Unicorn Tip (FASTWÃœRMS, 2011)
Paul Petro Contemporary Art is replete with cats. It has been taken over, turned into a shrine of sorts. Not actual cats, of course (when I explained this to an excited acquaintance, she was mildly disappointed that she wasn’t walking into a petting zoo) — but images of cats and offerings to cats. This is all courtesy of the FASTWÃœRMS, whose latest show, Cannibal Nympho Witch, has just opened at the gallery.
Why the FASTWÃœRMS are not yet spoken of in the same terms as the unquestioned greats of contemporary Canadian art — Geoffrey Farmer, Jeff Wall, Janet Cardiff, et al — is utterly beyond me. Their work, as it has evolved over decades, spans sculpture, painting, printmaking, video, and performance. They are funny and puckish, but nevertheless profoundly in earnest and wildly ambitious; the work is propelled by an immense generosity of spirit. Taken all together, it represents the construction of an entire cohesive universe, a point of view that is consistently rigorous, engaged and engaging.
The FASTWÃœRMS are, at their core, an artistic duo that live in rural Ontario. Their practice has come to include a vast number of collaborators, assistants and co-conspirators, human and otherwise; but Dai Skuse and Kim Kozzi remain at the centre of it all. They identify as witches, and the promiscuous universe of the occult — which includes, but has not been limited to, astrology, mineralogy, tarot, polytheistic paganism, religious apocrypha — has been a fecund and dominant metaphor in their work for some time now. For the FASTWÃœRMS, it is a method of community-building and an ontology; a means interacting with their fellow humans and the natural world. At its broadest, the FASTWÃœRMS’ witchcraft is an ethos of conscientious existence.
Animals have always featured in their work, especially those associated with witches: spiders, frogs, snakes, mice, bats, owls, donkeys, unicorns and, of course, cats. Their rural compound-cum-studio is crawling with barn cats, all of whom have been consistent recurring motifs, or more accurately, characters and collaborators in their work. We come to know the FASTWÃœRMS cats (past and present) — Spoticus, Ludacris, Dragon Wagon, Taalon, Rustler Crowbar, Pusterniks — like we come to know Cezanne’s Mont St Victoire, or Gustav Klimt’s Emilie FlÃ¶ge or Alex Katz’s wife Ada. They are artistic personae, whose features and bearings have been rendered mythic by their translation into art.
So it is the FASTWÃœRMS cats’ images that ring the walls of the front gallery. Of course, these are not straightforward portraits: the photos were taken on an IPad, and run through various mirroring filters, and so their faces (or their rear ends) are arranged in strange symmetries: a kaleidoscopic netting of stripes and fur and whiskers and paws. Some of them have three eyes, some only have one; multi-eared and -limbed and -tailed, their likenesses assume a psychedelic otherness, like strange feline animas.
In the centre of the room, the ‘WÃœRMS have installed a black-light catnip grow-op. The block letters on the plastic-tiled floor read “BAST” — the ancient Egyptian goddess of cats. By the gallery desk, there is a bronze cat tray, filled with litter made of minerals and meteorite fragments, that houses hand-formed bronze turds. It’s an amusing image, but ruminate on that awhile. Earth and heaven are mulched together as a sacramental bedding for alchemically transmuted turd. And dung worship is nothing new: the ancient Egyptians considered the rolled dung of the scarab beetle as a sacred metaphor for Ra, the sun god.
The FASTWÃœRMS have their own particular mythology surrounding this installation, and there is more going on here than a trip into the arcane. On a side wall, four photographs are juxtaposed: two “missing cat” posters (in Icelandic) sit atop two found photographs related to the Pussy Riot protest campaign. The cheeky linguistic affinity — rioting pussies with divine cats — all of a sudden lends a sharp political edge to the arcana. (This, by the way is an emblematic FASTWÃœRMS trope: the wide embrace of other artists into their inclusive coven).
The Pussy Riot girls become, with the ‘WÃœRMS, co-priestesses of this cat shrine, and the polytheistic feline principle assumes the dimension of an endangered anti-authoritarian engagement, extending its claws into the legalization of marijuana, the proliferation of free-speech, feminist activism, and the attempted suppression of this by a fearsome patriarchy. There is one last sculpture in the gallery’s backyard: an ersatz unicorn bomb; a gas tank strapped to a huge unicorn horn, connected to a kitchen timer and a wad of plastic explosive (in reality, the fuse is a pipe cleaner, and the wad of plastic explosive is likely modeling clay, but I’ll leave such petty interpretive details to slaves of patriarchal monotheism). I like to think of this as a sigil of witchy terrorism: that, at the appointed time, when the planets are in their proper alignment, the horn will rocket skyward, and explode its beneficent magic over all of us.
Cannibal Nympho Witch continues at Paul Petro Contemporary Art until November 10.
Sholem Krishtalka is the Toronto Standard’s art critic.