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Canadian Biennial Aims to Build Different Vision of National Art

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa November 2, 2012, to January 20, 2013

Tonight, the 2012 Canadian Biennial opens in Ottawa.

Featuring more than 100 works from 45 artists, the biennial exhibition, titled “Builders,” aims to highlight artists who have done much to grow or nurture the Canadian art community—and who, at times, might be better known for that role than for their artwork proper.

As organizing curator Jonathan Shaughnessy noted in his media preview talk, one inspiration for this show came from an unexpected direction—namely, the Hockey Hall of Fame.

When the Hockey Hall of Fame was established in 1961, individuals could be inducted in one of two categories, either as a “player” or as a “builder”—the latter category referring to individuals who have helped develop the game and move it forward.

As Shaughnessy explains in his catalogue essay, in preparing for the biennial, a number of works came to his attention by “‘senior’ Canadian artists who have done much over the course of their careers to ‘grow the game’ of contemporary art and the structures supporting visual production in this country.”

Pointing to examples such as Lynne Cohen, who taught at the University of Ottawa from the mid 1970s to 2005 in addition to producing works highlighted by the gallery during that time, Shaughnessy concludes, “In art, builders and players often prove to be one and the same.”

This thesis is tested in various ways throughout the exhibition, and the following are a series of reflections on the attempt.

HIGHLIGHTING SOME UNDERPLAYED GREATS

One of the great pleasures of “Builders,” for me, was experiencing works by artists that I was not aware of before. For instance, this is the first time I’ve seen works by Jim Breukelman and Leslie Reid—both individuals who have taught extensively during their careers, thereby fitting Shaughnessy’s “Builders” theme.

The positioning of Jim Breukelman’s 1987 series Hot Properties—45 colour photographs of post–Second World War housing in Vancouver—alongside Dan Young and Christian Giroux’s 2008 film Every Building, or Site, that a Building Permit Issued for a New Building in Toronto in 2006 is illuminating in a formal sense as both works use a systematic approach to prompt questions about the architecture in our cities and the ways we value (or fail to value) it.

This juxtaposition of Breukelman with Young and Giroux is also illuminating when it comes to considering the question of how certain artists become hot properties in themselves, while others do not. (Young and Giroux won the Sobey Art Award last year, while Breukelman won a Mayor’s Arts Award in Vancouver this year. Both are forms of recognition, but of rather different prize monies and connotations.)

Another productive arrangement of this type happens at the entrance to the exhibition, where Melanie Authier’s 2010 painting Augury is installed next to two paintings from Leslie Reid’s 2011 Cape Pine series.

Both Authier and Reid are Ottawa-based painters, and while their works have significant differences, the ones here connect for me as landscapes that dissolve into visual arrays or vice versa.

Yet Authier and Reid’s personal profiles are quite different: As an emerging artist, Authier was an honourable mention in the 2007 RBC Canadian Painting Competition; born in 1980, this is her first showing at the National Gallery, and she was in considerable demand for interviews at the media preview. Reid, now 65 years of age, had her first National Gallery of Canada showing in 1975 with the landmark (though rather prosaically named) exhibition “Some Canadian Women Artists.” This exhibition was also, prior to “Builders,” Reid’s most recent showing at the gallery.

Both Breukelman and Reid taught intensively for many years of their careers. As Andrea Kunard details in her catalogue essay, Breukelman in large part built the photo department at the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design), at one point going so far as to turn his parents’ basement into a darkroom to better educate the local populace. That department has educated figures such as Chris Gergley, who was featured in the 2010 biennial, and Roy Arden, who is now a well established Vancouver name. Reid also taught for many years at the University of Ottawa; after she left, Melanie Authier took up teaching there.

That “Builders” has succeeded in drawing attention to a few of these figures—those who are builders and players, artists and teachers—is one thing it can be proud of. It reminded me that the fresh new works and younger artists of today have important precedents—or if not precedents, then less well-known present-day corollaries.

