ARCHIVAL DIALOGUES: READING THE BLACK STAR COLLECTION at the Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould), to December 16. 416-979-5164. See listing. Rating: NNNN
For its inaugural show, curators Doina Popescu and Peggy Gale called on eight major Canadian artists to respond to the Ryerson Image Centre's raison d'être, the Black Star Collection. Ryerson built the RIC to house the gift of this archive of close to 300,000 images from the photo agency, founded in New York by three refugees from Nazi Germany.
Meditating on history, time and memory, the artists not only mine the collection for visual records, but use the agency's cryptic notations on the backs of photos as comments on our inability to decode the past.
Receiving pride of place as the only video that doesn't require headphones, Vera Frenkel's The Blue Train takes us to second world war Europe. Images of trains combine with the artist's narration of her family's 1939 escape, a photojournalist's 1945 letter and a series of one-minute stories. The fragmented narratives evoke the persistence of memory of a period now overshadowed by media fictions.
The play of light, a perennial concern of Stephen Andrews, permeates his depiction of the Vietnam era in a video that takes us through the self-immolation of monk Thich Quang Duc to anti-war protests and famous portraits of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Only a few Black Star photos involve Canada, but Marie-Hélène Cousineau (director of Before Tomorrow) paints a vivid picture of the North using the agency's 1960s photos of Baker Lake children. She's photographed the subjects, now adults, holding the black-and-white prints, a comment on infantilization as well as on change and aging.
Stan Douglas, in Midcentury Studio, recreates the era's cheesy, lurid photojournalism; Christina Battle's eerie, poetic series conjures fears of natural disasters; Vid Ingelevics's cube of storage boxes serves as a screen for video of archival processes.
Two slow-paced installations repay our patience: in TAUT, Michael Snow projects onto school furniture film of his hands manipulating the archive's photos; visible from outside the building, David Rokeby's foggy videos highlight details, then gradually reveal entire Black Star images, letting us compare and revisit famous and lesser-known scenes.
After an opening of this calibre, we look forward to future shows interpreting this visual treasure trove.