As I head towards the AGO’s I am Here exhibit, rain is falling, making it another miserable day in a long line of miserable days. Once inside, I make my way to the I am Here exhibit and am struck by the sharp contrast between the dreariness of the outside world and the brightness of this one.
The exhibit, which is situated on the fifth level of the AGO, brings you into the world of home videos and family photography. There is a pop-art theme to the place, with walls painted in fluorescent colours and comic-like drawings surrounding some of the art.
I am able to move through the exhibit with ease, quickly understanding the different themes in the different rooms. The first room I enter gives a nod to Toronto by playing clips of different parades that have gone by the Eaton Centre over the years. A familiar scene for any Torontonian.
As I wander through the room, I am often amused by what has made this art collection. A collage of old handwritten grocery lists on all sorts of paper. A bright pink list with Disney princesses on it catches my eye as it is obviously written by a child and all it says is candy over and over again until the entire page reads candy. Clips from home videos that feature pets, including one that seems to be a dog Birthday party. A list of boys’ names from artist Greg Curnoe.
On the other side of the room, there is a wall that is a painted timeline with the title From Cave Paintings to Tik Tok which shows the progression of our culture through how we represent our world. In front of that wall, there is a line of iconic pop culture references, that most would recognize. As I move down the line I hear a famous pop song playing on an old TV. I see the Barenaked Ladies singing You Can Be My Yoko Ono on Speakers Corner, done way before they became famous. For those who are too young to remember, this is actually how BNL got famous as Speakers Corner was kinda like Twitter but videotaped and broadcast once a week on local television.
Fiona Smyth, Cave Paintings to TikTok: A Timeline of Self-Documentation, 2021. Ink on paper and digital drawing. Commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario © Fiona Smyth
I keep walking through the exhibit, eventually coming to a room dedicated to family. Seeing photos of people I do not know from times long ago makes me wonder what all these people would think if they knew they were going to be part of an art exhibit? There is something incredibly beautiful about these ordinary people celebrating their ordinary lives. Weddings. Family dinners. School pictures. Holidays.
I am struck by a photo of a young couple in a wooded area, looking happy and excited for what’s to come. The photo has been blown up to the size of the wall and I spend a few minutes looking into the eyes of the beautiful couple. The photo itself has been either damaged or is showing signs of age, but you can still see their faces quite clearly. The hope I see in their eyes keeps me looking, remembering times past when I too felt life was ahead of me. My mind wonders for a while and I feel a warmth for this couple from the past.
To me, this must be why I am Here is so compelling. Seeing these snapshots of people’s lives connects you to them, even just for a moment. You can see yourself in them and even without actually knowing their story, you have a great empathy for whatever their struggles must have been. And their joys. And their curiosities. And their fears.
This theme of having great empathy for strangers’ joy, sadness, and rage is brought to the forefront with Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death. This video is playing in one of the rooms and drew me in from the second I walk in. Jafa intertwines clips of black greatness and the horrible violence black people face every day. In the background a Kanye West song plays, giving the different images a voice. The video is so poignant that one minute I am about to cry and the next I am smiling at a beautiful woman in a beautiful wedding dress.
To say that the I am Here exhibit at the AGO is worth going to see would be a huge understatement. I urge you to go as it really is an amazing experience. Yes, an experience- not just a beautiful piece of art on a wall. But rather an experience that moves you through joy, wonder, sadness and possibly, a bit of rage.
I Am Here: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces will be at the AGO until August 14, 2022, featuring home videos from the Prelinger Archives. It features artists such as David Hockney, Patti Smith, Claes Oldenburg, Annie Pootoogook, Arthur Jafa and Mary Pratt.