While we run out of Netflix shows to binge, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) offers us a new source of virtual entertainment: Art exhibits. Of the five very different exhibitions currently available, ranging from Riopelle ‘s landscapes to Signac’s pointillism paintings, Manuel Mathieu’s seemingly expressionist Survivance installation is not to be missed. The Haitian-born Montreal artist’s approach to art stands out, expressing emotions through vibrant abstractness, made even more visible through the new medium of the virtual exhibit.
The MMFA’s virtual experience allows the viewer to discover the exhibits as if one was pacing the museum, walking from one gallery to the next. The platform’s features are easy to manage, though there are some technical glitches, such as audio tracks appearing in front of paintings. Patience is required when moving one’s cursor to observe each painting through different angles. Yet, there is considerable effort by the MMFA to incorporate visual and auditory details in order to recreate an in-person museum experience that would otherwise be lost to the viewer on an online platform.
Survivance is shown as it is displayed in the gallery, allowing viewers to zoom in to see the details of the paintings up close. The audio recording gives descriptions of the artwork and insight into Mathieu’s thought process. Though one may still miss the sensation of strolling in the museum, the virtual counterpart immerses visitors with features that are only accessible through our computers.
Mathieu’s exhibition displays 20 paintings presented in Canada for the first time with a special installation created for the MMFA. Mathieu’s paintings at first appear as an abstract mix of colors that lack shape or sense. The audio features here are practical, describing Mathieu’s thoughts and interpretation of his painting, giving the audience a new perspective to the piece.
Survivance focusses on pivotal moments of Mathieu’s life. After surviving a major motor vehicle accident in 2015, he pushed himself to make his art more important and impactful. Mathieu depicts this incident and his recovery in Rempart 2018. On the canvas, it is difficult to discern any shape from the juxtaposed strips of colors, leaving it up to interpretation. The upper part of the painting is covered with stacked rectangles, giving the illusion of a wall, which, Mathieu describes in the voiceover, represents his grandmother, who supported him after the accident. Nonetheless, as the artist represents his own memories and emotions in a vivid chaos, it lets the audience associate with art through their personal recollections.
The imposing structure, Ouroboros 2020, is still quite impressive, even through a screen. Large white canvases are aligned one layer after the other, burnt in the center to create a void. The work consists of a play between appearance and disappearance, how one moment can be ephemeral and disappear. Mathieu gives an importance to his art, a role in his life as well as to its public. This installation allows viewers to look at it through various angles, where the sculptures take different forms and shapes to change one’s perspective of the art. These details create a homogeneity ruptured by the burnt centers which represent infinity and life.
As we live through the pandemic, MMFA’s virtual tours provide a limited escape: It only works if visitors ignore that they are once again in front of their screens. Yet, Survivance expresses emotions and memories by demonstrating the transcendent power of art, and how these tumultuous times could later be portrayed by artists.