He has been on the curatorial advisory team at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ From Africa to the Americas: Face-to-Face Picasso, Past and Present and was also recently a curator at the Moment Biennale de la Photo (Fall 2021).