Maybe it’s the time of year or maybe it’s the change of seasons or maybe I’m just feeling increasingly lost in this world, but an exhibition like Astral Bodies at Mercer Union hits me where I live. I’ve been revisiting my philosophical assumptions about reason and religion through McGill University prof Carlos Fraenkel’s wonderful book Teaching Plato in Palestine and the big metaphysical questions were already buzzing in my mind when I entered the dimmed galleries on Bloor Street West.

Shuvinai Ashoona, installation view of selected works on paper

 My first call to reflection was a tabletop display of Shuvinai Ashoona’s drawn cosmologies depicting the world as multiple blue and green marbles carried, fought over, animated and eaten. Her universe is controlled by animals, monsters, and anthropomorphic gods that are as confused, panic stricken, and profane as the human residents of the earth. Her iconography is at times reminiscent of Daniel Johnston’s psycho-fantastical drawings of his personal mythology, but Ashoona’s is bound up with and presumably deepened by a better understanding of Northern stories and beliefs. Whether they be supernatural or just plain natural, there are forces at work here. Sometimes they make sense and sometimes they don’t (which is as good an account of life as any I’ve come across in thirty odd years of searching).

 After that collection of riotous colour and frantic imagination, Pamela Norrish’s Outfit for the Afterlife brings my mind to a standstill. Sarah Todd wrote about this work when it was exhibited at the Glenbow Museum in the summer and I defer to her description, but will add that the delicacy of this glass beaded t-shirt and jeans carries maximum impact through the wording of its title and the manner in which it is displayed. The clothes could have easily gone on a mannequin, but instead they lie flat and either wait for someone’s passing or remain after someone’s loss. Death is the one inevitability.

Astral Bodies, installation view (including works from right by Shary Boyle, Pamela Norrish and Karen Azoulay), Mercer Union, 2016

 The degree to which we transcend that final exit — at least in the memory and imagination of those we leave behind — is beautifully demonstrated in Spring Hulrbut’s endlessly watchable video of her opening a container of cremated ashes. I’ve described elsewhere the evocation of ghosts and spirits in the swirling dust that emerges in the light. The dust is also simply that, so, in a sense, this work reinforces the materialist adage ashes to ashes and dust to dust to remind us that is all we are.

 That said, Karen Azoulay’s video projection of a night sky recreated by elegantly handheld candles portrays a lapsed cosmos that brings the heavens down to earth, while also hinting we are all made of stardust, which on a good day might make one feel somewhat transcendent. The either/or of this duality — physical/metaphysical, immanent/transcendent, mortal/divine — is contained in the exhibition title (hats off the curator York Lethbridge for orchestrating this compact but powerful assembly of stellar works) and in the single sculpture by Shary Boyle. It depicts the figure of Atlas as a young boy holding up a globe (which brings us back to Ashoona’s work). However, this sphere is God’s Eye according to the title and, as such, a piece of celestial anatomy that has fallen to earth. Make of it what you will.

Mercer Union:
 Astral Bodies continues until February 4.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.

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