Writing Award 2012 Best Article: In There and Out There: AGYU’s Will Munro Retrospective as Antirelational Aesthetic

by Leo Krukowski

Presented with an exhibition, an audience often sees a soft and bending line between performer and performance. This line defines the boundary between artwork and artist; in an art exhibition that is in any way biographical, this line weaves through the whole show, providing cohesion and an ‘in’ for the viewer. The more personal or character-driven an artist’s work is, the softer that line becomes. The relationship between the artist and the artwork becomes more troublesome as well: Is it a systemized dualism? Or an extension of the artist’s ego? Is it perhaps a distillation of the artist’s very self? The exhibitionary line forms a new convolution for each intricacy that is present in any exhibition. When things get particularly relational, the line is made the focus of the show, branching apart and forming braided nodes – like a Celtic cross or colony of ants. When the artist is unavailable to the audience, due to absence on the artist’s part or ignorance on the audience’s, the art-anima/ego-extension/self-distillation flows into the vacuum left by the actual character and extrapolates a unique, and entirely mythical, persona. The boundaries of this persona, if defined, are defined by the boundaries of the artwork. Specificity and biographical content strengthen the persona and give authority to the artist and curator, who act as its draftsmen.

The artist’s persona is almost always more important than the actual artist as far as academia, history, et cetera are concerned. Nero is remembered for playing his lyre to the burning of Rome, not for the excellent songs that he is said to have composed for it. Or, to contextualize that example, certain Classical references were employed as neutral allegories for at least half of a millennium, and have only become problematic in the postmodern lens, viewed as something other than ideals. One attends a gallery to get to know an artist, not a person. And in the person’s continued absence, the art-persona solidifies. If the person is dead, it becomes particularly concrete. The intention and circumstance surrounding an exhibition gain inertia on the teeter-totter of identity formation, while the artist’s character becomes more brittle without a solid, living base. On the stage of history as well as the not-stage of relational aesthetics, the exhibitionary line between exhibitor and exhibit becomes the main avenue of artistic communication.

Will Munro is now history. In life, he was an art/glam/rock-and-roll avatara of gay Toronto. Now he is a gallery muerti. As far as exhibitions go, this has certain advantages; for instance, he can be equally present at two different receptions, all at the same time. Or in the case of Will Munro: History, Glamour, Magic (a retrospective opened at the Art Gallery of York University, or AGYU, on January 11) he can be alternately alive and absent, or dead and present. The engine of this reversibility is rooted in his history, glamour, and magic – but the curation of the exhibition is the gear that manoeuvres its intrinsic duality. In particular, the spatial planning of History, Glamour, Magic engenders a double experience in the viewer: one for the path into the gallery, and one for the way out. As a series of works, it explores identity, relationships, and performance, largely as they relate to Munro’s own life. As an exhibition, I would argue that it asserts the superiority of temporal narrative over architectural narrative, and explores Will Munro’s residual persona as a recursively formed identity, ultimately aligning viewers into an inverted relational network.

The gallery space includes three rooms separated by glass doors. Each has white walls and very high ceilings, as well as various temporary walls, tables, and other supports. The first contains much museum-style ephemera, along with posters and several pieces of hangable work by Munro. There is some music, and some movement on screens, and a few temporary walls interrupting the space. It reads exactly like the entrance to a retrospective exhibition. There is an ambience of equal parts black leather, white cube, glam, and thick, stiff moustache. Several of Munro’s signature underwear quilts are in this room, as well as collections of photographs, badges, et cetera.

The second room is dominated by a single piece that quite epitomizes the Freudian uncanny. There are elements of humour or irony in much of Munro’s work; however, the pink Lovecraftian eroticism of The Pavilion of Virginia Puff Paint, particularly regarding the performance video, severely overwhelms the viewer’s desire to laugh or smirk. This is one of the most successful individual pieces presented in History, Glamour, Magic. The alien sensuality of the film and its all-encompassing, all-penetrating display provides a lush counterpoint to the complete languidity and disturbing expressionlessness of the players. It is a strange singularity: infinite eroticism, with no carnality and zero intimacy. It is as though all of humanity manifested its potential for bored, depressing, dragon-chasing sex in a two-creature (many-membered) orgy. The viewing of this film marks the visceral peak of the exhibition; after having met Munro as a museum artefact, the audience is now confronted with something that cannot be so easily assimilated. The Pavilion of Virginia Puff Paint privateers the entire second room. Upon viewing it, the audience is halfway through the gallery, but only a quarter of the way through the exhibition.

