There is an unfortunate phenomenon that seems to be part of Hamilton’s DNA: buildings torn down to make way for city-approved projects, only to fail to get off the ground. It happens for all sorts of reasons including uncertain financing. So, we end up with parking lots or other kinds of underutilized and empty spaces which dot the downtown core.
“Demolition by neglect,” is how activist and writer Shawn Selway (who recently passed away) portrayed it in his essay Dodging Demolition in Renaissance City for the 2020 book I edited, Reclaiming Hamilton: Essays From the New Ambitious City.
Crown Point visual artist Ingrid Mayrhofer has taken this to heart in her exhibition, After All That Was Solid Melts into Air which lasts at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) until May 23.
It all began when Mayrhofer headed out Sunday mornings with camera in hand as the on-and-off-and-on east/west LRT project was being constructed. In the absence of demolition crews, with their large machinery idle, she took close to 300 photographs documenting the stages leading to the destruction of expropriated properties along King Street East. These form a major part of her photomontages, prints and video in the AGH exhibition.
Before demolition this stretch of streetscape was a typical southeast Hamilton thoroughfare made up of boarded-up storefronts, some eating and drinking establishments, payday loan operators, apartments, warehouses and upholstery outlets.
Mayrhofer supports the LRT as ultimately necessary. Yet, she has mixed emotions because development projects in our city have often gone awry. An important issue for her is the loss of affordable housing units which had existed on top or beside the stores here on King East.
In her current AGH exhibition, images are juxtaposed with digitally collaged and absurdist elements to reflect her sense of unease. So, you have candy coloured hoarding, a purple sky, a little Lego creature in the corner and a scary face.
It is not surprising that the makers of horror films and thrillers flock to Hamilton to take advantage of the aging cavernous industrial structures and boarded up places. Both suggest disturbing secrets and stories of a bygone era.
Mayrhofer’s smart Steel town series of prints represent the other portion of the exhibition. They originally appeared in an earlier show at the Carnegie Gallery in Dundas. Mayrhofer has brought them back to the AGH exhibition to link with her dual themes of memories and present reality in Hamilton.
Here we are swept up in gorgeous nighttime scenes of worker housing and steel plants on the ground that are overshadowed by a menacing piece of steel and a tiny red moon in the sky. This could be the fabled Brightside, the steel worker neighbourhood, which existed through much of the 20th century near the Stelco and Dofasco factories before industrial expansion plans pushed these homes into oblivion and forced the residents to disperse by the 1950s and 60s.
Mayrhofer can relate to the culture and history of Hamilton. Her first job after high school in her native Austria involved working at the VÖEST Steelworks in Linz, Austria, a city similar in size to Hamilton.
For her master’s field work she lived in Nicaragua during the 1980s and got involved in community art through teaching and working with other artists. A collaborative drawing that she exhibited with two other women artists – Dámarys Sepúlveda and Silvia Terwisscha – at the art school in Managua was recently featured in the 2018 edition of TEOR/éTica (a cultural centre located in San José, Costa Rica) called, “Area of Turbulence. Art in Nicaragua, from Revolution to Neoliberalism.”
Print making and photography have been central to her work since the beginning of her career. Among her influences is Martha Rosler whose 1967-1972 series “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” motivated her to juxtapose disparate images using diptych formats and photomontages.
“I first combined multiple negatives in the darkroom, masking, burning and dodging. Photoshop came a lot later and it probably takes just as long, if not longer than with the enlarger, to put more than one image on the same picture plane.”
Before moving to Hamilton in 2004 to take an assistant curatorial position at the McMaster Museum of Art, Mayrhofer worked in Toronto in various capacities. This included 10 years as program director at A Space, an artist run centre, and working as an interim community arts officer at the Ontario Arts Council for a year.
During her first year in Hamilton, she spent a lot of time exploring the natural areas of the escarpment and the Dundas valley but never ventured too far east. “Then one day while I was commuting from Toronto, I missed the turn-off to the 403 and stayed on the QEW. Coming onto Burlington Street was a total eye-opener for me.”
She had come to face to face with “the local exotic” – her description – of the industrial port along the lake. It set Mayrhofer on a new and interesting path, culminating in the present exhibition at the AGH.
The Art Gallery of Hamilton is open from Thursday to Sunday every week. For more details about the Mayrhofer show visit the AGH web site.