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Features / March 12, 2015

BGL at the Venice Biennale: Depanneurs and Gondolas

Ahead of their debut at the Venice Biennale, Quebec City art pranksters BGL lead Isa Tousignant on a tour through their kitsch-fuelled practice.

This is an article from the Spring 2015 issue of Canadian Art.

They’re reluctant to admit it, but when Quebec City art trio BGL got the call from the National Gallery of Canada telling them they’d been bestowed the honour of representing Canada at the 2015 Venice Biennale, their hearts sank.

“A couple of months before I’d been kidding around, saying, ‘Guys, imagine if we were selected for Venice? We’d be in such shit.’ And then we got the call. It was like a joke,” Nicolas Laverdière told me.

It isn’t that Venice wasn’t a dream for Laverdière, Jasmin Bilodeau and Sébastien Giguère. It was. It’s just that 2014 was easily the busiest year in their near 20-year career. Over the last while, BGL have put much of their time and energy into developing public-art proposals. They were attracted by the scope of the projects, their public presence and their attractive budgets, but it was an exhausting and impoverishing couple of years. Just as the trio had decided to shift their attentions away from this sort of high-stakes gamble, lo and behold, they won the three-tiered competition for the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, the sports complex that will be the centrepiece of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games. Their piece, Water Velocity, is a monumental kinetic sculpture that reproduces the effect of Olympic pool lanes with thousands of shining metal shapes that shimmer in the sunlight. Then, more good news: BGL were selected for one of the largest public-artwork contests ever held in Quebec, in the Montréal-Nord neighbourhood. La Vélocité des lieux (velocity is a recurring concern, it seems) is a giant Ferris wheel made of metal renderings of five almost true-to-size city buses, placed nose-to-tail in a loop. And when I say giant, I mean it: think 75-feet-tall. BGL don’t do things by half-measure.

Each of these projects is the kind of thing most artists might spend the better part of a year on, but they happened to happen at once. And then came the Venice call. As I chatted with the guys over a few visits to Quebec City, I poked and prodded to see how the tension was affecting them. But they’re implacably good-humoured. They may be amazed at the whirlwind that has hit them, and overwhelmed in their search for the resources to complete all these projects at once, but they were kind and funny, joshing around with each other over their cups of green tea. It’s quite amazing to find a band that’s stuck together for almost two decades without ever wanting to split up and go solo.

“Actually, when I got the call for Venice, I did consider not telling the others and going on my own,” kidded Bilodeau.

Bilodeau, Giguère and Laverdière met while in art school at Université Laval in the mid-1990s and right away saw the benefits of working as a group. They weren’t actually that encouraged to work together in school, but they couldn’t help themselves—it was too much fun. They see their trio as a fruitful combination of complementary talents. “Besides, working alone must be so isolating,” said Giguère. Each of the three guys has two siblings; it’s as if triangular thinking is a part of them. You can see it in the way they speak: one starts answering, and another doesn’t so much finish the thought as pick up the idea to take it elsewhere. In terms of creative ideation, they describe their process as an extended brainstorm session. For Venice, it took months. The first time I met with them, at the start of winter 2014, they were still throwing things to the wall to see what stuck.

“We’re getting pretty close, but we’re still talking and talking about things that aren’t yet made,” explained Laverdière at the time. “It’s like talking about a dish; you read recipes, you get inspiration from all sorts of places, you shop for your ingredients, but you haven’t yet tasted the flavours.”

The flavours of the Venice installation, titled Canadassimo, were inspired by a few factors. First, the Canada Pavilion itself. BGL are fascinated by spaces, as evidenced in their many in situ installations, including their breakaway exhibition of À L’abri des arbres, which completely transformed a section of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in 2001. The challenge: making them utterly unrecognizable. Wherever they go, from Calgary to Paris, they bring with them a sense of the carnivalesque, be it with irresistibly shiny things like fire-orange Plexiglas (Le bûcher [2010]), iridescent flags (Le dernier étage [2014]) or shimmering metal plates (Water Velocity), or literally, by creating working carnival rides. In addition to the Montréal-Nord Ferris wheel, they’ve currently got a piece travelling across the country titled Carrousel (2012), made out of crowd-control fences and shopping carts.

“That object has travelled from Winnipeg to Edmonton, Sudbury, Hamilton and the Art Toronto fair, and it’s introduced us to people in the art world who are incredible,” said Laverdière. “Every time we present it we come back totally delighted.”

The sense of humour that’s intrinsic to any mention of BGL is another of the ingredients in Canadassimo. Humour is BGL’s protein, in fact, the centrepiece around which all else fans out. Partly a tool but more a natural inclination for these three guys, it’s used without self-consciousness but with aplomb. It’s what makes their art so consumable, despite the fact that they tackle Big Serious Things, like the pitfalls of consumer culture, pollution, the general denaturalization of humanity and death. “It’s so funny how no one ever sees the death in our work,” laughed Laverdière. “It’s obscured by the festivities.”

