Vera Frenkel: Ways of Telling at MOCCA

It’s five o’clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd rushes in. There is in fact an old man sitting next to me, though he’s ordered a scotch on the rocks as the limited selection at the bar doesn’t offer any tonic and gin. The place to which I’m referring is of course the “Transit Bar”, the iconic centerpiece of the Vera Frenkel exhibition currently on display at MOCCA. Originally built in 1992 for the inaugural documenta, Germany’s most prestigious quinquennial art fair, here “from the Transit Bar has ambitiously been remounted for the first time in nearly twenty years. The installation not only offers a functional bar but on some nights guests are entertained by acclaimed jazz pianist Tom Szczesniak. This is not an ordinary bar however, as visitors are also surrounded by video monitors that play testimonials of immigrants who describe their crushing experiences with displacement. The stories, which are dubbed in Yiddish and Polish while subtitles in English, French and German scroll along the screen are hard to follow. There is a significant amount of noise in the bar, generated by the piano and conversations of visiting patrons. The duality of the stories of unbelonging mixed with the trivial stories of guests conversing at nearby tables reminds us of the vastly different reasons one may find themselves at a bar.

Vera Frenkel, “…from the Transit Bar”, 1992, reconstructed 2014, installation, Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 2014

The “Transit Bar undoubtedly acts as the centerpiece of the exhibition, making itself apparent throughout the gallery space via exposed construction materials and holes in the wall which reveal part of the bar. The exposed dry wall melds well with the scaffolding materials that accompany “Once Near Water: Notes from the Scaffolding Archive“, a video work which details the growing disconnect between Toronto and its relationship to the lake. The video tells the story of a recently deceased archivist who has documented every scaffold in the city and is passing that information on to another archivist. The dying archivist’s wish is for us to remember our city was once near water, a subtle criticism of the seemingly constant and unstoppable flow of urban development.

Vera Frenkel, “ONCE NEAR WATER: Notes from the Scaffolding Archive”, 2008, installation, Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 2014

Vera Frenkel, “ONCE NEAR WATER: Notes from the Scaffolding Archive”, video still, 2008. Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 2014

In many instances in the exhibition, elements from certain installations bleed into surrounding works. This is at times effective, such as the exposed fragments of the “Transit Bar that seep into other areas of the gallery space but it can also be distracting. Such is the case when it comes to the 1977 mixed media installation “The Storyteller’s Device”, one of Frenkel’s early works composed of cinder blocks, surgical gloves, wooden beams and a cassette player featuring a recording that is rendered inaudible due to the nearby piano playing. Elements from the bar (in the form of palm trees) are also present in “Mad for Bliss”, a video installation of performance works from the late 1980’s. These reemerging elements serve to highlight certain continuities within Frenkel’s vast and extensive oeuvre.

Vera Frenkel, “Mad for Bliss”, 1987, installation, Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 2014

In all, Ways of Telling is an effectively condense survey of Frenkel’s body of work. Her interdisciplinary practice surely offers something to any prospective visitor, be they interested in video, installation, text, performance or sound. The clear highlight, however, is the “Transit Bar”, not only for its offering of whiskey but due to its tremendous historical importance. For those wishing to visit MOCCA, the exhibition is on display until December 28th.

Mitch Billinkoff

*Exhibition information: November 15 – December 28, 2014. Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, 952 Queen Street West, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue – Sun, 11 – 6 p.m. Transit Bar / Bartending hours: Tue – Wed 4 – 6, Thur – Sat 4 – 9, Sun 4 – 6 p.m.

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