Snow Days

01.26.10

Left: Michael Snow, Wavelength, 1967, still from a color film in 16 mm, 45 minutes. Right: Michael Snow, Flightstop, 1979. Installation view, Eaton Centre, Toronto. Photo: Tourism Toronto


IT CAN SOMETIMES FEEL like Toronto is Michael Snow’s city, and the rest of us are merely living in it. No other contemporary Canadian artist has made such a thumbprint on the civic landscape, whether through the many iterations of his “Walking Women,” the fiberglass Canada geese suspended within the Eaton Centre, or the gargoyle-like fans spilling off the walls of the Rogers Centre. He reached his peak of ubiquity with “The Michael Snow Project,” a multigallery exhibition in 1994. By that time, he’d even been forgiven for spending his most prolific years (1963–72) living with his late wife Joyce Wieland in New York. Like so many other peripatetic Canucks before him, he’s been thoroughly reclaimed and repatriated.

And like so many artists who find themselves enshrined in their own time, the ever-industrious eighty-one-year-old has remained better known to the hometown crowd for popular public pieces than for the unrulier work that he continues to make. The fact that most of the seven projected works in “Recent Snow”—his first exhibition at the Power Plant since “The Michael Snow Project”—have never before been publicly screened in Toronto may come as a surprise. Then again, Snow’s film and video works—always a cornerstone of a practice that also includes painting, sculpture, and music—long ago earned a reputation for being more admirable than accessible. Surely only the hardiest moviegoers would endure the 45-minute-long zoom in his landmark Wavelength (1966) or the 266-minute runtime of Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1970–74).

Yet the new and old Snow works now filling spaces in the city readily dispel that idea. One of the projections at the Power Plant, The Corner of Braque and Picasso Streets (2009), consists of a real-time shot of an intersection outside the gallery projected onto, and fractured by, a staggered series of rectangles, creating a sort of cubist movie screen. In Piano Sculpture (2009), Snow creates a piano quartet with himself playing all four parts in shots projected onto each of the walls. And in the equally jazzy though speechless That/Cela/Dat (1999), he fills three screens with texts in English, French, and Flemish that may be roughly identical in meaning but whose contents nevertheless refuse to stay in sync. Like the other works at the Power Plant, it’s remarkable for its ingenuity and playfulness, and Snow is once again delighted to confound received notions about word and image, meaning and reception.

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Michael Snow, La Région centrale, 1971. Clip from a color film in 16 mm, 180 minutes.

In the coming weeks, other venues are presenting rare screenings of earlier works. TIFF Cinematheque offers the most monumental of the lot when La Région centrale (1971) plays January 28. Filmed over five days on a mountain peak in northern Quebec with a specially designed 16-mm camera that turns in almost every direction, the resulting three-hour work is less a serene study in landscape than an audacious exercise in disorientation. As he would do throughout his career, Snow reinvests the old business of watching moving images on a screen with an even older sense of awe and wonder.

Jason Anderson

Michael Snow speaks at the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto on January 27 at 7 PM. La Région centrale screens at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall on January 28 at 7 PM. “Recent Snow: Projected Works by Michael Snow” continues through March 7 at the Power Plant in Toronto.