Beyond The Topiary

Neighbours’ bizarre hedonism lurks over a gallery’s hedge

Art by Gregory Beatty

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Abbas Akhavan & Marina Roy: Neighbours
Dunlop Gallery
Until Sept. 4

Christians might disagree, but from my perspective, the best-known quote about neighbours is one by American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963): “Good fences make good neighbours.”

I say Christians might disagree because the Bible’s got tons of quotes referencing neighbours, including a famous one by Jesus in the gospels: “Love thy neighbour as thy self.”

Those quotes kind of span the gamut, don’t they? On one hand, you’ve got the son of God exhorting/commanding people to shower their neighbours with love. Then you’ve got Frost, who admittedly had a hard life plagued by many personal tragedies, with his much more cynical prescription for good neighbourly relations: a fence.

At this point in history, at least in western society, I’d have to say Frost’s viewpoint is dominant. Hell, we even have gated communities now, with high-tech security and sturdy walls, so that those with the means to pay (and desire) can keep their neighbours at bay. In a broader sense, we’ve also implemented a whole swack of municipal bylaws to regulate our interactions with each other.

Neighbours don’t just exist in an individual sense, of course. We also have collective relationships in which cities, provinces/states and even nations can be neighbours. Here, too, Frost’s view pretty much carries the day. Hell, the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States in November’s election has vowed to build a giant wall to block off his country’s 3201-kilometre border with Mexico, and he hasn’t ruled out fencing off the Canadian border either — all 8891 kilometres of it.

Yeah, Trump is depraved. But Brexit seems pretty loony too, and that’s what the English (by a slim majority) just voted to do. And across Europe, right-wing nationalism is on the rise, and all sorts of internal/external border strife is happening.

Titled Neighbours, this exhibition by Abbas Akhavan and Marina Roy resonates on all those levels.

Curated by the Dunlop’s Jennifer Matotek, Neighbours isn’t a true collaboration between the artists. Akhavan previously studied under Roy, and they did share a studio at one point, but they live in different cities now (Toronto and Vancouver respectively), and the work they created for the show was done separately. But everything dovetails together nicely.

When you enter the gallery, you’re greeted by an assortment of natural and manufactured objects such as tree stumps, old tires, books, fruits, vegetables, sandbags and other detritus that suggest a neglected urban yard or maybe a litter-laden rural area.

The installation is Roy’s, and beyond it is Akhavan’s contribution to Neighbours, which consists of a three-metre high cedar hedge that bisects the gallery. As far as fences go, it’s a little more friendly (and fragrant) than other materials such as stone, lumber and metal that we typically use to build fences. But it still demarcates territory.

The hedge, which consists of individually potted cedars, was flourishing on opening night. Neighbours runs until Sept. 4, and I’m not sure if the trees will be impacted by being indoors for so long. They are evergreens, so are used to surviving for extended periods with limited sunlight. And maybe special steps will be taken during the show to maintain them, I don’t know. But on opening night they were healthy — and provided an effective screen for the back end of the gallery.

Sounds are audible behind the hedge, though, and some flashes of colour and movement are visible above the trees, so you know there’s more art to experience. But to access it you have to navigate a short path that Akhavan has set out between two overlapping rows of potted cedars that form the fence.

Once inside, you’re greeted by a half-hour series of short animations by Roy that subvert  western notions of domestic space, wilderness, our fellow animal species, gender relations and more. The animations have a surreal Monty Python quality to them, but are much more lushly executed with vivid colours and ornate detail that reflect Roy’s interest in Baroque art, architecture and design.

Some of the animations are fairly spicy, such as one where a male wolf is having missionary sex with a woman in a well-appointed bedroom; a second where two nude male flute players sport prominent erections; and a third where a nude on a bed shoots pearls from her vagina into a giant oyster shell. The woman is styled as an artist’s model, but the trick she’s performing is pure stripper, so there’s a neat twist on high versus low art.

A fourth animation shows a cute white bunny devouring a regal lion in one bite and regurgitating the skeleton, while a fifth shows a school of fish and a whale swimming in the flooded interior of a previously luxe mansion. In each instance, Roy seeks to disrupt various tropes that exist in our society related to power, privilege, property, propriety and more.

Surreal subject matter aside, Roy’s animations generally depict materially prosperous lifestyles — albeit with evidence of decay and hedonistic excess that echo the dystopian vibe that’s evoked when you first enter the gallery.

Of course, from behind Akhavan’s thick cedar hedge, all that’s conveniently invisible. And you know what they say: out of sight, out of mind.

One thought on “Beyond The Topiary”

  1. “Good fences make good neighbours” is the attitude of a character in one of Frost’s poems, not of Frost himself, who as the poem’s narrator, has rather the opposite view: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,/ That wants it down”. The narrator and the neighbour arrange to meet at a certain time to walk the wall (always between them) in order to pick up and replace the rocks that have fallen from it in the course of a year. The narrator tries gently to make the argument that the wall serves no real purpose, but the neighbour insists that it does: the purpose of reinforcing good neighbourliness.

    It’s always good to go back to the original.

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