Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay with Pascal Grandmaison as part of the Re-play segment of Soundtracks at Interacess Electronic Media Art Centre (401 Richmond West), October 22 to November 15. 416-599-7206.
Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay is not a boy band. He's just a queer 30-year-old boy who very much wants to be earnest, to make honest video art, to talk seriously about love and to cry in public. For Soundtracks, the Berlin-based Toronto expat is showing a work entitled I Am A Boyband, in which, through the magic of editing, he plays all four singing/dancing roles in a male pop group. It's a brilliantly choreographed riff on the perils and seductions of pop culture.
"I used to hate boy bands," he says in his effeminate but strong voice. "Despite our being a supposedly media-savvy society, we're still getting the same kind of boys reproducing the same kind of traditional representations of masculinity and singing about the same fucking stupid stuff - like 'I'll die without you' or 'The first time I saw you I knew you were the one for me.' It's a misrepresentation of what love and emotions are really like. And it keeps happening over and over. That frustration influences most of my work."
It looked like stardom was in the cards for Nemerofsky Ramsay in 2000, before he focused his attention on producing the performance-driven video art that is now the primary outlet for those frustrations. On the basis of his video work and a beauty pageant, he was crowned Art Fag 2000 at the Images Festival that year.
"I got a bunch of media attention, which was really exciting, but it wasn't really about the art I was making. There was a certain emptiness about it." He pauses, collecting himself behind his brown-tinted sunglasses. "I was really unpopular in high school and I wanted to be popular. I was too faggy. I didn't wear the right clothes. I didn't like sports. It was only as an adult that I've been able to work on letting that go. It's hard to achieve when you've had an entire adolescence of wanting to be liked."
Now Nemerofsky Ramsay is getting attention for the right reasons - for his raw, unabashed art. For pieces like I Am A Boyband that succeed in being both humorous on the surface and serious at greater depths.
"I poke fun at the different representations of masculinity that are so widely broadcast. I play myself as the sporty guy, the tough guy or the swoony romantic guy whom I like to call 'Viktor Petrenko' because he kind of looks like a Russian figure skater with his silky shirt. The work is about making fun of those portrayals of masculinity, but it's also about trying them on.
"I tried to play the roles in earnest. The third guy is the butchiest one, and he's the one I'm least like. When my younger sister saw the video she told my mother, 'I've never seen Benny look so masculine,' which to me meant that I'd been successful at hiding my true gestures."
As a schoolboy, Nemerofsky Ramsay was drawn to dancing and particularly singing, which he did competitively. "I'm such a result of that," he says, laughing. "See what happens when you put your sons into a boys' choir."
His art is rooted in that love of song.
"I'm asking audiences to pay serious attention to what I'm singing about, either because it's ridiculous or because I have a real emotion that I'm trying to convey. It's not just a nice tune, and the words don't matter."
The lyrics in I Am A Boyband - paraphrased by Nemerofsky Ramsay as "Come back so that I can stop being unhappy. I'm sitting sighing, weeping, crying, dying... in endless pain and misery" - come from an Elizabethan madrigal by John Dowland that he refers to as one of the greatest hits of the 16th century.
"In some ways I think the lyrics are ridiculous, but they also appeal to me. I use the songs as autobiographical vehicles. They are always about something in my life. I don't choose them at random. In all of the videos, the text spoke to me and I chose to tell my story through that song, which is something I think people really do.
"Pop songs are very instructive. In some ways they reflect how we feel, but mostly they tell us how we feel. They say 'I will love you forever,' and we think, OK, love is forever. It's not that simple an equation, but if you hear a thousand songs saying 'I will love you forever,' they start to have an effect."
Pop music has definitely had an effect on Nemerofsky Ramsay. Another work, titled Live To Tell (currently on display until October 18 at YYZ), arose out of the aftershocks of a relationship that ended just prior to his departure for Berlin two years ago. In it, he's photographed by a number of surveillance cameras while a chorus of Nemerofsky Ramsay sings the title song.
"I went to Berlin with a broken heart and at a party there Madonna's Live To Tell came on. We were all dancing, but I was listening to the lyrics." Without missing a beat, he breaks into song: "'And if I ran away, / I'd never have the strength to go very far. / How would they hear the beating of my heart?'
