Parallel world is brought closer to home

Toronto-based artists bring photography, video and sculpture installation to Modern Fuel to capture refugee living

The exhibit’s photos are a vivid and compelling aspect of the show that provide a glimpse into the world of Belgrade refugees.
The exhibit’s photos are a vivid and compelling aspect of the show that provide a glimpse into the world of Belgrade refugees.
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Parallel World features a reconstructed shanty sculpture comprised of old bicycle wheels and stuffed animals that tries to present an alternate idea of home.
Parallel World features a reconstructed shanty sculpture comprised of old bicycle wheels and stuffed animals that tries to present an alternate idea of home.
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The notion of home as a house—a nice sturdy structure within which lives develop and children grow up—is rarely questioned. But Parallel World: The Architecture of Survival, the latest exhibit on display at the Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, reminds us that homes are often anything but permanent.

Toronto-based artists Boja Vasic and Vessna Perunovich look at the culture of “forced nomads” in Belgrade through the use of photography, video and a life-sized recreation of a shanty. These communities—which originated as an area for Serbian refugees from Kosovo—have persisted and now house many Roma families. Reconciling the notion of refugee camps as temporary homes with the inherent human desire to view a home as a permanent structure is at the root to the exhibit’s inspiration. Through each medium, the artists challenge us to see the humanizing qualities that make these transient dwellings—so frailly constructed out of sheets and cardboard—into homes.

The first part of the exhibit you encounter upon entering is the video installation, projecting dualistic images of humans and the landscape that comprise the makeshift town.

The left projection consists of panning shots of the town, which truly gives the viewer a sense of the community’s wide scope. The camera pans by many shanties—as though the cameraperson is walking down a residential street—and lingers on details, such as the numerous stacks of cardboard used to construct and repair the dwellings.

Though this lays a vivid visual blueprint of what the artists are trying to capture, you’re left with the overall sense that the videographer’s just passing through. This feeling is underlined by the almost complete lack of people and the low-tech quality of the camera work, which gives off a barren impression.

The artists balance the left video with the right video projection, which depicts two young boys mugging for the camera, but ultimately the films feel as though they’re shot through a tourist’s eyes—a documentation of what’s on the surface, but with little commentary regarding what’s underneath.

This is a problem faced by the second aspect of the exhibit, a recreation of a shanty that sits in the middle of the gallery. Visually, it’s extremely appealing—details such as stuffed animals and a tricycle remind you that it’s a home, while bicycle wheels are placed on the roof, as they would be in reality, to hold it down against the elements. But the reconstruction calls to mind the atmosphere of a museum, where an object—not something as alive as a home—is placed behind glass to be examined.

The shanty isn’t a home and it therefore loses a great deal of its meaning and resonance within the theme of the exhibit. The exhibit tries to bring the topics to life but instead turns them into a point of study.

It’s a shame the photographs—which make up the third portion of the exhibit—are mostly obscured by the large shanty in the middle of the room, because they’re the most stunning and resonant part of the exhibit. The photos document a series of shanties in vivid and crisp colour, which make them feel immediate and real.

In each photo the background is blurred, perhaps to suggest although the shanties are real homes in the present, they lack a permanent context. Indeed, one particular photograph of “shanty number 89”—which, according to the very thoughtful essay by Erin Morton included in the exhibit program, signifies the house’s demolition number—looks startlingly like a suburban house, complete with curtains, an awning and a green lawn.

Another aspect of the photographs that serves to humanize the shanties is the inclusion of people living and working outside their shanties in most of the photos.

It’s these small details that allow the photographs to capture the shanties as homes, not simply temporary structures.

Parallel World may draw its greatest strength from the photography portion of the exhibit, but the video and shanty both serve to provide a greater scope and clearer picture of the Belgrade community depicted.

In seeing the town more clearly, we’re able to recognize it’s not just made up of temporary, ramshackle residences, but of homes and people who live there. Parallel World runs at the Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre until April 19.

Golden Tam Award-winners

Best Photography
Justin Wu for “Migration”

Best Literary Composition
Lisa Kellenberger for “Saskatchewan”

Best Cinematic Production
Sean Cartwright for “Childhood’s End”

Best Dramatic Performance
Andrew Yang and Goldie Wong for Flow

Best Musical Performance
Eileen Padgett for “Beckoning the Stars”

Best Visual Artistic Production
Amy Uyeda for ”Regent Park Woodmaze”

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