Performing Intertextuality: An Unconventional Tour of Phantasmagoria

by Liza Montgomery

Phantasmagoria, left: MATHEW MCWILLIAMSPhantasmagoria at Presentation House Gallery

Aaron Peck’s brief but enlightening “tour” of Presentation House Gallery’s Phantasmagoria was far from conventional. Much to my delight—and possibly some other attendees’ confusion—rather than reiterating the curatorial narrative, Peck, a local art critic and writer, staged a performative rewriting of it. By offering up an open-ended alternative reading of the artwork, he highlighted the intertextual nature of meaning formation, drawing attention to the shifting conditions that influence our relationship to an artwork. These are important considerations given the form and function of Phantasmagoria—a group show that captures the Zeitgeist of current photo-based art practices in Vancouver.

Peck used the term “parallel reading” to introduce the format of his unconventional “tour.” What this entailed was the reading of a literary text chosen by Peck (which ranged from fiction to photographic theory) with that of an artwork in the exhibition. For the duration of the tour Peck remained reticent about his selection process, allowing the group to discover the correlations and new avenues of entry into individual artworks that arose.

DAN SINEY, Expo Beautiful Taiiwan, 2012Dan Siney, Expo Beautiful Taiwan, 2012

I found one of the chosen pairings to be particularly poignant. At Dan Siney’s large chaotic inkjet print, Expo Beautiful Taiwan, Peck read a passage from Herman Melville’s literary Classic, Moby Dick where Ishmael, upon entering the Spouter Inn, beholds and attempts to decipher a defaced and smoke-obscured oil painting. The passage suggests a sublimity that arises in the struggle to perceive ambiguous images and experiences. While this passage effectively encapsulates Peck’s self-reflexive concern with readership, it also offered us insight into acts of defacement—and negation—of the photographic surface and process, a prominent theme throughout the exhibition.

In Phantasmagoria, Peck’s performance of conceptual intertextuality finds an interesting physical and sensory parallel. As denoted by the exhibition title—which originated in the optical illusions of early 19th century magic lantern shows—the artworks in Phantasmagoria attempt to seduce, confuse, manipulate, our various sensory perceptions.  Interestingly, the format of this exhibition (arguably a form of “parallel reading”) results in both intentional and unintentional sensory seepages and cross-catalysis, framing and often altering the reader’s experience of each parallel work.

ANDREW DADSON, Black Light, 2012

ANDREW DADSON, Black Light, 2012Andrew Dadson, Black Light, 2012

On entering the gallery space where Andrew Dadson’s Black Light resides, I quickly sensed an emanating heat and chemical odour that is traced to a wall of 144 blacked-out fluorescent lights that comprise his installation. Unable to contain touch and smell, Dadson’s work (not to mention the flickering electro-acoustic composition emitting from Allison Hraluik’s Abut) seeps into the reading of all other works in the room. Its subtle omnipresence contributes to a surreal, dream-like experience when combined with the soft clicking and rhythmic cycling of slide-projected abstract compositions in Rachelle Sawatsky’s Optimization. It also lends a warmth that is suggestive of the (artist’s?) absent body to the vacated, tousle-sheeted bed in Sawatsky’s fixed projection, My Room.

I originally set out to write a review of the exhibition, but I emerged from Peck’s tour with an increased awareness of my own experiences of meaning-making when looking at  artworks, and the layered relationships, interactions, and narratives that frame them.

Phantasmagoria runs until July 22 at Presentation House Gallery, and is curated by Helga Pakasaar and Reid Shier .

Aaron Peck is currently serving as writer-in-residence at dOKUMENTA 13.
Visit his Tumblr at:

Images courtesy of Presentation House Gallery


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