"I felt, 'Oh my God, here is Madonna telling my tale.' In some ways I couldn't accept that because I went through long periods of hating Madonna, thinking she was evil incarnate. But then at the same time, like a classic fag, I yielded to her. I think the humour of the situation is apparent in the piece, but it's also very serious. I'm asking the audience to take me very seriously. I'm saying, 'I'm going to tell you a story - and Madonna wrote it. '"
Madonna won't be writing his next work. He says he's moving away from reacting against culture and toward producing work that is more purely creative, using his own text and music.
"Instead of saying that certain representations of masculinity are problematic, I want to say, 'OK, this is my gender now. '"
This is a true turning point for Nemerofsky Ramsay. He just finished installing his first long work at a premier artist-run centre in San Francisco and has finally made enough short videos to merit a retrospective-style presentation. Art audiences in North America and particularly Europe are embracing his earnest work.
"It's a performance, as everything is, but when I'm singing and I look like I'm upset, I'm getting seriously upset by the song. People laugh because I get kind of emotional. I cry in public. I cry in front of the camera. I let the audience deal with that - they can be uncomfortable and laugh, or they can feel it.
"They can deal with that in any way they want."
Soundtracks is an exhibition that explores art as music and music as art. It's divided into three sections, but the strongest program, Re-play, officially opens on Wednesday (October 22) and involves dozens of contemporary artists rhyming, rocking out or just plain loving music. There's a bus out to the Blackwood Gallery on opening night, Wednesday (October 22), and a DJ-guided tour on Saturday, November 8, from 11 am. The other two programs are Come A Singing! at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (10365 Islington, Kleinburg, 905-893-1121) to November 16, and See Hear! at the University of Toronto Art Centre (15 King's College Circle, 416-978-1838) to December 13. See www.thepowerplant.org/soundtracks for details.
Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay with Pascal Grandmaison at Interaccess Electronic Media Art Centre (401 Richmond West), October 22 to November 15. 416-599-7206. Grandmaison joins Nemerofsky Ramsay to create the best one-two punch at Re-play. Grandmaison's video work Solo is a portrait series of five solo musicians, each composed of a series of close-ups that create a gorgeous visual tapestry to accompany the music. Kevin Schmidt , Shannon Oksanen and Althea Thauberger at The Gallery, U of T Scarborough (1265 Military Trail), October 22 to December 14. 416-287-5649. Oksanen obsesses over Nina Simone while Schmidt and Thauberger present BC as a place to sing and strum. Thauberger's concept is strong - several women musicians gathered through a newspaper ad are filmed lip-synching their songs in idyllic surroundings. Schmidt takes the beauty of the Vancouver Island coast and sets up a set of Marshall stacks and a portable generator, plugs in his electric guitar and plays Stairway To Heaven. Schmidt's performance is part poetry, part rock and roll.
Stan Douglas at the AGO (317 Dundas West), October 22 to January 11, 2004. 416-979-6648. In 1992, Canadian heavyweight artist Douglas filmed a quartet of American free jazz musicians in Paris. The film was edited into a piece and is displayed on one side of a screen while the outtakes are displayed on the reverse side. It's a clever comment on how we selectively document performances.
Dave Dyment , David Armstrong-Six , Tim Lee and others at the Blackwood Gallery, Erindale College, U of T (3359 Mississauga Road North), October 22 to December 14. 950-828-3789. This show is packed with talent. Dyment creates a probing Pop Quiz by pulling questions from songs. Armstrong-Six drops some serious hiphop on the subject of thinking while driving around wearing mirrored sunglasses. Tim Lee takes an East Coast Beastie Boys rap track West Coast. The young Vancouverite divides the piece into its three MC components and recreates it in monotone. Not to be missed.
Rodney Graham at the Power Plant (231 Queens Quay West), to November 16. 416-973-4949. This is an acid trip set to an LP soundtrack. As Graham bicycles around Berlin's Tiergarten park, a Pink Floyd-inspired track by the artist plays on a record player. The film projector is looped and synched with the turntable to create a seemingly endless trip. A card placed in the spokes of the wheel mimics the clickity-clacking of the film projector as Graham sings that the queen of hearts is "the kind of girl that fits in my world." It's sweet and odd and unforgettable.