Canadian expat artist Mark Lewis: greed is squeezing the life out of cities
London-based expat and Canada's 2009 Venice Biennale representative on the view from abroad
In order to see Canadian artist Mark Lewis's new exhibition in London, England, you have to pass through a metal detector — even if you're Mark Lewis. "But I'm the artist!" he pleads, as an unmoved, English security guard at Canada House, the office of the Canadian High Commission to the U.K., instructs him to empty his pockets.
They are from a period when people wanted Canada to be a country of the future. That's gone now.- Mark Lewis, on Toronto's TD Centre and other forward-looking architecture
Inside, the gallery is doubling as a corridor for staffers, against the curator's wishes. But maybe this is fitting: Lewis's short films — whether of City Hall in Toronto, the Minhocão elevated highway in São Paulo, or the Louvre in Paris — show the ways buildings and public spaces are inevitably reimagined by the people who use them, sometimes in ways that architects or town planners would have opposed. The gallery in Canada House itself is a repurposing of a room in an embassy that used to be a private club.
Sitting in front of his film Pavilion (2015), shot inside Toronto's Mies Van Der Rohe-designed Toronto-Dominion Centre, the Hamilton-born, Toronto-raised artist told CBC Arts about living in London, working in Canada, and the snakes and ladders of globalization.
Is this the first time you've had an exhibition set up beyond a metal detector?
Yeah, it's a bizarre place to have a show. Harper's government was very hostile to culture, so it was very hard for cultural attachés to get any money to support Canadian art abroad. I represented Canada [at the Biennale] in Venice in 2009, and that was the last year that Canada supported that project. I think the people here [at the gallery] struggle on a very little budget, because it's not easy.
Has it made more sense for you to be here as an artist than to be back in Canada?
I go back to Canada a lot for family and friends, and I do a lot of work there. I don't think it really matters where I am; I came here initially 'cause I got a job here teaching [at St. Martin's College, where Lewis is a professor]. I was pretty broke. … And I met Janice [Kerbel, fellow artist and 2015 Turner Prize nominee], my wife, here, so our life just started to revolve around here.
In the '50s and '60s, any artist of high ambition had to leave. Most would move to New York, Paris, or London. There was no way that you could have a career in Canada: there was not the audience and support for it. I don't think it's a necessity anymore [due to] the internationalization of so many things. Just because you're in Vancouver doesn't mean that the world doesn't know what kind of art you're making.
Is it difficult now for artists in London simply because the city's becoming so expensive?
I walked here from my studio in southeast London; it takes about 45 minutes. Every street corner that I passed had construction going on: high-rise, cheaply built condominiums, sold expensively to people who never intend to move here, so they're buying it for investment.…
There's a serious worry amongst curators and institutions here that artists are leaving. That's not hysteria. Because of the massive development, there's a slightly interesting opportunity where buildings have to be occupied as the building's waiting for planning permission, because the developers don't want them squatted, so [artists will] open up spaces, or they'll live there. Young people are still trying, but those opportunities are short-lived.
What about the teachers and doctors and nurses and street cleaners? None of these people are going to live here. I think London is being destroyed. It's becoming like Manhattan — a simulacrum of itself. There are certain things that are "London," but increasingly it doesn't have the diversity of experience.
To a lesser extent, it's also happening in all the centres of capital. Toronto has already lost most of its character. All the new builds that are happening along the waterfront, Adelaide, Richmond are cheaply built, aesthetically compromised symbols for investment.
You filmed Pavilion in Toronto's financial district.
The Mies Van der Rohe banking hall is an extraordinary building. It's also a memory of a different epoch. Until the 1960s, Toronto was a hick town in the middle of nowhere, and some people decided that they were going to take part in modernism. The buildings were not just to be functional; they are from a period when people wanted Canada to be a country of the future. That's gone now.
London has almost no structures from the '50s and '60s: They're all being torn down. My own feeling is that those buildings have disappeared because of an unconscious rage, that they represent something that current global capital can't stand, which is that it's possible to organize cities differently. That period was synonymous with a political culture of diversity, of mixed economy, of good welfare, unemployment benefits — all the things that we're now told we can't have anymore because of the neoliberal consensus, which is to get as rich as they can goddamn get without having to pay taxes.
Does it help your work in Toronto that you live in London, because you know the city intimately but have a distance from it?
I feel like a stranger in a place I know well. When I left Toronto in 1989, it was probably half the size. My knowledge of it is as someone who recognizes things but doesn't totally understand them. It's a beautifully defamiliarizing feeling.
Mark Lewis: Invention appears at The Power Plant, 231 Queens Quay W., Toronto. To Jan. 3, 2016. Free. Exhibition curator Barbara Fischer, executive director/chief curator of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and the University of Toronto Art Centre, will give a lecture Nov 19 at Harbourfront Centre, Studio Theatre, 235 Queens Quay W.. 7pm. $15; free for members.