The Work Ahead of Us
The Québec Triennial 2011 at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
7 October 2011 – 3 January 2012
This review is by Kingston, Ontario-based VoCA contributor Catherine Toews.
I had the good fortune of visiting and writing about the inaugural Québec Triennial in 2008. At the time, I described it as “a huge curatorial effort, handled with a great deal of care, consideration and innovation,” requiring “time and patience on behalf of the viewer.” It was “fresh, exciting, and eager to please,” with many artists employing a “strange sense of humour” that rendered the first Triennial “so immensely likeable.” I am pleased to say, after spending an epic Saturday afternoon exploring the second incarnation of the Triennial, that it more than lives up to the sense of great promise created by the first, while possessing some significant differences that came as a pleasant surprise.
That “strange sense of humour” present in the first Triennial is still there but is now balanced with a slightly somber, intensely contemplative overtone. Steady on the heels of the success of the first Triennial, the artists and curators involved in the second undertaking seem to be enjoying an opportunity to confidently experiment and provoke viewers in ways that the first Triennial didn’t quite dare to do. Make no mistake— though perhaps more challenging and cerebral than the first—this second installment is still, at its core, an exuberant celebration of current Québec art. With a slate of associated programming including public art and live performances, the party going on inside the gallery is spilling out all over the streets of downtown Montréal. Most notably, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer created the major work Architecture relationnelle 18 especially for Place des Festivals, which the public can view and interact with to animate the Montréal sky.
Thérèse Matroiacovo’s Art Now series (2005-present), displayed on the entry walls, consists of a series of intricate graphite renderings of the covers of art texts focused on “the now.” It’s a smart, sassy body of work, and it provides the perfect start to an exhibition focused not only on the here and now, but on what’s next. The Triennial’s title, The Work Ahead of Us, is taken from a 1920 essay by the Russian Constructivist artist Vladimir Tatlin and serves as an accurate, probing banner for an exhibition of artists working in such disparate media and moods.
Claudie Gagnon’s Tableaux videos are some of the greatest highlights of the Triennial. These video documentations of elaborate scenes, brought to life by performers and laced with art historical references, are the best examples of the continuation of that “strange sense of humour” I so enjoyed in the first Triennial. I sat in a darkened room with other audience members and shared some laughs over seemingly ridiculous, yet oddly beautiful images including an elderly woman delicately jiggling two gelatinous blobs in Tableaux (Saint-Agathe) (2011). The laughs that echoed in the room were admittedly slightly hesitant, and with good reason. A bit of research into the sources being referenced uncovered a poignancy that was not immediately evident. Saint Agatha, martyred in approximately 251, is often depicted carrying her severed breasts on a platter.
Paulette Gagnon, Director of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, refers to the Triennial as “a journey to the centre of the Québec creative world,” offering “an opportunity to step off the beaten path through brand-new experiences.” Indeed, many of the stand-out works in the exhibition invite the viewer to literally walk on and through them. I was delighted to stumble upon (and meander through) Dis donc à la grosse de se tasser (2011), a large scale work by the duo Séripop. The installation is garish and awkward in all the right ways. It is a playful exploration of colour and shape. Alexander David contributes a room-sized plywood installation, which visitors are invited to clamber upon and over to pass from one gallery space to the next. Yet other spaces contain inhabitants hidden behind closed doors that the viewer must pass by. The characters in Marie Andrée Cormier’s Paysage humain (2010) simultaneously confront and ignore the viewer, as do the group of women gathered together in varying states of undress in Olivia Boudreau’s L’Étuve (2011). Boudreau in particular entices the viewer to open the tightly sealed door of the installation space and contemplate what it means to be a spectator witnessing the experiences of the women in the steam room.
Boudreau and Cormier’s works represent just two of a considerable number of impressive video installations on display. As with the first Triennial, the respect shown for and considerable space devoted to immersive video installation works is refreshing. Indeed, the two biggest highlights of my visit to the Triennial were both video installations. In Jean-Pierre Aubé’s 31 soleils (Dawn Chorus), pulsating audio booms from stacked speakers as the sun slowly rises from the floor to the ceiling and into blackness. Charles Stankievich’s LOVELAND blew me away. The entry to the installation space is through a sliding door, which the viewer must open slowly and with some force. This clever setup renders the simple act of opening a door part of the overall experience. Inside, a rumbling cloudscape slowly explodes into a puff of purple smoke in a beautiful onslaught of colour.
The second Triennial reads as just one chapter in the story of Québec’s vibrant and constantly evolving art scene. It asks the viewer to examine what is happening now, while keeping one eye keenly fixated on what’s ahead. The Québec Triennial provides something for Québec and, indeed, for Canada to look forward to every three years.
VoCA contributor Catherine Toews is an artist, graphic designer, writer, and arts administrator. She has worked with a variety of galleries, museums and arts organizations, and is Vice-President of the Board of Directors at Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre.