Opening on May 27 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), in North Adams, Massachusetts, “Oh, Canada” will be the largest survey of Canadian contemporary art ever held on American soil, or, arguably, anywhere. It is thus an historic occasion in a trajectory of stops and starts.
As a people, we Canadians have proven ourselves constitutionally squeamish about summarizing curatorial statements. The National Gallery of Canada’s comprehensive and definitive “Songs of Experience” exhibition back in 1986 comes to mind—one of several aborted missions to get a Canadian art biennial off the ground (though the gallery’s recent practice of displaying its contemporary acquisitions every two years is a step in the right direction).
Beyond our shores, Jean-Christophe Ammann presented “Canadian Artists” at the Kunsthalle Basel in 1978, showcasing 16 artists, including Robin Collyer, Shirley Wiitasalo, General Idea, Paterson Ewen, Lisa Steele, Ian Carr-Harris and Greg Curnoe. The 1982–83 “OKanada” show at the Akademie der Künst in Berlin, which highlighted the work of Max Dean, Betty Goodwin and John Massey, combined contemporary Canadian art with historical work. And Tilman Osterwald’s “Künstler Aus Kanada: Räume und Instaliationen” at the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart in the same year introduced 15 Canadian artists to the European scene, among them Lyne Lapointe, Rober Racine, Melvin Charney and Krzysztof Wodiczko.
After that, however, the trail goes cold, thanks both to our government’s faltering commitment to the promotion of cultural export, and to the pervasive disenchantment, at home and abroad, with nationalism as an organizing curatorial premise.
Who could have predicted, then, that a 36-year-old, American-born Bard College grad would be the one to take up the torch, with a zeal that borders on obsessive? Visiting 400 Canadian artists’ studios over the past three years, Denise Markonish has come up with a list of 62 artists that is producing double takes in Canadian art circles. Where, we ask, are the photo and conceptual legacies that have defined us on the international scene? And where are our established heavy hitters: artists like Jeff Wall, David Altmejd, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum, Peter Doig, Liz Magor, and Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller?
Instead, Markonish has brought forward a number of new names, proposing a kind of counter-narrative to the Canadian art A-list we thought we knew. What this show will look like is anyone’s guess; that it will be worth thinking about and looking at is beyond question. I spoke with Markonish as she neared the end of her research, before the great unveiling.
Sarah Milroy: What was it that triggered this project?
Denise Markonish: I had started noticing that a number of artists I was interested in were Canadian. I kept having this moment, like: “Oh, they’re Canadian, they’re Canadian?” Rodney Graham, Janet Cardiff, Marcel Dzama—all artists whose work I responded to. I started calling them “the secret Canadians.” I know Canadians assimilate really easily, but, I mean David Altmejd, Rodney Graham and Terence Koh have all been in Whitney Biennials—biennials of American art. I have to wonder: How did that happen? Then I started thinking: “Are there more?” I started to wonder why there was not more of an exchange.
At the same time, I was pushing back against what I was seeing as a trend toward a kind of exoticism on the part of many curators, who were saying, “Let’s find the next big thing. Let’s go to China. Let’s go to India…” When I realized that I knew more artists from China than I knew from Canada, I started to get really interested. I figured the best thing to do was just to go and start looking.
SM: Did it end up being exotic?
DM: Well, one of the more unique studio visits I took was driving from Dawson City 15 hours up the Dempster Highway and back with Charles Stankievech. When I had first visited the Prairies, I thought: “I have seen the sky for the first time.” I felt I could understand what Edmund Burke had meant when he was writing about the sublime, because it is completely awe-inspiring, beautiful and terrifying at the same time. But then when I got up to the Yukon, I thought: “No, this is really what he meant.”
When we drove the Dempster, it was snowing and the road was closed and there were no cars. We saw maybe two cars and one truck in 15 hours, and it was just unbelievable. Sometimes you don’t know you’re on the road. We did spin out at one point. I thought: “Oh my God, I’m going to die here.” Part of the drive was in the night, so you just put on the high beams and you can kind of see where the snow is tamped down a little, and you just keep on going.
I have read Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips (1991), and she talks about this sense of nature as indifferent. It’s not even that it’s menacing, but that it has a presence that is uncanny, and there is this sense of vast space. I began to think about the sense of accumulation in some of the work I was seeing—like Chris Millar’s paintings and sculptures, for example, or Eric Cameron’s work—a feeling almost of hoarding against that emptiness.
SM: How different is the art scene in Canada from that in the US?
DM: Well, I think many Americans have the perception that “Oh, Canadians are Americans. They are just like us.” Which is clearly not the case. For example, I’ve done lot of thinking about the funding systems in Canada, about the way that art gets made. I think it goes more toward a European model, which has a similar system of museum and government support. This seems to lead to a more project-based, experimental kind of work rather than market-driven work, which is what the States is mostly after.
SM: Do you think that affects the art being made?
DM: Well, I noticed a return to, or a rethinking of, craft. In Canada, you find someone like Shary Boyle learning how to cast porcelain—and that’s just one of the media she uses. Or Luanne Martineau using felt, but making it so disgusting and beautiful at the same time. She’s a great example of an artist using a material with history to talk about the body in a way that is new, using craft but drawing from the history of surrealism, and from feminism.
Or Clint Neufeld—he’s almost like Luanne, but he’s talking about the masculine, casting car engines in ceramic and delicately painting them with Delft flowers. They are just stunning objects. Even someone like Kim Adams, who is using found objects, is using material in a way that is wholly unique. In some way, he’s the mad tinkerer. But none of this work is just craft for its own sake.
I wonder if it has to do with the fact that these artists seem to spend more time just being artists. Being able to spend the time to experiment means you don’t fail once and have to give it up because you don’t have the time to try things. In Canada, I think there’s more of a work ethic.
SM: Your list is already seen as quite eccentric. It excludes a whole generation of Vancouver artists who leapfrogged Canada and made important careers abroad: Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas and Ken Lum being the most striking examples. Notwithstanding the work of people like Betty Goodwin or Liz Magor or Paterson Ewen, Canadian art has been known abroad principally for this more photo-based work. You were obviously after art practices more rooted in bodily experience.
DM: Absolutely. If you look at the artists from Vancouver in my show, it is an unusual Vancouver list. There were certain trends that the Americans think of as Canadian, which have tended to overshadow everything else being made. In my mind, that didn’t need to be the case again here. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to talk about that legacy in the catalogue, but again, I wanted this not to be your usual ideas.
Then there were other Canadian artists, like Jessica Stockholder, Rodney Graham and Janet Cardiff, who are well known in the US already, and who I would be inclined to work with in the future—but I wanted this to be a show that could be surprising. I started to have to make hard decisions around—well, do they really need to be in this show? I think one of the biggest compliments I had when I released the list was having a number of artists say that they were surprised, that they were excited, and that there were artists there that they didn’t know. I thought: “Okay then, I did the job I set out to do.” But I say to people, “you’ll have to look at my shows from here on, because there’s going to be Canadians in all of them.” I found remarkable strength.
SM: It seems, then, that this will largely be a show about the new, the emergent.
DM: Yes, but I have also included some more senior artists like Michael Snow, John Will, Eric Cameron and Rita McKeough. These are people who are always renewing themselves, who have never settled into one specific approach. In college and grad school in the US, you are shown Snow’s Wavelength (1967), you learn a little bit, but then when you go deeper there is so much variety, such an evolution. His career is a perfect example.
SM: What do Americans know about Canadian contemporary art?
DM: Other than Vancouver photoconceptualism, I think the biggest thing is the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. I remember in art history classes learning that John Baldessari made his famous print I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971) there, or that Vito Acconci and Lawrence Weiner visited as well, and I thought that was the history.
But then when I started researching this show, I found out that they never taught us about Garry Neill Kennedy, or about David Askevold and Jerry Ferguson, both of whom were born in the US but made their lives and their contributions in Canada. They didn’t mention the people who made it possible. In America, that story gets rewritten. It was so great getting to spend time in Halifax and be introduced to Garry, and to see how the school is now fostering another young generation of artists who are taking on that legacy and playing with it in different ways. I have also been teaching myself Canadian art history. I was taught about the Hudson River School. I didn’t know about the Group of Seven.
SM: Can you give me some examples of how Canadian art has had an influence in the US and internationally?
DM: Of course, the artists in Vancouver have had a huge impact on how photography gets made and experienced. Certainly, one thinks of the links to the Düsseldorf school, in terms of the use of photography as a conceptual medium. I think it is still unclear which way the influence was going—from Vancouver to Düsseldorf or the other way around. It seems to me that ideas were emerging concurrently. But Düsseldorf is much more uber-conceptual, whereas in someone like Rodney Graham or Jeff Wall you get these flashes of humour. Maybe that is more the Canadian way of looking at things.
I then find myself thinking about the impact of Rodney Graham, in his comic mode, on an artist like Mika Rottenberg, and her use of photography and video as performance. Or someone like Gregory Crewdson. In fact, Crewdson has made many of his photographs at MASS MoCA, in our black-box studio. Sarah Anne Johnson went to Yale and worked with Gregory on some of those projects. It’s fascinating to see the influences moving back and forth.
There are also artists like Janet Cardiff, who has had a huge impact on sound art. She took sound from being exhibited as speakers in a room to a remarkably theatrical experience. You see more and more artists exploring that idea now.
SM: What else do you see as distinctive about Canadian contemporary art?
DM: The First Nations art being made in Canada was a real eye-opener to me. In the US, art by First Nations people is on the rise, but here in Canada, it’s just remarkable—you get an artist like Kent Monkman, who is not only dealing with history in his work but also with issues of gay identity, or an artist like Rebecca Belmore, who explores history, identity, the body.
A good number of First Nations artists in the US are still just scratching the surface, dealing with the clichéd image of the Indian in a way that is ironic, sarcastic even. But that work seems to me to have less emotional content.
I am interested in someone like Terrance Houle, who started in that more sardonic, in-your-face mode, but lately has been making work that is so much more nuanced, like the video he made recently where he interviewed his mother and father about their experiences in the residential school. It brought tears to my eyes, it was so beautiful. It was interesting to me that he could be this young angry artist and then say, “Well, that’s not serving me anymore. I did that, it needed to be done, but now—how can I dig deeper?”
SM: What do Americans think of Canada, if they think at all?
DM: They don’t. I mean, during the Bush years they did, because they thought: “Let’s move there! There’s free health care; it’s a beautiful place.” But in fact, I think there’s always that thing in the back of the American mind, you know: “Could they get us? They’re really big. They have these phenomenal resources.” I think there is that little bit of “maybe if we don’t think about them, nothing bad will happen.” Recently, President Obama urged people to buy American resources over Canadian resources—that does show a kind of unease.
SM: I’m thinking, as you talk, about Robin Williams’ “Blame Canada” song-and-dance number at the Academy Awards. It seems like we always get blamed for the bad things, like winter storms or terrorists crossing the border. Of course, 2012 is the 200th anniversary of the only war that the Americans have ever fought and lost, and that is the War of 1812.
DM: Well, originally this exhibition was going to be in 2009, but once I got into it, I realized, “Lord, I need more time.” Then, when we settled on 2012, my friends in Canada were all very excited. Also, I figure if the Aztecs are right, and 2012 is the end of the world, then why not end with Canada?
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