Mike Goldby: Silver 35
by Emma Sharpe
I first encountered Mike Goldby’s Silver 35 through Instagram. Being out of town until the final days of Sibling’s inaugural exhibition meant that I watched its rollout via social media, catching glimpses of hanging frames and subtle colours in the garage-cum-gallery of Little Sister’s newly-branded and relocated project. But the nine photographs hanging in Silver 35 seemed to elude documentation, as the highly reflective surfaces of their frames created deceptive layers of content. I could never quite tell what the pictured photographs were actually of—what was a reflection and what wasn’t—until I was in front of them.
That’s because the seven 60 cm x 91 cm and two 91 cm x 121 cm framed digital chromogenic prints that lined the gallery walls were treated with a special film: Silver 35, earning the exhibition’s title. The 35 refers to the percentage of light let through the UV protectant film, with the remaining 65 bouncing back. This off-kilter ratio between image and reflection had the two constantly competing for attention. Through the crisp reflections of the gallery space itself, with the frames from the opposing wall creating a sort of infinity mirror effect, we see slices of busy urban scenes. Taken from low vantage points, the photos often centre on an anonymous body, almost always in motion. We see suits and blurs, smartphones and totes, a hand on a weary back. Goldby often ventured to the downtown core and financial district of Toronto, seeking a sort of chaotic oasis away from his west end home. I couldn’t help but romanticize the artist’s process: I pictured a broke bohemian floating through the bustling crowds as observer, never participant (other than libatious splurges on $18 glasses of wine). The text that accompanied the show, written by Goldby in the first person, offered a glimpse at these moments. Like an interloper in a thronging downtown, Goldby watched people cycling through the business district, comparing their imagined lives with his empty pockets. There’s a generosity to the tone: Goldby admires, or at least benevolently pities, the “beautiful souls” labouring their way through the work week.
Like an errant legal document that had slipped out of a briefcase, this text sat in the middle of the gallery’s cement floor. Goldby’s “sheet,” cleverly camouflaged as a printed Microsoft Word document in 12 point Times New Roman font, was actually heavy. Passage For Capital (2018) was a flatbed-printed metal sculpture masquerading as an accidentally dropped press release. This heartier-than-it-looked piece roved around the gallery space throughout the duration of the show, sometimes being picked up by a surprised onlooker who had perhaps planned to crumple it into a ball and recycle it in a small deed of Good Samaritanism. The sculpture’s material deception recapitulated a recurring theme throughout the exhibition: objects may not behave how we expect them to.
This subtext was especially pronounced in the frames and glass, the apparatuses of display traditionally designed to invisibly showcase their content without disruption. But Goldby’s frames upended this dynamic, instead foregrounding their presence with gusto, relegating the photographs themselves into relative obscurity (65 percent obscurity, to be exact). The resulting effects caused a constant dilation of the pupils as they jumped between image and reflection in a continual cross-dissolve, with actively changing opacity levels and a fluctuating depth of field.
These qualities thrust a dynamism into the static images, in a sense, digitizing them, animating them, amplifying their energy and rocketing them into the now of omnipresent screens and constant interactivity. But in contrast to our beloved touchscreens—their linear scrolls activated by the finger—Goldby’s images responded to movement of the whole body. Rearranging your position in relation to the work seemed to be a necessary dance in order to bypass the reflection and actually see the photographs. I found myself snaking my head to the left, dodging and crouching, squinting and sidling up to the frame trying to side-eye it into submission. Goldby, through his panes of glass, seemed to pass the movement from his hurried subjects onto the audience: suddenly the spectator was the one moving, bobbing and weaving in relation to the now-still commuters.
In this way, the pieces were playful, flirty, frustrating in their coy elusiveness and begging to be photographed. The extreme reflectivity of the Silver 35 film tempted viewers with their own narcissism—a quality that resulted in a wide proliferation of selfies, or at least accidental portraits, sprinkled across social media. The exhibition’s documentation, therefore, went far beyond formalized photographs to include casual, personalized shots, capturing social moments within the gallery space. Goldby, I would guess unwittingly, capitalized on our seeming inabilities to resist our own faces. The seductive allure of grabbing a good selfie provided many, like me, with their first encounter of the work through a handheld screen.
It begs the question then: where does the work actually live? On a screen, in a space or both? And maybe more ambitiously: what’s the role of the framed photograph in a contemporary art gallery these days? This is where I think Goldby got it. These weren’t photos, but interactive objects. Without resorting to video, Goldby created frames that were ever-changing and images that were never static. Almost like an evolutionary adaptation, Silver 35 updated photography’s presence in the contemporary art gallery, dispersing cheeky images able to stand on their own across digital channels while still maintaining a unique IRL experience exclusive to the gallery.
By flinging its photographic offspring into the social media-verse, Silver 35 capably straddled that still awkward chasm between the analogue and digital, between physical space and its cyber equivalent. It invited the audience to insert themselves into its frames, creating a new network and a reciprocal gaze. Like that startling moment of catching your own reflection in a passing window, Goldby’s pieces never let us forget that while you gaze at them, they’re looking right back at you, too.