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Issue 141

Joshua Schwebel: A Dream In Which I Am You
by Farid Djamalov

Preserving a memory is an active process, one that requires its keeper to isolate—or inevitably dislocate— its constituent fragments. Berlin-based Canadian conceptual artist Joshua Schwebel grapples with the transmission of memory in this exhibition, which was conceived during a research residency in the Krakow home of the late Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor. A Dream In Which I Am You deviates from the work on institutional critique for which Schwebel is more commonly known. Through Kantor’s namesake foundation, Schwebel studied not only the heritage of the Polish artist but also his absence.

A set of diaphanous curtains with imprinted flower shadows greets visitors to the exhibition. Their ethereal quality is echoed by a pile of semi-translucent letters spread meticulously overtop an oblong table. Two pedestals flank the table, one with a package addressed to Schwebel and the other with a stack of books atop it. As visitors approach the end of the room, a score of crickets lures them into a life-size rendering of Kantor’s bedroom assembled out of papier mâché. In reconstructing Kantor’s intimate space, Schwebel cherry-picked a constellation of visual references that reconstitute the late artist’s aura: a simple chandelier with a matching floor lamp, a rustic bed and a modest cupboard with a slide projector audibly rotating a collection of pictures.

In reconstructing and relocating Kantor’s memory in Montreal, Schwebel engages Kantor’s concept of emballage (French for “packaging”). This concept manifested in various ways throughout Kantor’s life-long practice and hinged on the human inclination “to preserve,” “to isolate,” “to conceal” and “to transfer.” Kantor’s treatise on this concept, formed via negativa, lies on the aforementioned table; in it, he equivocates between the metaphysical potentialities and morbid meaninglessness of emballage and ultimately admits that a clear definition is unattainable. “It might be imprudent to attempt at generalisations or to set forth definitions; besides, it is hardly possible at all.” Schwebel’s subtle intervention of underlining the four infinitive verbs mentioned above is generous, and might also be thought of as a cursory guide to his own approach to various aspects of the show.

Kantor’s absence is not the only one implicated here. Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, another Canadian artist chosen to complete the Polish residency at the same time as Schwebel but who eventually quit, complicates Schwebel’s already ambitious pursuit by layering on yet another absence. A Dream In Which I Am You prompts Schwebel to imagine what his potential collaborator might have accomplished had he remained part of the project. From a solitary pressed wildflower placed amid the collection of correspondence between the two artists, to a hidden arrangement of dried petals tucked under the papier-mâché bed, Schwebel appropriates motifs from work that Ramsay had begun to make in Poland and, in doing so, renders him present. The floral prints lining the cupboard and gracing the bedsheets presumably mimic elements of Kantor’s actual bedroom and also enter into a dialogue with the assemblage of dried flowers inspired by Ramsay’s work. These intertwined absences manifest through Schwebel’s floral vocabulary and produce a dialogical exchange across distant—or impossible—moments of contact.

In an attempt to implicate Ramsay, or nurture a collaboration that might have occurred, Schwebel engages in a curious kind of appropriation. As it turns out, in attempting to honour the absent by reconstructing some facet of them or their work, it can be unclear at what point appropriation becomes plagiarism. For example, while Ramsay was still in residence, he told Schwebel about an idea he had for an audio walk. Schwebel brought that idea to fruition— creating the audio work The Wanderer (2016). Ramsay expresses anger about that action in one of his many letters that Schwebel provides for the public to read:

“I feel all the romance and flattery of your request, while also feeling protective, and almost feeling that I have been deceived. I was vaguely aware of how my withdrawal from the Kantor project influenced your own artistic contribution but to learn that you took my idea of an audio walk for The Wanderer and made it your own, without telling me until after the fact, elicits a flash of possessiveness and a feeling of betrayal. Some of it is leftover resentment for how the residency unfolded, some of it is a disbelief that a program of artistic activity that responds to both Kantor’s traces and my own could have taken place without anyone informing me. Some of it is a personal artistic frustration without a name.”

In mid-July, as part of a performance arranged with Schwebel, Ramsay appeared at the gallery to read letters he had written that both condemn and condone this exhibition.

In another one of the letters, Ramsay—who is taller than Schwebel—describes a dream in which he was Schwebel, and points out the perspectival shift in his spatial perception in the dream. In turn, Schwebel penned a book with his sister Shoshana Schwebel in the form of a fictional dialogue, wherein he impersonates Ramsay, and his sister plays her brother. In this way and others, the exhibition hinges on what Ramsay has aptly called a “mysterious collaboration,” with unstable and interesting subjective contours. A Dream In Which I Am You explores the fraught processes of memory preservation. In doing so, this exhibition honours the absent and employs interesting appropriation techniques to imagine the ways that a memory keeper might transcend the limitations of their own subjectivity.

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