Marlon Griffith
Symbols of Endurance
23 September – 6 December 2015
Opening Reception: Wednesday, September 23, 6 – 9 pm

Symbols of Endurance is the first solo exhibition in Canada by Japan-based Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffith. Beginning his career as a “Mas man,” Marlon’s current work derives its form—and to an extent its process—from performative, participatory, and ephemeral characteristics derived from Carnival. His work is based upon a reciprocal dialogue between “Mas” (the artistic component of the Trinidad Carnival) and socially-engaged contemporary art practice as a means to investigate the phenomenological aspect of embodied experience while interrogating contemporary visual culture outside the traditional pitfalls of representation. Often taking shape as processions, Marlon’s performative actions are stripped down to their basic form and abstracted into new ritual dramas. These processions, which have taken place all over the world, construct alternative narratives that respond critically and poetically to the local socio-cultural environment in which they are staged. Indeed they become symbols that endure in the imagination of participants and spectators long after the projects are finished.

Ring of Fire, Griffith’s procession for Toronto, which took place August 9, 2015, down University Avenue from Queen’s Park to City Hall, was a potent symbol of cultures and traditions mixing: a new ritual for a cosmopolitan future. Departing from the function that other festive parades and processions have held for this city—for instance on St. Patrick’s Day or at Caribana—in ensuring the cultural “presence” of a particular identity group within the social and political landscape of Toronto, Ring of Fire performed a different kind of reversal though equally resistant to the status quo. Griffith’s procession collaboratively brought together disability dancers from Picasso PRO and Equal Grounds, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, members of Toronto’s Capoeira Angola community, young spoken word poets from Jane-Finch, Malvern, and Regent Park, and members of the general public in a moving display of a collective becoming singular: a symbol of endurance directed at a future time-sense of this city. Understood in this context, Ring of Fire was both an ordinary and exceptional instance of Toronto-ness.

Processions have a long history all over the world from courtly celebrations, to funerary rites, to protest and marches, to—in the Americas—performative forms of colonial cultural resistance. They are imaginative forms built out of existing social materials that constitute new public display practices that we must learn from when considering the function of an exhibition and the role that galleries might play in the civic and symbolic life of the city. But how does one capture the essence of a procession as a gallery installation or reveal a participatory working process in an otherwise “static” exhibition situation—as if the process is complete and our involvement in it closed: as if we’ve stopped moving forward as in a procession? In a sense, the behind-the-scenes process and the final processional form is always a rehearsal—for the creation of new social relations for the former, and for new ways of participating in the civic life of one’s city, for the latter. Thus, it is the materiality of those social relations and their attendant symbols that emerge and endure in this exhibition and, through it, draw new individuals into the Ring of Fire’s rehearsal process.

It is through the repetition of the processional form that innovation in the rituals of urban life may be newly constituted. Bringing together elements from the actual procession (costumes, spoken word poetry, placards, etc), alongside Griffith’s original sketches, source material, technical drawings, and maquettes, this exhibition traces the two-year trajectory of Ring of Fire. It narrates its dynamic origins as a collaborative (and very much handmade, grassroots) cultural manifestation. As a multi-sensorial and immersive installation, Symbols of Endurance is to be felt and embodied; whether contemplated or even contested as a cosmopolitan idea or ideal, it certainly points to the procession as a form to be repeated, over and over again toward innovative effect and the creation of mixed cultural compositions or new forms of collaborative aesthetics.
Abstracted from the “living line” of bodies collectively taking to the streets this past summer, the exhibition provides a possible path for Toronton-ians to contemplate a new social and cultural terrain for their city. We wonder: How have past performative forms of colonial cultural resistance developed in the Americas evolved today? And, what could this mean for developing new performance methodologies of solidarity in the context of a culturally mixed Toronto for the future?
Symbols of Endurance and Ring of Fire are curated by AGYU Assistant Director/Curator Emelie Chhangur.




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