The National Gallery of Canada very kindly invited me to Ottawa – expenses paid – to see the current exhibition, which is called ‘Builders’, and is the second Canadian Biennale. (Did you know there was a Canadian Biennale?) According to curator Jonathan Shaughnessy, the show’s title is inspired by the idea of artists as not only players in the game, but also as builders, helping to create and embolden the art world.
Evan Penny, Jim Revisited, 2011. All images: VoCA (Apologies for dark images!)
Evan Penny, The back view.
Significantly, every two years, the exhibition is comprised entirely of work collected (that is, purchased) by the institution in that time. The result of this policy is that the show is made up of very of-the-moment work, by a range of artists from young (David Ross Harper) to very senior (the still impressively creative Michael Snow). And there are some wonderful curatorial gestures, like the relationship between Evan Penny’s Jim Revisited, 2011 (a truly astounding work and reason enough to travel to Ottawa for the show) and the delicate skin tones of Melanie Authier’s Augury, 2010 in the first room. But, given that Shaughnessy seemed torn when asked if they collect specifically for the Biennale, also somewhat limited from a curatorial standpoint.
Melanie Authier, Augury, 2010.
Overall, I had a strong impression of the show as heavily bracketed. What I mean is that it opens very strongly, with Evan Penny’s amazingly hyper-real, ten-foot plus silicone sculpture of a nude man, but made in distorted proportion so as to throw you completely off balance. Looking at it made my eyes hurt. And the exhibition closes very strongly with a wonderful Michael Snow video of a moving carpet of grass. The video is on the floor, so you step on it as the grass moves under your feet putting you slightly off balance. It was surprising, simple and excellent.
Brian Jungen, Star/Pointro, 2011.
In between, there were some definite highlights. Most notably was a stunning sculpture by Vancouver’s Brian Jungen, whose work I had become less fond of in recent years. But here he has stretched animal skin over the frame of a car door. Rather than simply being an equation (First Nations culture meets Western consumerism), it somehow took on an entirely new identity; one clearly important but not immediately identifiable.
Myfanwy Macleod, Everything Seems Empty Without You, 2009. With Hex paintings in background, 2009.
Myfanwy Macleod created a highly conceptual piece that at first gave me nothing. But upon inspection it revealed itself to be a fascinating attempt by the artist to gel a recent memory (a distillery in Germany) with the idea ‘what would Donald Judd do?’ – ie. The minimalist boxes that referenced Judd’s famous work.
Interestingly, she put up a series of Hex Paintings adjacent to the installation. Jonathan explained that this type of symbol were originally put up on the sides of barns to bring forth abundant crops and to ward off evil spirits. I couldn’t help but see it as a gesture by the artist offering protection for her abstract work from unsympathetic viewers.
Benoit Aquin, The Motorcycle, Inner Mongolia, China, 2006. Image: benoitaquin.com
I also loved Benoit Aquin’s tender photographs documenting China’s ‘Dust Bowl’, a phenomenon that stems from over exploitation of arable land. A more poetic version of Burtynsky’s beautiful ruins, they were like visual poems, equally more than the sum of their parts.
There was a room that paired Jon Pylypchuk’s shantytown installation with funny/sad characters with Sarah Anne Johnson’s amazing arctic landscape photographs, to which she adds her own element of fantasy. Nearby was a neat film by Marcel Dzama of a human chess game – watch it HERE – that reminded me of the work of Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin.
I was amazed to hear that the gallery is adding so much work to their permanent collection. While it’s a wonderful way to support Canadian artists, I kept imagining the vast quantity that they will aquire in only a few years. Over the first two biennales, the gallery’s departments of contemporary art, Indigenous Art and photographs have purchased about 700 works.
In fifty years from now, will all this work really stand up? I’m going to say perhaps not. Instead, I wonder if their money could be spent in a more productive way. Is there a way for them to hold the Biennale but only purchase some of the work? That might also give them the ability to create a stronger curatorial vision.
Interestingly, after the tour we had a discussion over lunch about nationalism in art, and the dangers (but also the benefits) in having to represent artists across the country when the work might range in quality. You don’t want mediocre work in the National Gallery.
Michael Snow, In the Way, 2011.
As far as the Canadian Biennale goes, I think the Gallery would be wise to collect less, and better. With the money they would save, they might consider bringing journalists and bloggers like myself from across the country to see the show, form an opinion and disseminate it to our readers – in short, a comprehensive media outreach program. It would make up for the shortfall in Canadian art coverage, encourage travel to Ottawa and reach a wider audience, something that the arts in general would benefit from.