Monday, 14 September 2015




Editor's Note:
The air is cooler, pumpkin spice has re-emerged, school has started once again, and those cozy socks suddenly look oh-so-tempting. Not only is autumn just around the corner, but Musings is officially back! I have the great pleasure to write the first official regular schedule post of the 2015/2016 academic year and to welcome you, dear reader, and all of our wonderful contributors to another season of creative and thought-provoking columns on our favourite topic: museums. Three second-year students and nine first-year students have joined the Musings team this year - congratulations to you all.

Last Wednesday, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) welcomed the public to gather in Walker Court for a free drink and introduced the city to its newest artistic installation: the Aimia | AGO Photography Prize 2015 Exhibition.

The work of the four photographers who are finalists in the competition can be found in a large temporary exhibition space on the second floor of the AGO, the same space that until recently housed Emily Carr’s breathtaking landscapes. The images from Germany’s Annette Kelm, Hito Steyerl also of Germany, Canadian Owen Kydd, and Dave Jordano from the United States quickly captured my attention and imagination just as much as Carr had. The white walls, pebbled cement floor, clean lines, and industrial feel of the entire space created few distractions, which allowed me to focus solely on the images.

The entrance to the Aimia | AGO Photography Prize exhibition. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

The Competitors

Kelm’s blatantly fabricated subject arrangements, simple yet bright, brought to mind the power of consumerism and capitalism. Steyerl’s laughter-inducing “How Not to Be Seen: A F*cking Didactic Educational .MOV File” (sorry, I won’t publish an expletive, even for the sake of art!) examines how we see and are seen by recalling vintage educational films. The “durational” photographs of Owen Kydd reminded me of magical moving images of Harry Potter by blurring the line between film and photography. Finally, Jordano’s stark and straightforward urban portraits of Detroit’s people and their strength in the face of struggle provoked conversation and lingering stares from many visitors. I thoroughly enjoyed the presence of such a surprising diversity of mediums that pushed the boundaries of photography far beyond what the word usually brings to mind, and I overheard similar remarks from other visitors.

Visitors ranging in age from stroller-bound to elderly enjoying Jordano's photographs. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

The Setting

Each artist had a distinct room to themselves, distinguishable from one another only by a descriptive text panel, the work on the walls and in Steyerl’s case, an architectural environment that enclosed a darkened room in which the artist’s film played. I found that "evening the playing field" in this way ensured that one artist did not have an advantage over another in terms of the setting their artwork was in. However, Steyerl’s video was so loud that it could be heard in Kelm and Kydd’s rooms, and sound from the “Get to Know the Artists” video playing in a corner opposite Jordano’s room bled into his space too. I was only initially bothered by these auditory elements, but I wonder whether other visitors found it consistently disturbing. I appreciated the reflective timeline that revisited past years of the competition, which was first called the “Grange Prize” and has evolved to offer international residencies to winners (since 2013) and scholarships to several art students (since 2014). Clearly, Aimia and the AGO are striving to offer even more benefits to winners while also encouraging up-and-coming talent. This demonstration of progress depicts an institution that is forward thinking and interested in growth, a nice touch by the exhibition organizers.

A friend of mine learning about the history of the Prize in the exhibition. Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

You Can Vote!

Voting stations are located at either end of the exhibition, one screen at the beginning that starts with Kelm’s images and two at the exit into the Galleria Italia in case some visitors pass through the exhibition the opposite way. During opening night, I was pleased to see so many interested visitors that they were actually forming sizeable lines in order to vote. The reception was both public and free to make a bold statement about the nature of the exhibition and the competition itself; the public is needed for it to be successful, so the doors of the AGO were thrown wide open in welcome. I found the inclusion of this interactive voting component, - which makes a longer-term, significant impact than most other standard interactives by affecting the competition’s outcome - very compelling.

The two interactive components were a video / reading area featuring all of the artists and the voting stations themselves.
Photo Credit: Madeline Smolarz.

A Final Thought & Lingering Questions

I’ve seen a few competition exhibitions in my day, and the biggest takeaway from this one for me was how it did a wonderful job of letting the works stand alone and giving the audience equal opportunities to get to know each artist and their competition entries.

Have you been to the exhibition yet? Did the exhibition affect who you voted for and why / why not? What do you think could bias visitors in a competition setting like the Aimia | AGO Photography Prize Exhibition? Please share your ideas below; I would love to hear what you think!


  1. Every time I see a .gif I think: "this is so Harry Potter! I'm living the dream!" I really want to see Owen Kydd's photos durational photos now.
    Thanks for the review, Madeline! You covered everything!

    1. If you are a Harry Potter fan, then Kydd's "big .GIFs" will really do it for you. It's a fun exhibition that you'll enjoy throughout. I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed my review, it was a challenge to fit everything I wanted to say!

  2. I am extremely delighted to know about this interesting photography contest. I wish I could have participated in this. Anyhow, I am also going to take part in forthcoming photography contest that will be organized at one of Chicago venues. Hopefully, it would be equally great.

    1. It was an excellent exhibition, absolutely! I hope that the AGO continues to be involved in the competition by producing an exhibition, so perhaps you can participate next year. Best of luck with your own endeavours in Chicago!