Great expectations in Gimli

Ex-Torontonian returns east with an art show based on his multi-volume, novel-in-progress The exhibit shows genius in creating a tableau of laggard, unfinished ambitions, writes Peter Goddard

Aug. 10, 2006. 01:00 AM
Visual Arts Columnist
The Toronto Star


What is it with Gimli anyhow?

A couple of decades ago, this close-knit Manitoba fishing community on the shores of Lake Winnipeg provided the inspiration to launch the international film career of Guy Maddin.

The Winnipeg director's Tales From the Gimli Hospital proved to be a break-through on several fronts, rejuvenating the love of black and white filmmaking while also extolling the pioneering Nordic spirit of many of Gimli's early 19th century Icelandic settlers.

About that time, we also heard of Gimli when an Air Canada pilot bound for Edmonton brought his jet in for a miraculous glider landing there, after running out of gas in mid-air because a Montreal tarmac crew had mixed up its metrics.

This time, Gimli is claiming our attention as the inspiration for Rob Kovitz, a former Torontonian who graduated from the University of Waterloo School of Architecture and now lives in Winnipeg.

In terms of cultural impact, Kovitz's exhibition, "Ice Fishing in Gimli," might well prove a bigger deal than Maddin's film, which is already pretty big as it is.

It would appear Kovitz figures that he's en route to writing the great Canadian novel while at the same time creating the great Canadian art installation. This artistic double-entry can be seen — and read — at YYZ Artists' Outlet.

Of course, Vancouver's Douglas Coupland came across this literature-art crossover territory first with his bestseller novels, his Canadiana coffee-table books and his art shows. But maybe Coupland will have cause to keep an eye on Kovitz.

In his writing, Kovitz is quick to plunder existing ideas and texts for the purpose "of creating book works `on the basis of pre-existing works,'" explains a curatorial note. So Coupland's own work could easily end up as grist for Kovitz's literary mill.

The YYZ gallery's downtown setting is ruthlessly austere (yet considerably more contemporary than anything in the Maddin Gimli film).

A number of five-volume sets of Kovitz's novel-in-progress — titled Ice Fishing in Gimli, of course — are piled carefully around an ordinary table. Seeing this, you might imagine yourself in some sort of Gimli library run by an obsessive-compulsive librarian with a thing for order and neatness.

Yet look closer, and the setting is even less welcoming. In fact, it's a tad scary. The positioning of the chairs around the table and of the reading lamps is more suggestive of the penal system than a library system. This gives rise to all sorts of questions. Is this a reflection of Kovitz's slow progress over the past six years towards completing his still unfinished novel? Could a 10-year-stretch in the slammer be just about right for Kovitz to coax his project through to its end?

At this point, one begins to think the five-volume book itself is a bit of a hoax. It's not. Yes, it's long for the topic. Kovitz makes no apologies for that. And, yes, it's unfinished, although this elicits no apologies from its author, either.

Volumes One through Three "are more or less complete," Kovitz informs us. "But part of Volume 4 is still a working draft." As for Volume 5, it contains chapters "with only the title pages."

"His ultimate goal," notes his chief apologist, the Winnipeg-based curator Sigrid Dahle, is "to write himself into cultural history, to make his mark ... by penning `a great book.'"

Maybe so. But Ice Fishing in Gimli isn't it. It might be when it's finished, although that would utterly destroy the deliciously disorientating YYZ installation. And this installation is wonderfully finished, as a study of unfinished hopes and dreams. In fact, Kovitz shows a considerable genius in creating and controlling an atmosphere that reeks of wintry despair, of morose, unfinished ambitions, half-realized promises and of a monumental literary effort that may have well gone off the tracks and taken its creator with it.

"Extreme weather conditions," writes Dahle, "crippling loneliness, a hunger for fame, sexual frustration, monstrous ambition, delusional romanticism, the lure of nirvana, procrastination, poverty, writer's block, self-doubt, laziness and even death itself" spur Kovitz on his tormented way.

The YYZ show is only a brief pit stop.







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