BUILDING ON ARCHITECTURAL THEMES

One thing that also stands out in my mind about “Builders” is the strength of some of its rooms in building a theme or conversation.

The room where Bruekelman’s work is positioned alongside Young and Giroux’s is another highlight in this respect. The room also includes Mark Ruwedel’s photographs of provisional housing and abandoned detritus in the California desert; Edward Burtynsky’s Breezewood, Pennsylvania of 2008, which shows a row of gas stations and convenience stores off a highway; Susan Dobson’s images of retail plazas in which storefronts have been greyed out or erased; and Scott McFarland’s View of Marina, Sans Souci, Georgian Bay, Late Summer 2008.

All of these works, experienced together, add up to a very strong opportunity to meditate upon the built environment and our relationship to it in this day and age. Since all of the works are film- and photo-based, there is also an awareness prompted of the way photography in particular has been used to investigate these themes.

These works also prompted me to consider relationships between nature and culture, particularly as they lead on to a video installation by Lynne Marsh. Plänterwald is a 2010 work that traces a journey through an abandoned German amusement park, beginning and ending with views of the plant life that has grown into the old rides from below and above.

This “nature bats last” inflection is strengthened in photographs that follow by Benoit Aquin from his Chinese “Dust Bowl” series of the late 2000s. In these threatening and beautiful prints, we see a motorcyclist seemingly trying to outrun a dust cloud and utopian plaza backgrounded by a coming storm. Everywhere is the yellowness of air-suspended sand.

This theme is bookended by Lynne Cohen’s photographs of austere, pristine interiors. These are havens away, perhaps, from the troubles of the outside world—or from the troubles we have wrought on the outside world, and which we, with ever greater intensity, attempt (and fail) to shelter ourselves from. Taking in this array from the Burtynsky to the Cohens, many thoughts came to mind about nature as threat as well as nature (for better or worse) as our ultimate home.

OPPORTUNITIES LEFT ON THE BENCH

While there is much to enjoy in and much to learn from “Builders,” however, I found that it left me less impressed than its predecessor, “It Is What It Is.”

There are fewer sublime, visceral or (yes, I will use this adjective!) “ooh-aah” moments in “Builders”—so much so that while there are actually more works in “Builders” (some 100 compared to “It Is What It Is”’s 70 or so) it felt like there were fewer works present overall.

In some ways, this type of more muted effect is built into the exhibition’s overarching theme—that the thrust is to highlight important people in the community, not just important works.

But it also doesn’t help that the works with the greatest effect and strongest presence in “Builders” are actually installed outside of its main exhibition space.

For example, Michel de Broin’s Majestic is installed outdoors at Nepean Point. Though visible from the exhibition space through a well-situated window, it is best experienced up close, when one can actually touch and feel up close its evocative materials—namely, street lamps that weathered Hurricane Katrina.

Another sublime moment comes when standing next to David Altmejd’s large, layered sculpture The Vessel—which is, unfortunately, located one floor up from the main “Builders” exhibition space in the permanent-collections rooms. Signage was not in place to direct viewers to this work at the media preview, though I was assured it will be installed in time for Friday’s first public viewing.

DEALING WITH THE CONSOLATION PRIZE

While I was delighted to encounter an exhibition that didn’t just seem a roundup of the usual Canadian art star suspects—and that did help me learn about underappreciated creators and personalities who have been toiling away teaching and building the community—some uncomfortable questions came up for me around the exhibition’s premise.

In particular, I wondered how much being included in a biennial with this type of theme could feel like a bit of a consolation prize—as in “oh, we never did a big solo show of you, and you know it’s been decades since we’ve shown your work here at the gallery, but we want to show you here and now because, well, you’ve been a great influence on other artists.”

