One of my favourite places on campus is the Image Centre (RIC). Without fail there is always a new exhibit I want to see and since it’s right on campus and free I have no reason not to. There are currently five exhibitions at the RIC all of different sizes and all providing a unique story and experience. Among them is the current rotation of From the Collection which is a rotating display highlighting works from the RIC’s permanent collection. The current display is photographs by Elaine Ling from her latest book Talking Stones: A Photographic Sojourn. Ling is a Toronto-based photographer who on her many far and wide travels has documented ancient stone formations, fragmented statuary figures, giant historic trees, abandoned architectural structures, and indigenous families and groups.
Ling aims to capture the persistent dialogue between the past and present through her camera lens. Traveling through the deserts of Asia and Africa Ling encounters the remnants of forgotten cultures and the flourishing new beginnings of others. This display was of extreme interest to me as it shows the lives that came before us. My love of history takes over sometimes and distracts me from my studies for hours. Ling’s photographs show what ancient cultures built out of their environment; how they marked their existence and preserved their history which to us is a mystery. We can study ancient cultures and read what they left behind but we will never really understand or know them. I think that is what I find so fascinating about history. When do people change, how do we “forget” where we came from? History is like a giant puzzle that keeps getting new pieces added to it and one that we will never finish putting together. Ling’s photographs give us a look into the lives of ancient people, a couple of puzzle pieces we can admire and wonder about and allow ourselves to be mesmerized by. I believe that history talks to us, it unravels its yarn for those who give it a pull. The subjects of Ling’s photographs are telling us a story, their story, if only we could hear it. That’s the fun part of history, wondering what all those stories are, sweeping the sand away from a buried life to reveal its mystery.
Another mystery that is perhaps even less tangible than history but just as distracting to humans is the sky. What lurks in the dark corners of our universe and beyond? The New Media Wall at the RIC explores our skies with a newly commissioned video by Canadian filmmaker Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof. The Relics of Lumen is a collection of images taken of our night skies by NASA and from Ryerson’s Black Star Collection weaved together with images of people in transit. Pruska-Oldenhof creates an immersive environment of mosaics and composite collages that explore the displacement of people to celestial passages through space. It is interesting to think about how something that surrounds us, that provides us with life, and controls everything in our environment is so far away and enigmatic. I wonder how our lives would be different if we had a total understanding of what’s beyond the clouds. Would it change us as humans to understand one of the biggest mysteries in our world?
Continuing with this exploration into the unknown is Canadian artist Spring Hurlbut’s Airborne. This is a video that examines mortality and the physical presence of death. This silent film captures the slow motion release of cremated remains entrusted to Hurlbut by the relatives of six deceased individuals, including Hurlbut’s father. This was an experience I have never had before and one that touched me in such a way that I had to return to the exhibit on a different day to watch it again. Sitting in a dark room watching the remains of different people who I have never met swirl and snake around the black backdrop as they disperse and diffuse into the air, returning to the dust we all come from, was very powerful. The hypnotic dance that each case of ashes presents allows you to reflect on what is left of us after death, what our existence consists of when our physical presence is just a pile of ashes. This piece explores the ideas of mourning, loss, the essence of being, and the relationship between the animate and inanimate. Airborne also offers a space for us to contemplate ourselves, the soft smoky loops and coils of the ashes mimic the twists and turns we take throughout life. We do not know where our dust will fall as we float through the air, immersing and dispersing into others and ourselves, being carried off by the wind. Each unique path the remains take as they drift into the atmosphere mirrors the inimitable paths our own lives take. We do not know where our paths will lead us or where we go once our physical existence is merely ashes in the wind but that’s the best part of life, the unknown.
Moving to the largest exhibit currently at the RIC, The Light Inside, showcases the work of Wendy Snyder Macneil whose archive from as early as the 1970s is housed at the RIC. Macneil’s photographs and films spanning throughout her career from her beginnings with the Boston Haymarket to her transition from photography to film is the subject of this exhibit. Of particular interest is Macneil’s Hands series. Macneil captures the hands of individuals as portraits. Shifting away from conventional portraiture Macneil uses hands to reveal the lives, identities, and “face” of her subjects. Our hands are very intriguing, they reveal a lot about us and even show familial similarities. We can trace our life on our hands and watch growth and deterioration. Take a look at your hands, what do you see?
The final exhibit currently at the RIC is Ways of Seeing: Building the RIC Collection which chronicles the evolution of the RIC from its beginnings as a slide library to an internationally respected exhibition and research facility. Curated by second year masters students in the Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management Program at Ryerson this exhibit showcases objects in their acquisition order to exemplify how the RIC photography collection has grown and by extension how photography has evolved over the last 50 years. This exhibit digs into the past of photography and the vast array of subjects and styles that are exploited by one form of art. Though this is a small exhibit it can take quite long to walk through as there several striking images that grab you and don’t want to let go. This exhibit also provides a bit of a treat as the RIC’s collection of slides are available for taking. The massive slide collection has become obsolete so the RIC is giving them away, I scooped up a Cézanne and Monet and now I just need to find a slide projector.
After spending two afternoons exploring the RIC and contemplating all the different art and life I was being exposed to I came to a conclusion I don’t think I have ever really considered before. It’s terrifying to be in the dark, not understanding or knowing your surroundings and having to guess your every move with a bit of fear in your step. However, if you give your eyes time to adjust your vision will return and you can make your way. Life really depends on our way of seeing. How we see ourselves, others, or the world. Our way of seeing influences what we see. How do you see?