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The Uniter, Issue 12, November 30, 2006

The work of friends

Semai gallery scouting spaces for challenging new work

By Kenton Smith

An inspired adaptation of an available but highly unlikely space has resulted in perhaps the most unique of the many art galleries presently operating in Winnipeg's Exchange District.

Officially opened this past July, Semai Gallery, the name of which is Japanese for "narrow," is located in the basement of 264 McDermot Street. What the curious visitor will discover upon descending the stairs may come as a surprise: the exhibition space is in fact the corridor adjoining the Keepsakes Gallery, an arts-and-crafts shop that functions as an artist's collective. Across the hall is the now-defunct Cream Gallery, which also used the hallway for display purposes; however, thanks to former Cream assistant and present Keepsakes employee Takashi Iwasaki, the corridor is now something completely distinct, showcasing challenging new work that harmonizes with the particular dimensions and offbeat character of the site.

It was this past summer when Iwasaki first inquired with Keepsakes management about utilizing the corridor. As a curtain-raiser, Iwasaki first exhibited his own work to determine just what could be done with the rather unconventional space. Although he originally thought of using it exclusively for self-promotion, Iwasaki opted instead to use the new gallery to showcase the work of friends and acquaintances.

The first such show resulted from a casual conversation with celebrated local filmmaker Noam Gonick. Iwasaki, who lives below Gonick, asked the director whether he had anything he might want to show. The result was Scouting, a collection of 135 locations scouting photographs taken by Gonick while preparing the films Hey Happy! (2001) and Stryker (2004). Following that was that'sneighbour by the Japanese-born Kazu, a former classmate of Iwasaki's. Ending on November 21st, the show was an installation or "assemblage" of found objects arranged in playful manner along the corridor's stark white walls---and even up amongst the ceiling fixtures.

"Because the sides of the gallery are small, I have to use whatever surfaces I can," says Kazu, adding that because he does site-specific installations, "the space was really challenging." In contrast to the elongated, limited wall surface area of Semai, Kazu emphasizes that "a gallery is usually square," and much larger; however, he also observes that, "because I'm Japanese, perhaps I'm used to working with small things."

It was of small things that that'sneighbour was essentially comprised: among the items employed by Kazu were scissors, plastic forks, umbrellas, black garbage bags, green plastic tarp, Zip-loc bags, toilet paper, cotton balls, tinfoil, styrofoam, Curly Kates, clothespins, flip-flops, even a pair of athletic shorts. Yet this literal description does nothing to convey the artful, even delicate minimalist arrangements, which vividly evoked a sense of play and the joy of making things. The final patterns retained a sense of spontaneity and improvisation, with the artist seemingly discovering ever more unlimited possibilities as he went along. The nature constructions of Andy Goldsworthy come to mind.

Kazu's work also evokes a traditional and venerable art form from his own culture: ikebana, or flower arrangement, in which the practitioner may find that the juxtaposition of any given combination of floral elements offers limitless creative possibilities. The artist confesses he doesn't know much about ikebana, but did in fact have it in mind, even using bits and pieces of plant life such as buds, stems, grasses, twigs and tiny flower blossoms attached to the walls. Still, he stresses that his real goal was "to make my own ikebana."

Presently, Kazu is working on a new installation on the University of Manitoba campus, at the old Movie Village space---the dimensions of which are the polar opposite of the space afforded by Semai. Indeed, Kazu says that this new show "will require a lot of time and materials." Nonetheless, he declares that the possibility of an entirely new future show at Semai remains in the back of his mind, as the unusual site offers too much of an attractive challenge to ever forget.

Opening last week at Semai was the new show Owning Winnipeg, yet another example of how artists can utilize the unique dimensions of the site. The artist, Romanian-born Adrian Gorea, who mounts most shows simply under his last name, has "put together the film of my art history": long, narrow bands of many individual images, resembling oversized filmstrips, which document the 27-year-old artist's drawings over several years. It is another example of serendipity at work at Semai: the long walls and narrow space make it, according to Gorea, "the perfect place for this show."

Owning Winnipeg is, Gorea explains, an attempt to co-opt the place he now lives ---Winnipeg. Some of the images in the show are of Gorea's "filmstrips" stretched out and wrapped around well-known Winnipeg landmarks, including the Legislative Building. His September one-man show at the Urban Shaman Gallery, Dacian Flags, explored related a theme: the reconsideration of identity, in which the artist turned for a theme to his Romanian heritage and ancestry. Many of the same motifs that appeared in Dacian Flags---specifically those related to the painted icons of Eastern European Christianity---pop up in the many compact frames of Owning Winnipeg, which together demonstrate Gorea's mastery of various distinct graphic traditions.

The Japanese-born-and-raised Iwasaki, 24, has lived in Canada for about four years, and graduated from the U of M School of Art in May. He says that his ambition now is to become a professional artist, although whether he will stay in Canada to do so is, at present, undecided. Likewise, the future of Iwaskai's current brainchild is also in a state of limbo: Iwasaki says that the existence of Semai really depends upon whether the former Cream Gallery space remains empty---or, alternatively, whether whoever leases the space in the future will allow him continued use of their side of the hall. The result is that his improvised art initiative may end up an ephemeral phenomenon amongst the other galleries of the Exchange. Owning Winnipeg even seems to reflect this: the installation, which only opened on the 23rd, ends today.

For however long it lasts, the current enterprise has provided for Iwasaki a taste of the challenges of operating a non-profit, artist-driven space. He laments that far fewer people than he'd like actually make a point of dropping into the gallery, despite his active advertising efforts. Yet Iwasaki continues to look for solutions, explaining that he'd like to join in the already established practice of the neighbourhood galleries to coincide their respective official openings. Whatever the future holds in store, Semai remains a striking example of the vibrancy and creativity that characterize new approaches to the visual arts in Winnipeg, from content to presentation.

While it lasts, that is.

Semai Gallery is located at 264 McDermot Ave. in the Exchange District. You can see past exhibitions online at

Original source of this article on the web