Born in Bratislava, Slovakia, in 1938, Vera Frenkel is a seminal Canadian artist known for her use of fictitious personas in multidisciplinary projects that indicate gaps in the historical record. “Ways of Telling,” a survey of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MoCCA) curated by Jonathan Shaughnessy, comprised prints, videos, performances and installations made between 1974 and 2012. Many of her signature works were on display, including two components of the early, multi-medium series “The Secret Life of Cornelia Lumsden: A Remarkable Story” (1979-86). One of these was a 31-minute videotape made in 1980 where the artist’s hypnotic voiceover assumes various identities as it tells the fictional story of a writer who published a groundbreaking novel in 1934, and then disappeared without a trace. The character—a female Canadian author living in Paris—links the work to Frenkel’s broader interest in transient subjects and issues of nationality, ethnicity, language and gender.
Situated at the exhibition’s midpoint, the installation . . . from the Transit Bar (1992/2014) best represents these career-spanning concerns. Commissioned for Documenta IX and containing oblique Holocaust references, . . . from the Transit Bar is an operational piano bar in which six monitors play footage conveying the testimonies of 14 immigrants to Canada. Half-painted and punctured with holes, the bar’s walls angled away from MoCCA’s own, creating wedged niches for some of the monitors and for more of the raincoats, suitcases, newspapers, fake palm trees and real potted plants strewn about the interior. The jagged space amplified the sense of unease already induced by the dim lighting, the self-playing piano and the footage of subjects telling their stories a few sentences at a time, their words in Polish and Yiddish. Alternating English, French and German subtitles made these testimonies even harder to follow. With the help of a blue screen, some interviews were set on a moving train, which suggested a reference to the transit of Jews to concentration camps or the displacement of the Jewish artist’s own parents.
In ONCE NEAR WATER: Notes from the Scaffolding Archive (2008), Frenkel returns to the use of voiceover and invented personas. A mysterious woman, now dead, has left an archive of notes and negatives documenting construction in what looks like Toronto. Photographs of scaffolding, some with codes and time stamps, are intercut with footage of tower cranes rotating over building sites, residential high-rises shot from moving vehicles and other visions of urban expansion. Three versions of ONCE NEAR WATER were projected on loop; the second turned down the voiceover’s volume and added Dutch and English subtitles and a score by Rick Sacks, while the third documented a Toronto screening with a live performance of the score. Bits of narration materialize on-screen along with CGI animations (and occasional drawings) of water or scaffolding. Images of murky water appear throughout the entropic fable as the artist describes a “standoff between cranes and water” where the latter will prevail. Viewing Toronto through a migrant’s eye, Frenkel mistrusts the apparent stability of any human structure.