Two Contemporary Canadian Artists’ Works Influenced by Marshall McLuhan


“Racoon” from the Liz Magor: Habitude exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. (Scott Massey)

Two artists channel Marshall McLuhan in Montreal exhibition

Robert Everett-Green

Marshall McLuhan’s most radical idea was that everything we make also remakes us. Two new exhibitions at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain grapple with this proposition from very different perspectives. Liz Magor, who was born in 1948, works with what McLuhan called the material extensions of the body – clothes especially, but also shelters and implements. Ryan Trecartin, who was born in 1981, is all about electronic extensions, particularly cellphone cameras, social media and reality TV.

Magor’s pieces typically juxtapose a ready-made – a manufactured thing such as cigarettes or liquor bottles, or a dead bird – with cast replicas of other ordinary things – gloves, towels or cardboard boxes. The cast item is often the container or concealment device for the ready-made. What looks like two piles of folded towels in Double Cabinet (Blue) is actually a hollow space packed with cases of beer. Aside from the failed deception, the use of the laboriously handmade things as the frame for the manufactured objects tells you something about how this Vancouver artist sees their relative importance in her work.

“Through some mysterious operation,” she says in an interview published in the exhibition catalogue, “the found things become really alive when set against the sculptural representation of something ordinary. … Even a dead bird is more alive than the replica of a cardboard box.”

There you have the kernel of what most of the work in the MAC’s four-decade retrospective is about: Magor’s fascination with the mystery through which an artist’s replica gives new meaning to something plucked from the world. I think the mystery has something to do with the felt nature of time, which runs differently for commodities that have “the potential to return to the world and resume their business,” as Magor says, than for a piece made to be walled up in a museum.


Ryan Trecartin sometimes makes objects, but is best known for the riotous claustrophobic videos he produces with Lizzie Fitch and a host of other artists, actors and friends. One of the earliest, and perhaps the only one with a sole performer, is Kitchen Girl (2001), a three-minute short in which Fitch drags a baby carriage upstairs, screaming the whole time, and then cooks a boot for two children who are actually bulbous stuffed toys. It’s a fairy tale gone mad, and its most telling feature is that once Fitch is in the kitchen, she does everything with a microphone in her hand.

The three group videos from 2013 included in Priority Innfield, a version of which has shown at the Venice Biennale, belong to another era, after the explosion of social media. In these films, the fourth wall that kept Fitch from acknowledging Trecartin’s sneaking hand-held camera in Kitchen Girl has become a picture window, polished to a blinding sheen by the Internet and phone cameras.

Everyone primps and preens for the camera in harsh frontal lighting, while saying things such as, “No one has a name yet,” and “One of the most elegant things about facts is that I believe them.” The cast forms a competitive bitchy fellowship that feels more real than they do individually. Their constant upstaging and photo-bombing often looks like an enactment of Candy Darling’s comment about making films at Warhol’s Factory: “Whichever one of us is the pushiest gets to be the star.” Read the the full review at .

Photo of Musee d'art contemporain de MontrealMusee d’art contemporain de Montreal

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