Even his mise-en-scene and cinematography are Ophuls-esque: the camera is in a perpetual state of movement, focusing in and out of the fore- middle- and backgrounds as it sweeps his elaborately stagy constructions. Husain is ringmaster to his arena where art mirrors life; the mirroring might be, as in Hovering Proxies, baldly literal, but the execution is so precise, so fine-tuned and delightful, that watching it all unfold is nothing short of magical.
Walking into Oliver Husain’s new show at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) — a two-room installation entitled Hovering Proxies — is a perplexing affair. The press release mentions being transported to a backyard garden in Djakarta and two dogs nuzzling on a lazy afternoon — in short, there’s nothing to prepare or ground you for the new show from Husain, a gay Frankfurt-born Torontonian.
Photographs of the aforementioned dogs and backyard garden line the walls, and the middle of the first room is taken up with a strange sculpture: a series of poles and branching rods, like schematic aluminum trees, with gauzy coloured fabrics hanging off them. The top of each pole is adorned with feathers, one with a motorcycle helmet. Hand-painted silk scarves are tied to another rod, and in and among their billowy folds one can make out snippets of text (nothing immediately legible, and I wasn’t ballsy enough to unfurl one in my hands to read it in the middle of the opening).
Beads are hung from another rod, with more text barely visible on them. It all looks like a campy, makeshift jungle, made on a shoestring budget. Crumpled-up folds of newspaper lie in a puddle a few feet away; yet more text is stencil-cut out of them, still illegible, lost in the crumples and confused by the layers of cut-out newsprint. Flickering light beckons from beyond the transparent vinyl curtains that separate this room from the next.
The adjoining room, a vast white cube like its twin, is dark and nearly empty, save for two fans and a looped video that is projected above the curtained entryway: a flotilla of balloons making their way through the very same installation that one has just left. Snippets of text flash along the bottom of the projection, like subtitles: bits and pieces of conversation, some dull, some sassy. In short, the standard overheard dialogue of any gathering — an art opening, for instance. An off-screen breeze makes the balloons shudder; it intensifies, and they all blow away. Simultaneously, the fans turn on, blow gently against the viewer and then stop. The video loops, and it all begins again.
Only from the second room can you grasp what Husain has done; you watch the balloons waft through the installation at the same time as you watch gallery-goers, through the vinyl curtains, make their way through the twin space; as the balloons fly away, you feel the same breeze. All the mystery finds a resolution in the ultimately prosaic title of the show. The balloons are, in fact, hovering proxies for the gallery-goers, and the first gallery becomes a live diorama.
Husain’s work has always reminded me of Max Ophuls’ film Lola Montes (1955), in which Lola, once a grande dame, now a circus performer, narrates her fallen-woman story under the big top, with cheesy sets brought on and off for each tawdry carnival scene. Carnivalesque is, in fact, an apt descriptor for Husain’s practice; he has the same delight in artifice and theatricality, in creating these stages in which narratives multiply and collapse in on themselves.