Night of the living dead: This cheeky artist is collaborating from beyond the grave

Cole's latest project is a "threesome" he has constructed with two dead artists: multimedia artist David Buchan and legendary painter Tom Thomson.

Keith Cole's #HashTagGallery Slut is creating chaos at the AGO

Keith Cole's #HashTagGallery Slut (The Art Gallery of Ontario)

Actor, writer, performance artist, installation artist, drag queen, filmmaker, activist, occasional mayoral candidate, singer, pop video star, teacher and the host of hundreds of fundraisers: Toronto poly-threat Keith Cole is, well, everywhere all the time — often on the same night.

At 51, Cole is living (and very active) proof of the old adage that art is 90% perspiration. He once pulled a cart full of his art up and down Queen St. West for hours, wearing a filthy old wedding dress dress, while flirting with cyclists. Enough said. As fellow multi-talent and friend Andrew Harwood once put it, "Keith is the only real artist around, because he has absolutely no fear."

Proving Harwood's point is Cole's latest project #HashTagGallery Slut, a "threesome" he has constructed between himself and two dead artists: multimedia artist David Buchan and legendary Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson.

Cole's new universe in #HashTagGallery Slut includes a dreamy film created by his frequent collaborator Raymond Helkio; a drag performance by club queen Maria Delmonte; a real canoe, in which Cole attempts over and over to drown himself while wearing a wig made of fishing nets; an interpretive dance by Cole; coloured mini canoe paddles modeled after the "hanky code" of queer BDSM culture; Cole's signature paper and textile works; "boiling water, to make people nervous"; and last but not least, "There will be cats."

Cole's goal is not to offend or insult the legacies of Buchan or Thomson, but to create an open space and interpretative actions that will allow others to join in on the conversations about the artists. He describes the overall process as an act of enchantment.

Keith Cole. (@keithadcole)

"I teach a visual studies class," he says. "A student, new to Canada, wanted to know why Canadians have so much interest in landscape painting. I told him that as Canadians, we eventually have to wrestle with our big country and its beauty; we have to acknowledge how breathtaking it is. Hearing myself utter this, I remember thinking that I have not wrestled with this. I needed to really take in Canada's beauty. Thus it began. 'The Landscape,' something that I thought was so old and passé, suddenly took on a new life."

Cole's excitement is not always contagious. The AGO was very reluctant to allow him to fill his canoe with water, especially since he intends to throw himself into it — and he is not a small person. Water and precious art don't mix. Heated negotiations ensued. But Cole's been down this river before — indeed, one could argue that his entire career to date has been one long act of willfully inserting himself where he's not "supposed" to belong.

It will be messy. It will smell. It will be loud. It will be gay. I understand the need for art conservation and works of art that are hundreds of years old need special care. I have zero interest in destroying a 200+ year-old painting by a Dutch master — at least not now...- Keith Cole

"#HashTagGallery Slut will fall apart," he says. "It will be messy. It will smell. It will be loud. It will be gay. I understand the need for art conservation and works of art that are hundreds of years old need special care. I have zero interest in destroying a 200+ year-old painting by a Dutch master — at least not now..."

One can imagine that is a less than reassuring statement for the AGO.

"But performance is messy," Cole reminds me, "and I make a mess. The AGO is on my side now." 

And to guests who question Cole's suggestion in #HashTagGallery Slut that Thomson — like himself and Buchan — was queer? Cole asks back: why it is so important that Thomson not be read as a queer artist?

"I have been thinking a lot about fiction lately. About six years ago I began thinking about my own fiction and what I believe to be true about myself and what I believe is not true about myself. What I came to discover is that my fiction is totally moveable, malleable and never heavy. It is completely flexible and I can play with it quite easily."

"There is the old dichotomy between true/false or fiction/non-fiction. But I think there is enormous power in imagination — and no fun, no creativity and especially no future in the rules that currently apply."

Cole says that his performance is about "hurting himself and being angry and vulnerable and not being pretty."

"I think that when Tom Thomson was murdered by drowning, it was not pleasant," he says. "David Buchan's works was treated as simply party art, also not pleasant. That said, my performance can and will be beautiful."

He's also prepared for a "gay panic" backlash (as well as plenty of applause).     

"I think the Toronto art world looks back way too much. I do not want to live in this old world. I did not make the rules that were made back then and are still applied now. I really try and do my own world making. I really try. It is met with eye rolls but for me, and I really do mean for me, I want to change things."

#HashTagGallery Slut, featuring Keith Cole. October 26 and October 29 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.


RM Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist. Vaughan is the author of many books and contributes articles on culture to a wide variety of publications.


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