“The Idea of North”

An exhibition about the north seems like a timely event, as global warming alters the nature of the Arctic. But if guest curator Dieter Roelstraete hoped to challenge rustic, romantic fantasies about northernness, he should have used a compass, if not a reality check. The group show of Canadian artists featured Allison Hrabluik, Zin Taylor, and Ron Terada. By attributing special insight about the north to Canadians—80 percent of whom live within 150 miles of the country’s southern border with the United States, which is to say, not very far north—Roelstraete offered a symptom of the fantasy he would like to diagnose. Glenn Gould’s 1967 radio piece was likely an inspiration for the title. But it would have been more interesting to explore how warming of the polar region—the idea of heat—will change the Canadian imaginary, both inside and outside the country.

While Hrabluik’s collages and Terada’s photographs create images to confound urban and natural landscapes, Taylor actually makes a dent in the idea of north by transforming the idea into a real destination. A sort of ethnographer equipped with a camera instead of a notebook, the artist retraces the pioneering footsteps of an earlier explorer: not Robert J. Flaherty, or even Gould, but Martin Kippenberger, who brought part of the parochial art world to the former gold-mining town of Dawson City in Yukon, Canada, in 1995 for the grand opening of his Metro-Net subway station. Completed in 1994 beside his friend Reinald Nohal’s hotel The Bunk House, this station was the second in Kippenberger’s worldwide network (the first, created in 1993, is on the Greek island of Syros). Taylor’s “mockumentary” Put Your Eye in Your Mouth: A Conversational Documentary Recording Martin Kippenberger’s Metro-Net Station in Dawson City, Yukon, 2006, named after Kippenberger’s 1991 SF MoMA exhibition—and filmed during the summer, as a nod to the late artist’s sense of humor—is structured by a 2005 interview with Nohal, the station’s designer, who describes his memories and memorabilia. The filmmaker and Nohal are never seen; instead, their lines are stiffly dubbed by amateur actors, who reenact the past (Kippenberger and his pals at the Snake Pit bar, circa 1993) or imagine the future (archaeologists in 2105 trying to decipher the inscription NHN—“Nobody Helps Nobody,” the motto of another of Kippenberger’s inventions, a secret society called the Lord Jim Lodge—engraved on the station doors).

However DIY, Taylor’s film is expertly and surprisingly shot. Certain frames, although animated by actors, unite the clinical dryness of Thomas Demand’s paper sets with the found chaos in a Wolfgang Tillmans windowsill study. Far from acting as tourists, Kippenberger and company constructed the Metro-Net station with an impressive knowledge of Yukon traditions. In addition to using local spruce logs, they made the entrance four feet tall, as laws for staking a land claim require. Yet the station, the only structure in the city that goes below ground, is bound to collapse, due to the shifting permafrost. This planned obsolescence pleased Kippenberger, who hoped his creation would fall apart gracefully. Taylor’s own reflection on obsolescence—his evocation of future archaeologists, reminiscent of David Maljković’s futuristic forays—is not so much an idea of north as part of a growing trend of treating the present like a long-dead past. If Baroque artists explored symbols of death, today’s artists are using sci-fi as memento mori.

Jennifer Allen