When I ask Leslie Reid about this possible reading of the show—admitting a tendency to negative thinking—she laughs. Then she says good naturedly, “Well, I thank my lucky stars that this sort of fell into place the way it did. If it had been a different set of circumstances, it probably wouldn’t have happened…. It’s a big country now, and with so many artists.”

“A lot of artists would say, why her and not me?–especially somebody my age,” she added. “I probably felt it for the last biennial: ‘Why wasn’t I there?’ We all have egos. We pretend that it’s all in the work. But that’s a bit of saving face. We’re all in it together.”

There are ways in which the exhibition itself would tend to attempt to reflect this type of tension or discomfort—one is by including Ron Terada’s Jack paintings, which reproduce pages from Jack Goldstein’s memoirs and musings on how some artists come to be famous, and others, not.

Another reminder comes in the inclusion of Mark Soo’s House is a Feeling just outside the exit of the main “Builders” exhibition space. An audio work that sounds like party music coming from another room close by, Soo’s work prompted me (before I understood what it was) to think, “That sounds like something good. What am I missing?” And the latter is always a good question to ask of any ostensible survey or biennial exhibition.

REVISITING THE RECENT ACQUISITIONS STRATEGY

One thing that many complained about for the 2010 Canadian Biennial, and that will no doubt be critiqued again here, is that the National Gallery’s Canadian Biennial is based on the gallery’s recent acquisitions.

This makes it quite different from biennials worldwide, which are often based in temporary assemblages of (or fresh commissions of) new work.

In many ways, the NGC’s concept is a bit of a two-fer—the gallery should be doing recent acquisitions shows anyway, and it should be doing biennials of Canadian art anyway. Here, we seemingly get both in one package in one budget-friendly arrangement. Add into that that the gallery—despite being the largest in the country—actually has only a limited amount of space in which to regularly display the contemporary Canadian permanent collection, and you could even call it a bit of a three-fer.

Yet there’s also an advantage for Canadians to this unusual acquisitions biennial arrangement, and that is the fact that few contemporary art events or exhibitions in Canada can rival the NGC’s acquisitions budget.

The NGC’s annual acquisitions budget is in the $7 million to $8 million range—and director Marc Mayer says “we’re hoping one day that we can double that money through donations. Right now it’s I would say it’s between 25 and 50 per cent more than the $8 million that we’re able to attract through donations.”

For example, Mayer goes on to explain, the gallery’s large acquisitions budget allows it to put holds or reserves on certain works until donors can be found, a process he says was at work in the acquisition of de Broin’s Majestic, for instance, or (outside the Canadian context) of Christian Marclay’s The Clock.

The real downside of doing a biennial of this kind, however, is that with prices ever rising for certain contemporary Canadian artists—David Altmejd, Jeff Wall, Geoffrey Farmer, and Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are a few that come to mind—it is challenging for the museum to outbid private buyers for their best works, or to beat them to the punch. Wall’s Dead Troops Talk, after all, went for more than $3.6 million at Christie’s New York auction this spring.

“Our number one anxiety,” Mayer admits, “is being able to be the first. Because we don’t want a work by a given Canadian artist, we want one of the most extraordinary works, the watershed pieces—that’s how they need to be represented in the National Gallery.”

At the media preview, all the curators involved in the biennial admitted to this same anxiety when it comes to acquiring contemporary Candian artwork.

So is the Canadian Biennial really able to offer a view of the best artwork produced in Canada of late? Across the board, the answer is no. What it is able to do is offer a view of the best contemporary Canadian artwork the NGC could manage to acquire in the past two years—works that, in “Builders,” include major and worthwhile works by Michael Snow, David R. Harper, Jason McLean, Jon Pylypchuk, Evan Penny and Marcel Dzama as well as more minor yet surprising works by Chris Cran, Michael Merrill and others.

Personally, I’m happy to see the NGC make the effort to show what they can of what’s happening in Canadian art every two years, rather than to make no effort at all.

CONTEXT AND AFTERMATH

Certain recent events came to mind strongly for me when considering “Builders” and its theme. Though they may not come to mind for everybody, they certainly coloured my experience of the exhibition.