Canadassimo is one of BGL’s most immersive experiences in a career of immersive experiences. It recalls À L’abri des arbres, or Need to Believe (2005) at Toronto’s Mercer Union, where the trio completely transformed the viewer’s relationship to the space. I remember my experience of À L’abri des arbres as if it were yesterday; it was like travelling through a maze-like hall of mirrors, with that eerie confusion and desire to escape, but complicated by the irresistible draw of the million objects displayed in quirky, beckoning tableaux. I wanted to look, laugh and figure them out forever, but feared that if I didn’t keep trekking through, I just might.

The universe of Canadassimo starts off as a typical Québécois depanneur, known to the rest of the country as a corner store. As the viewer enters the Canada Pavilion, they encounter shelves and stands and racks and fridges that were culled from a dozen Quebec City deps and filled with goods like any store would be—with a BGL twist. The walls of the store, made from old wood layered with years’ worth of paint, came from an old house scheduled for demolition near where the guys live. Pass through the store space, and you’ll see a bamboo curtain leading to the back. It turns out, this dep owner is also an artist—because all artists need a sideline, specified Bilodeau. This enterprising artist has a shrine dedicated to his favourite deities and objects of beauty, and a bit beyond that, he has his studio.

The installation espouses every square inch of the Canada Pavilion, from its walls to its ceiling to its windows, which rain with coins thanks to the generous donations of visitors. It’s an all-encompassing immersion into BGL Land, to the extent that visitors may even wonder if they’re in the right place; the exterior of the pavilion has been extended with metal beams and a kind of scaffolding structure that serves as a deck and obscures the entrance. Perhaps galvanized by the size of their Pan Am and Montreál-Nord installations, BGL are thinking big.

In Laverdière’s words, “We’re looking to create a labyrinthine experience, so that you nearly lose sense of the pavilion. When we do a job well, spaces transform; small places find themselves doubling in size.”

Time spent with BGL in their natural habitat sheds light on the studio portion of Canadassimo. This section of the installation is claustrophobically colourful and packed, from the layers and layers of patterned carpets on the floor to the hundreds of paint tins stacked in pyramids and dripping with pigment and purpose. BGL’s own studio is similarly full to the brim, but without the artistically applied order. Located in a tiny, low-ceilinged second-floor apartment, it looks like the aftermath of a brain explosion, rife with papers, objects, old maquettes, dirty dishes and well-worn seats. The three guys themselves barely seem to fit in the front room at once, so it’s a wonder how they’ve ever made anything of scale here.

That’s why for this project, which was entirely built in Quebec City and shipped to Venice in segments, they had to find additional space. That started with one large and bright storefront, then they added a defunct fire station–cum–goth club in nearby Limoilou, complete with false stone walls and papier mâché gargoyles. Each of the three spaces, like each of the three artists, breathes its distinct flavour into the project.

The artists’ immediate surroundings have often been central to their work, and in this project it was the conceptual starting point as well as its raw materials. It may seem such an odd, localized idea to ship a depanneur to Venice, but every culture has the equivalent of a general store. And, sadly, Coca-Cola racks are ubiquitous in most cultures too. BGL trades in this sort of universality, where the intimate becomes emblematic.

“Some artists are scared of seeming folkloric, but we enjoy playing around with that line,” said Giguère. “We like aiming at icons.”

“And by speaking about things you know, you incidentally end up addressing larger themes,” added Bilodeau. “While if you aim at being universal, you inevitably fail.”

Laverdière finished the thought: “It must be love, too. Love for what’s around us, attachment to our immediate circumstances, that inspires us to explore them in our work.”

The workshop/junk shop aspect of BGL’s aesthetic (in French you might call it broche-à-foin) is part and parcel with their seductiveness. Without being ugly or harsh, it’s extremely relatable in its realness and lack of nonsense. A large part of that comes from how hands-on the trio is, building or handling almost everything that composes their installations from scratch. But now that they’ve entered the territory of immense public-art pieces designed to last for generations, that’s changed a bit. For La Vélocité des lieux, they got the bus designs vetted by an engineering studio, laser-cut by metalworkers and welded by professionals. Doing things on an absolutely monumental scale, especially three projects at once, has meant hiring more assistants than usual, and for one of the few times in 20 years, working separately for a while, as Laverdière finished installing the Pan Am piece in Toronto and the other two returned to toil on Canadassimo. “We speak every day,” said Bilodeau at that time, clearly unsettled by the situation.

Bolstered by the strength of three, the work of BGL sits at the origin of interactive artwork: it inspires a participation that is in no way forced or based on the trickery of sensors or technological devices. Experiencing a BGL work is like moving through a theatrical play, where you’re propelled only by your own curiosity and sensorial stimulation to walk in further, look deeper, see what’s next. There’s no fakery, no overt convincing; it’s self-propelled, and that puts their art on equal footing with the more easily consumed art forms, like cinema, television, music—hell, even street dance. It is sincerely, thoroughly entertaining.

“The best is when people don’t fall into the interpretive trap while they’re experiencing the work,” said Laverdière. “We want to surprise you, keep you interested, not have you wonder ‘What are they trying to tell me?’ At least not while you’re in the piece. After, sure, great—that night, a week later, but not during.”

Canadassimo inspires a wonderment, and bespeaks a true and profound concern with the viewer’s amusement. So often, art forgets about pleasure.

“Oh man, with three of us, we couldn’t afford that mistake,” said Laverdière. “We’d be way too bored in the studio. If the other two aren’t entertained by an idea, we move on.”