“I can only describe it as a ‘journey,’” said Gabrielle Gray, the lead organizer and one of the participants of PEEPSHOW, the University of Toronto Visual Studies thesis exhibition. There is no overarching theme in PEEPSHOW; instead, its main objective is to showcase and summarize what these 19 artists have learned in 4+ years at U of T, as well as to mark the beginning of their artistic careers. “All started in September when we began to conceptualize our thesis. We curated and installed the artworks ourselves … it was a very hands-on process.” While guided by the faculty advisors to some degree, the show is independently organized by the students, from venue rentals and catering to fundraising, marketing, and producing catalogues and artist cards. PEEPSHOW is not funded by the faculty and is entirely sponsored through individual donors and fundraising.
The show kicked off with an amazing turnout, with crowds getting thicker in time for Anna Sarchami’s performance. Moving slowly and gingerly, she would face individual members of the audience and maintain eye-contact for a prolonged time, after which she presented them with a piece of fabric that she cut from her dress—rather à la Marina Abramovic in her focus on non-verbal communication. It was an intense moment for some, awkward and amusing for others; many averted their eyes, as one would avoid eye-contact with strangers on TTC. When she came towards me, I held her gaze with bated breath until she gently pressed a piece of cloth to my chest, as if saying thanks. Piece by piece, she was imparting from her a longing to connect.
Each artist in the show explored and exposed the self—the vulnerable, raw, and private. Nicholas Jianhong Liang mockingly represented himself through photographs of his materialistic possessions, while Julia Hurford’s film narrated diary entries recounting the death of her mother. Investigating another deeply personal matter was Jennifer Jihee Jung’s series of landscape paintings, which addressed the way in which humans engage with spirituality. “We feel the presence of the spiritual in nature because nature is not man-made, it’s given by God.” Hands are a recurring motif in her paintings, which evokes the gestures made during prayer recitals and religious ceremonies. Oli Li’s skeletal female figures are drawn from her private imaginary world. She found it mildly baffling that many people were so fascinated, and yet curiously repulsed, by these images. “To me, they are idealized forms—long legs, tiny torso, huge eyes and pale faces.” Perhaps one finds comfort in these uncanny drawings, recalling the emaciated bodies on the runway and realizing the impossibility of so-called ideal beauty.
All throughout, PEEPSHOW buzzed with raw energy characteristic of young, budding artists that are just emerging out of their undergraduate cocoon and into the artworld. Professor John Massey, who oversaw the students’ progress over the past 7 months, knows that this is only the beginning. “After years of lectures and assignments, these students are now reliant entirely on themselves to come up with a thesis. That can be extremely nerve-wrecking. But as an artist, you work on a thesis your entire life. This is just a preparatory stage. Now, they have to figure out how to make it work in this competitive, ever-changing artworld, to find his/her place.” He likens their process to ‘horse whisperers,’ alluding to the way in which instincts come into play when training horses. “[These students] have their own whispering voices inside. What they have to do is to realize it.”
PEEPSHOW was on view from 30 March – 1 April, 2012 at North Borden Building, 563 Spadina.