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Essays / December 7, 2016

Art in 2016: A View from Vancouver

For many in the art world and beyond, 2016 was rough. Through it all, Vancouver art and artists offered crucial, complex discussions and responses.
Krista Belle Stewart's acrylic paint and vinyl work <em>Indian Artists at Work</em> (2016) is one of the pieces in "Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures" at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Courtesy the artist. Krista Belle Stewart's acrylic paint and vinyl work Indian Artists at Work (2016) is one of the pieces in "Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures" at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Courtesy the artist.

When I was approached to write a year-end reflection on exhibitions and events in Vancouver, I puzzled over how such a tumultuous year could be framed and discussed without dissolving into trite optimism or outright nihilism. Moreover, reflecting on the city’s vibrant artist-run centre community, I wondered how I could possibly do justice to the vital and multifaceted discussions that have taken place and that continue to press on with even greater urgency today.

While major players like the Vancouver Art Gallery projected an image of stability during this time of crisis, looking towards an iconic past with heavy hitters like “Mashup,” a survey of modernist art strategies and their reverberations in contemporary practice, and “Picasso: The Artist and His Muses,” a perspective on the iconic artist through his various personal affiliations, other artists and exhibitions have problematized the traditional function of the gallery and museum, bringing to light alternative perspectives of history and experimental art practices, and giving voice to those whose voices have been denied for too long.

It would be remiss of me to ignore the heightened activity around contemporary Indigenous art practices—activity that has complicated definitions of Indigenous art, challenged the function and role of the art institution, and evoked wide-ranging debate and discussion coalescing around the persistence of Canada’s colonial history and its lingering effects today.

Beau Dick’s “Lalakenis/All Directions: A Journey of Truth and Unity,” held at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, centred on Dick and his companions’ ceremonial journeys to the BC Legislature in Victoria and Parliament Hill in Ottawa. “Lalakenis” expanded the possibilities and functions of the art institution, blurring divisions between performance and ceremony, and extending the institution’s role in provoking discourse.

“Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Unceded Territories,” held at the Museum of Anthropology, extended these conversations in new directions through a survey of the artist’s lengthy career. Entangled within the museum’s own colonial baggage, “Unceded Territories” presented a complex portrait of an artist whose work defies categorization, bridging the discourses of international modernism with the histories and visual practices of the Northwest Coast.

Paralleling these exhibitions were a bevy of physically smaller, though no less salient, exhibitions, including Dana Claxton’s “Made to be Ready” at SFU’s Audain Gallery; Dylan AT Miner’s “Michif – Michin” at Gallery Gachet; grunt gallery’s “#callresponse” with Christi Belcourt, Maria Hupfield, Ursula Johnson, Tania Willard, Laakkuluk Williamson-Bathory, Isaac Murdoch, Esther Neff, IV Castellanoes, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Marcia Crosby and Tanya Tagaq, which expanded the exhibition format across multiple platforms, including an online presence and a series of performances; and a host of symposia, dialogues, reading groups and events across the city. Seen together, these activities brought to light multiple and variegated voices and perspectives, and considered different ways of inhabiting and sharing a critical and critically needed discourse.

Alongside these exhibitions of more established artists, a number of stunning shows brought new and emerging voices to the fore.

Produced in conjunction with students from Lord Strathcona Elementary School and the Vancouver Japanese Language School, Cindy Mochizuki’s “Things on the Shoreline” at Access Gallery adopted an explorative and open-ended approach. While Mochizuki herself is a well-known artist, the project entailed asking her student-collaborators to imagine the latent potential inherent within the evocative image of the seashore. In so doing, Mochizuki asks us to rethink the institutional audience and the role of the artist within a community.

Leigh Tennant’s poetic goodies at Artspeak addressed and magnified the circulation of signifiers of queer and trans politics; “Bulaklak ng Paraiso (Flower of Paradise)” at Centre A immersed visitors within Patrick Cruz’s vivid and dynamic paintings, situated in dialogue with a set of films that addressed ideas of migration, cultural hybridity and geophysical displacement, issues that remain at the fore of our contemporary political consciousness.

Meanwhile, the recently opened inaugural triennial “Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures” at the Vancouver Art Gallery highlights 40 artists with ties of various sorts to Vancouver at different points in their careers, framing and evoking the nuanced debates and discussions that have emerged in the city over the past few years, and reflecting on their generative capacity.

Framed within the precarious world we inhabit today, the focus on discussions, debates and conversations points to the need to find ways to activate audiences and institutions alike, and to locate avenues to escape from self- and algorithmically-imposed bubbles of thought. The events of this year, too numerous to list here, too complicated and too grave to merely gesture toward, have understandably shifted our collective focus forward. In light of the momentum put in place by the daring and indispensable conversations that have circulated in Vancouver this past year, and as the spectre of 2017 draws closer, it is necessary to think critically and creatively about the space for thought and action opened up by these practices.

This time last year, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party’s ascent to a majority government was greeted with, if not jubilation, then at least a sigh of relief. Yet the tentative optimism that opened this year has given way to a year defined by political turmoil, international and domestic conflict, intensifying humanitarian and environmental crises, and, in light of recent developments both at home and across the border, an alarming revelation of the bigotry, racism, misogyny and xenophobia that continues to reverberate in our personal, public and professional lives.

Where might these discussions lead? What kinds of critical discursive spaces might be opened up? Whose voices will be heard? How will we navigate the unstable terrain we find ourselves inhabiting today?

Weiyi Chang is a curator and writer based in Vancouver.