If the first room was a museum, and the second room was the chamber for a pink Lovecraftian sex pavilion, the third room is a strange return to stillness. It is the most contemplative space in the exhibition. There are some screen and mirror works, and a large, comfortably furnished, lavishly brocaded tend. After The Pavilion of Virginia Puff Paint, this last piece seems somehow anticlimactic. Why would there be a tent here, especially one that is just comfortable and inviting? There are no obvious sex organs or moustaches, though the exhibition at large has engendered a suspicion of soft-looking tents in general. It seems, overall, like a contemplative space. There are artistically altered mirrors, and places to sit, and a book.

The book is the lever that inverts the exhibition’s emotional affect, and is a curatorial masterstroke. It is not the central feature of the room, and it is not reflective, large, or silky. It is black, but it is not leather. It appeared to me to be a funeral ledger, or a post-mortem gallery guestbook. However, upon opening it and reading about other people missing and knowing Munro, I was struck with such a strong, guilty sense of voyeurism that I closed the book without checking exactly what it was. After viewing Munro as an artefact, and then seeing his more experimental work, one develops a certain perception of his character. It is sensual, violent, and fabulous; it is strange, in perpetual motion, and not without a certain veil of artificiality or performance. This veil is probably an inevitable element of an identity based on an individual’s artifice and performance. Moreover, the artistic persona of Will Munro was an identity based on a performance concerned with performance and identity. But the mythical Will Munro did not encompass things like family, or death, or mourning. The exhibitionary line, which had been frayed and blurry, was snapped into tight focus. It connected the artist, his art, the AGYU, and all of those who knew him within a knot of vectors, all too far away from the audience to be personally understood. The line severed the artwork from the artist, underlining the absence of the person despite the presence of the persona.

The tent in the third room operated like a central node in this network. Had Munro been alive, it might have been a great place for a great crowd, and some debauchery and lounging. But at the end of History, Glamour, Magic it seemed more like an epitaph. Having visited the gallery with a friend, I felt an uneasy desire for solitude after telling him what the book seemed to be. Many viewers must have had a similar sobering reaction. However, rather than creating a unified experience, it isolates each member of the audience.  Rather than making the shared experience of the audience the subject of the exhibition, it brought forth the impossibility of such relationships.

Architecturally, the third room of the gallery marks the end of the exhibition. However, if viewed as an event or narrative, the architecture of AGYU makes the last room the midpoint of History, Glamour, Magic. While walking through the exhibition the first time, each work seemed to have a meaning or purpose that  could be teased out: here is a design and slogan that links gay culture to punk rock, and challenges both; here is a quilt of underwear, discussing modes of coexistence for innocence and sexuality. On the second pass, it was the lack of information that was striking: the void that contained Munro’s absence, now full of retrospection, idle viewing, and sharp uneasiness. The strange sadness of The Pavilion of Virginia Puff Paint, with its abundance of sex and lack of humanity, filled the exhibition.

Will Munro: History, Glamour, Magic begins as a fairly straightforward retrospective, but becomes an exploration of an antirelational aesthetic, deriving its dynamic propensity from its recursive system of identity construction and its orchestration of temporal and architectural narrative. Overall, the exhibition could be likened to a war history text; the first half of the book, all text, is informative and enjoyable, even when it is neither. But upon seeing the plates bound in the center of the spine, seeing vignettes of real loss, the second half becomes exhausting, measurable only in relation to the images. It offers a perspective on history and character that relies on experience and intimacy rather than observation, yet draws a line around them as a void when applied to a disembodied historical persona.

Leo Krukowski is a Toronto- and Ottawa-based artist, jeweller, and writer who recently finished his BA in studio art at York University. His recent artworks and writing have been largely concerned with faults in the narrative processes of history, both academic and personal.