Jen Aitken “The Same Thing Looks Different” at The Power Plant, Toronto
by Alex Turgeon
Cities have a particular way of imagining themselves. Their identities are often constructed from what citizens collectively recognize as landmarks, rooting site-specificity within a chronicling of experience in the built environment. Cities are witness to their own construction, evolution, and demolition. Some become icons of themselves, casting long shadows, while others are left to tread water as they search for their quintessential image. To borrow a term from Robert Smithson, the latter group become “non-sites”—a logical three-dimensional abstraction of a specific area.* The non-site, for Smithson, was a way of bringing the outside (the landscape) into the gallery. When applied to a city, the term speaks to its qualities of representation, how it performs an idea of an authentic place. Since I relocated to Toronto in early 2022, the identity of this city has patinated my conversations with residents and former residents alike. Toronto is a city that is so often performing others.** It is constantly changing, shape-shifting, torqueing, to enact an assumed identity other than its own, in doing so it undergoes a kind of crisis of mimesis as a product of being in constant flux. This flux equally offers a site of potential, one in which the rigid parameters of an established representation are not fully set, allowing for opportunities to contribute to and form from this shifting environment, lending to an on-going collective search for that utopian Goldilocks zone of being just right.
The Same Thing Looks Different, an exhibition by Toronto-based Jen Aitken, is the artist’s first solo institutional presentation in Canada, held at the Power Plant in her home city. The show illustrates a formal investigation into scale, shape, and material along with a sculptural vocabulary cemented in a language of shifting forms—the latter a through-line in Aitken’s trajectory. Acknowledging the formal legacy of Minimalism as a historical precedent to her practice, the exhibition opens with the artist’s first video work. Initiated in 2014, and only fully completed this year as a commission from The Power Plant, Lexicon! (2023) is an exercise in analysis of the artist’s strict principles.1 The three-channel projection animates one of her central subjects—variation—through three white shape-shifting silhouetted forms against a black ground. Each one, projected onto its own wall, offers a seemingly infinite proposal of constructions. The subjects pull, stretch, slice, and pivot in a choreography of possibilities, a vernacular landscape as artistic palimpsest. The simplicity of the white cutouts, airily forming and re-forming in horizon-ess space, feels drastically disconnected from the auditory follies of mass the soundtrack provides, which suggest heavy slabs of material being pushed across a surface. The audio attributes a physicality, a language of the weighted, the rigid, and the textural, in the otherwise rudimentary compositional landscape. This subtle, yet intentional break in precision permeates the subsequent works on display as something other than merely a nod to Minimalist tendencies. The sculptures are attuned to a very human condition found within an urban architectural landscape that is perpetually re-forming over an ever-shifting built ground.
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Jen Aitken, Lexicon!, 2023
Jen Aitken “The Same Thing Looks Different” at The Power Plant, Toronto, 2023
Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid