CURRENT ISSUE | FALL 2017: THE IDEA OF HISTORY
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It Is What It Is: The Canadian Biennial in Question

Rodney Graham The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962 2007 / photo © National Gallery of Canada

Over the past decade, a biennial exhibition craze has swept through the contemporary art world, leaving in its wake no less than 200 major international shows taking place every two years in places as far and wide as New Orleans, Berlin, Istanbul, Gwangju, Moscow and Sharjah, to name just a few. In fact, this exhibition phenomenon has had such a pervasive influence on global art practices that debate has now turned inward to scrutinize the spectacular power and critical impact of this blockbuster exhibition format and to consider what exactly it is that makes such an event worthwhile. Canada has a number of thriving biennial exhibitions, too—the regionally based Alberta Biennial and Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area as well as the more internationally focused Biennale de Montréal and Manif d’art in Quebec City. Yet despite these arguably local successes, and the booming popularity of biennials on a global scale, a truly national biennial of contemporary art has been notably absent in Canada, at least since 1989 when the National Gallery of Canada hosted what turned out to be its one and only Canadian Biennale…until now.

Earlier this month, the NGC waded back into biennial territory with the exhibition “It Is What It Is: Recent Acquisitions of New Canadian Art.” Framed as a “Canadian Biennial,” the show consists of more than 70 works by Canadian artists that have been added to the gallery’s permanent contemporary art collection over the past two years. While disputes are bound to arise over which artists have or have not been included, on the whole the exhibition offers a clear and impressive picture of the wide-ranging trajectory of contemporary Canadian art. It’s also firm proof that NGC curators Josée Drouin-Brisebois, Andrea Kunard and Greg Hill are doing their due diligence in tracking and lobbying for the acquisition of works from some of the most exciting artistic practices across the country.

Clever curatorial juxtapositions run throughout the exhibition. The show’s opening gallery uses layered digital-photo assemblages by recent Grange Prize winner Kristan Horton to bridge photo-conceptual works by Rodney Graham and Tim Lee with a textile-based sculpture and drawing by Luanne Martineau. An adjacent gallery filled with an ornate sculptural work by David Altmejd leads to a room filled with three of James Carl’s faux-modernist jalousie sculptures, drawing immediate comparisons of materials and methodologies. Further on, works by Chris Millar, Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky, Stephen Andrews, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Rebecca Belmore and Wanda Koop make clear the varied use of colour, perspective and politics. The cold monumentalism of Steven Shearer’s rumbling sculpture Geometric Mechanotherapy Cell for Harmonic Alignment of Movement and Relations works perfectly in contrast to the deep chill and spatial geometry invoked by a large-scale gelatin silver print of cold storage room by Jeff Wall. Works by Gareth Moore, Mary Anne Barkhouse, Alex Morrison and Yannick Pouliot are equally embedded with contentious historical narratives and hints of institutional dysfunction. Installations by Shary Boyle and Rodney LaTourelle stand well enough on their own.

Yet where the exhibition succeeds as a one-stop tour through various artistic dialogues, that seems to also be where any critical momentum driving the show ends. An intentionally vague curatorial premise is embedded in the exhibition’s ambiguous title, “It Is What It Is” (a phrase borrowed from a work in the show by Vancouver artist Ron Terada). That noncommittal flavour, combined with the exhibition’s liberal use of the “Canadian Biennial” tag line, has raised plenty of eyebrows in national art circles. In her catalogue essay, Drouin-Brisebois sums up the thinking behind the exhibition thusly: “Our title, It Is What It Is, is also a current popular catch-phrase, if not a clichéd reply, a matter-of-fact response that offers no clear interpretation or strategic insight, but simply states it like it is… By choosing not to adopt one specific narrative, this exhibition unabashedly is what it is.” This statement, while supporting the essay’s larger exploration of diverse perspectives and new dialogues, still seems to amount to an underlying sense of curatorial denial. Set alongside the exhibition’s overarching biennial pitch, it has many in the Canadian art public asking, What exactly are the responsibilities of a so-called national biennial exhibition in terms of representative scope and critical curatorial direction? Or rather, if the exhibition “is what it is,” what exactly, then, is “it”?

These questions sat at the core of the symposium Conversations About Contemporary Canadian Art, organized in conjunction with “It Is What It Is” and hosted by the NGC on November 19. The first panel, Canadian Art Practices at Home and Abroad, brought together American curator Denise Markonish (who is currently researching an omnibus exhibition of contemporary Canadian art to show at MASS MoCA in 2012), First Nations curator Ryan Rice, and Vancouver artist Ken Lum to examine notions of nationality in a transnational age. Markonish offered a wrap-up of her regional travels and her observations on the general lack of acknowledgement of Canadian art in the United States, despite, as she noted, the comparatively diverse dialogues and art practices she’s found, particularly among First Nations artists. That segued nicely into a presentation by Rice, who from the start defined his work and the work of many well-known First Nations artists as independent of Canadian identity. This point stands in striking contrast to widely accepted ideas of an all-inclusive, multicultural nationalism and offers important insight on the positioning of First Nations contemporary art. One wonders, however, how many of Rice’s fellow First Nations curators and artists share this dramatic stance of refusal. If, as Rice suggested, many aboriginal artists are primarily concerned with recuperating their identity through works that challenge the “Indian” stereotype, then is there not a danger of creating yet another stereotype of a protracted identity crisis? Do First Nations artists wish to be indelibly recognized as such, or as artists whose work comes from but is not dependent on that troubled history? Lum’s take on the inconsistencies of nationalism ranged across borders and philosophies, but what struck most was his citing of a statement by Marshall McLuhan which suggested that perhaps what makes Canadian national character unique is the fact that it resists definition. It is this flexibility that sets us apart and that has prepared us for an age of expanded global identity. Lum also pointed to the legacies of colonial ethics, weak teaching structures and an official political and cultural discourse long dominated by central Canadian views and values as, he said, “paradoxes that cannot be resolved except by collapse.”

The day’s second panel, titled Exhibiting and Disseminating Canadian Art, focused more directly on the exhibition and the broader questions of what is, or is not, a biennial. Justina M. Barnicke Gallery executive director and chief curator Barbara Fischer delivered a lesson on the modern history of biennial-like exhibitions in Canada, noting the rise and fall of these often-ambitious projects. This led to her questioning of the practical effectiveness of a national biennial model and, in contrast, the value of establishing a critical mass around local practices before looking to the broader picture. Here she rightly noted the widely recognized Vancouver art scene, whose renown and strength has been built through a series of introspective exhibitions that were driven by the specific discourses and practices of local artists. Key to her point was the complete absence of similar attention paid to local practices in Toronto, despite the city’s abundance of museums and galleries. In that context of establishing comprehensive local and national cultural histories, Galerie de l’UQAM director Louise Déry lamented the current prevalence of “modest” institutional ambitions (or, in some cases, the existence of a complete lack of ambition) in establishing a successful presence for contemporary art in Canada. It was Presentation House Gallery director Reid Shier who perhaps hit closest to the mark in this panel. While noting that he found the exhibition to be a good measure of national contemporary art practices, he called into question the curatorial energy behind “It Is What It Is.” In his view, the exhibition and its premise is stuck with a split identity—as a hit-and-run survey show and a resources-at-hand attempt at a national biennial—hinged on a curatorial dodging of what “it” (i.e. the exhibition) is, or is not. Shier suggested that instead this could have been two shows: a summary of NGC purchases, which are impressive in and of themselves, and another exhibition that, on top of those works, takes into account the ephemeral practices, site-specific experimentation and curatorial play that he sees as missing from the exhibition. Only then, he said, will we have the tools to truly take stock of what “it” is.

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