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The art of seeing with the eyes of a terrorist

Silvia Kolbowski and Naeem Mohaiemen at A Space Gallery

Until May 26, Suite 110, 401 Richmond St. W., Toronto; aspacegallery.org

Condoning and understanding are closely related exercises, but are ultimately very different – for instance, I don't condone hockey violence, but I understand how it happens.

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When mainstream media organizations discuss terrorism, they often conflate the two processes, positioning anyone who claims to understand abhorrent acts of violence as also supporting such acts. Two new installations at A Space Gallery seek to pull apart the actions of understanding and condoning terrorist violence, by putting pivotal terrorist events (and terrorists) from the past under a poetic, but never apologetic magnifying glass.

Silvia Kolbowski's video installation A Few Howls Again? offers the viewer the memories, pontifications, and regrets of Red Army Faction co-founder and radical journalist Ulrike Meinhof – from the grave, no less (well, to be more specific, from a morgue slab). An actor plays Meinhof, freshly laid out after her (alleged) suicide in prison, gradually beginning to come alive. In a series of creepy stop-motion tableaux, we see Meinhof open her eyes, turn her head and then rise – all in complete silence. Above her body, text (culled from various sources, including Meinhof's own writing and a script by Kolbowski) is plainly displayed, creating a kind of last testament.

Nothing in this work seeks to justify Meinhof or her comrades' actions. Instead, Kolbowski paints a portrait of a intelligent, sensitive person who became convinced, and not without a strong measure of reasonable evidence, that the system under which she lived demanded violent action.

We can all pooh-pooh this assessment but, as the didactics to Kolbowski's work point out, if we find Meinhof and her colleagues so repellent, why has her life story become a cottage industry, the source material for everything from movies to books to, of course, this art piece? Perhaps we understand more than we care to admit, and need to create convoluted situations, fictions and theories, in order to process this understanding.

Similarly, Naeem Mohaiemen's The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) is an experimental documentary focusing on the hijacking, in 1977, of a Japan Airlines flight. Taken hostage by the Japanese Red Army, the flight was forced to land in Dhaka, where it spent over a week sitting on the tarmac while hijackers and authorities engaged in a protracted conversation via disembodying radio.

This strange situation – one wherein two groups of people, each with their own agendas and spokesmen, sitting mere metres apart, shared life-changing ideas and made bargains but never exchanged glances, never saw each other's face – is captured brilliantly, via the simplest of techniques: a black screen marked only by transcriptions of the audible control-tower-to-plane radio recordings.

As you watch and read, you begin to fill in the visual blanks, to imagine what the hostage taker and the negotiator looked like, how each remained calm, or perhaps fidgeted uncomfortably, in his confined space (the control tower, the cockpit of the plane). Then, subsequently, you start to feel that you know these men, and that you might at least have sympathy for (not pity for, but comprehension of) their ridiculous and untenable situations.

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The day after I saw these installations, a series of smoke bombs went off in the Montreal Metro. The word "terrorism" was instantly bandied about, and sides were quickly drawn (it was assumed that the action was related to the ongoing student protests in Quebec). All of the text generated by the event, whether it was pro, con, or in-between, dealt in absolutes. The more accustomed to violent political intervention we become, oddly enough, the less nuanced, considered, or even accurate our discourses around these events become.

The boundaries between condoning and understanding remain as conflicted as ever.

Casey Roberts at Parts Gallery

Until June 24, 1150 Queen St. E., Toronto; partsgallery.ca

Casey Roberts's small suite of new(ish) works at Parts Gallery are a solid introduction to this emerging, Indianapolis-based multimedia artist. Here's hoping we see more of his work soon.

Roberts creates paintings by combining cyanotype (a chemically treated paper that turns sky blue when exposed to light) and cyanotype that has been manipulated (with kitchen-sink tools such as bleach and baking soda) to create colours other than blue, plus collage and gouache. The effect is both soothing and eerie, like looking at the world through a bottle filled with oil.

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His subject matter, boreal landscapes, is no less quirky, despite the pedestrian origins. In a Roberts forest, blood drips from trees, and eyes, many pairs of eyes, peer out from black pits, hiding spots. Spectral human silhouettes patrol between the trees, sinister or just lost.

With his loose compositions and occasional dips into the psychedelic, Roberts will remind viewers of whimsical National Film Board animations from the 1970s, the era of tie-dyed T-shirts and macramé wall hangings. But ultimately Roberts's work is far more self-aware and decidedly not innocent.

I do wish, however, that he would stop adding texts, such as "totally free now," to his works. Text on a painting is always tricky, and too often ends up over-determining the work, limiting readings for the viewer and literalizing what is already present. Roberts's work is enough of a magical mystery tour, it hardly needs road signs.

In other venues

April Hickox at Katzman Kamen Gallery

Until June 2, No. 406, 80 Spadina Ave., Toronto; katzmankamengallery.com

Hickox's rain-splattered photos of harbours and boats, as well as her intriguing series of riverscapes shot from behind the porthole of a boat, are moody and silent – just like the old salts I grew up avoiding in coastal New Brunswick. Perfect art for a cloudy, sullen day.

Exposed 2012 at the Gladstone Hotel

Until May 29, 1214 Queen St. W., Toronto; gladstonehotel.com

Like any big survey, this group show of new photography is full of hits and clogged with misses. But don't overlook Chris Ironside's playful, kinky, nude and glitter skeleton-boy collages. Not that you could – they are bigger than life size.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim at Pikto

Until May 31, 55 Mill St., Toronto; pikto.com

Morocco's shrinking Jewish population, a community that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, comes to bright, lively life in Elkaim's photos – images that act as a counter to the dominant narrative of decline and disappearance.

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