For instance, I wondered, what does it mean to celebrate building in the Canadian cultural sector when there is so much of it that is coming apart?

The day before the media preview for this show, the Canadian Conference of the Arts—of which the NGC was a member—announced that it would be winding down operations immediately due to unexpectedly rapid reductions in federal funding. Library and Archives Canada (the National Library is located right across the Rideau from the NGC, and is visible from its atrium) faced cuts of 20 per cent this year. In its own corporate reports, the NGC itself is forecasting a $5 million dollar drop in its federal funding in the coming years.

Though Mayer firmly made clear that, to him, it made little sense to consider these types of events alongside the biennial exhibition, he did admit that when it comes to funding, “we’re always concerned. Every museum director in the world is concerned. We’re concerned about the economy, we’re concerned about whether we’re going to be able to continue working the way that we have been and the answer is no, we won’t be able to continue working the way we have been.”

Another context that came to mind for me was the political upheaval worldwide in the past few years, ranging from the Occupy Movement to the Arab Spring and beyond. Given this context, it was notable to me that few of the works in the show were explicitly political in their aims. I state this with the full knowledge of the following facts: that I do not like to go to art galleries to get preached at; that art need not be political; and that art can be wonderful in its tendency to provide an escape from political wranglings, or a least affirm that there is a space beyond these types of wranglings which exists wide and open and free for exploration.

Nonetheless, looking through a list of other recent acquisitions in the “Builders” catalogue, I wondered how different the show would have been had it included some of these other works. These include Louie Palu’s photographs of marines in Afghanistan; Terrance Houle’s Your Dreams are Killing My Culture; Larry Towell’s images of refugee camps; and Jutai Toonoo’s Angry Face. There is very little anger in this show, very little outcry—and while I respect that may simply be a byproduct of other curatorial decisions that needed to be made (i.e., I am in no way a conspiracy theorist on this point) the absence of these types of moods and works seemed notable.

Another thing that was inescapable during my time preparing for this viewing was images and stories from Hurricane Sandy. What does it mean to consider building and architecture when so many buildings have been flooded and blown apart in recent days? The presence of Hurricane Sandy news also coloured my view of Ruwedel’s provisional houses differently, and it certainly underlined the horrific origins of de Broin’s Majestic in the rubble of Katrina.

De Broin’s work is both a death star and a bright light. It is contiguous with other public works of his—like Révolutions by the Papineau Metro station, which twists Montreal-style staircases into a Möbius strip—but here the stakes are higher. Since these are actual lampposts culled from the detritus of Hurricane Katrina, the architectural references aren’t just about civic identity but also about civic ruin and about very real human tragedy.

That de Broin can pull a sense of renewal, hope, wonder and revitalization out of this debris is no small feat; it is a testament to what he can do when he is working at his best, at his maximum capacity. His is one of the works I will try to keep in mind and build my own emotional architecture upon in what no doubt will continue—climatically, politically, and otherwise—to be some difficult days to come.

 

Changes were made to this text on November 1, 2012, to correct various spellings and typos.

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Comments

Deborah Margo says:

Thanks, Leah, for your review. Your comments echo many of the concerns I had in my first walk-through yesterday. Initial impressions were of an exhibition that was unexpectedly oppressive, with notable exceptions such as Jim Breukelman’s work.

Leah Sandals says:

Hi Deborah,

Thanks for your comment. I look forward to reading what you have to think of the show too… maybe I’ll find out then how you found it “unexpectedly oppressive,” but if you care to elaborate here, I’d be interested in that as well.

I do think that this (curating a biennial from acquisitions, or curating a biennial, period) must be a really challenging thing to do curatorially speaking. I didn’t find it oppressive myself, but I didn’t find it as engaging as the 2010 outing. I am open to that just being the case because of my own subjective preferences in art, but I still felt I had to note it!

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