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Features / May 18, 2017

5 More Canadian Connections at the Venice Biennale

Recently, we posted about nine projects with Canadian connections at the Venice Biennale. Here are five more.
The Grand Canal in Venice. Photo: Leah Sandals. The Grand Canal in Venice. Photo: Leah Sandals.

The Venice Biennale is the world’s longest-running art event, and also one of the most influential. Nations from around the globe select artists to represent their countries for the event, creating heated competition for the Biennale’s top prize, the Golden Lion (this year, that has gone to Germany’s Anne Imhof). The Biennale’s major thematic exhibition, this summer featuring 120 artists and curated by Centre Pompidou’s Christine Macel, is also a site where perspectives on global artmaking are shaped and debated.

A few weeks ago, just at the Biennale was about to open, we highlighted nine projects Canadians needed to know about for the Venice Biennale—many of them with Canadian connections. Here are five more, all happening in or around the Biennale.

1. Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa’s Third Lung at the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale

Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa, who was born in Guatemala in 1978, came to Canada as a child refugee. For many years, he was based in Vancouver—and he has gone far since graduating with a BFA from that city’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 2006. Following performances and exhibitions with Canadian organizations such as Vancouver’s Grunt Gallery in 2007, Toronto’s Pleasure Dome in 2008 and Edmonton’s Visualeyez in 2009, Ramirez-Figueroa moved on to venues such as the UK’s Tate Museum, New York’s Guggenheim Museum (where one of his recent performances received widespread raves) and, now, Venice’s Biennale. Situated in what Christine Macel has called the Pavilion of Shamans in her exhibition “Viva Arte Viva,” his installation Third Lung consists of large, bulbous sculptures—and it has been activated by participatory, breathing-based performances that you can watch on Biennale’s Youtube channel.

2. Hubbard/Birchler’s Flora at the Venice Biennale’s Swiss Pavilion

When Dublin-born artist Teresa Hubbard and Baden-born artist Alexander Birchler graduated with MFA degrees from Halifax’s Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1992, they were the first fine artists in North America to have earned MFA degrees based entirely on a collaborative practice and collaborative thesis. “Nowadays there are institutions who have formally adopted collaborative practice methods into their MFA programs,” Hubbard recently said. “But 27 years ago, NSCAD was a forerunner and willing to commit to the experiment.” Later, they became known in shorthand as Hubbard/Birchler, creating collaborative video, sculpture and photography for Berlin’s Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Miami’s Perez Art Museum and Dublin’s Irish Museum of Contemporary Art.

Their film installation Flora at the current Venice Biennale’s Swiss Pavilion has been hailed by Frieze magazine as offering “pertinent lessons…for beyond the biennale, beyond the art world.” The film focuses on “largely forgotten American sculptor Flora Mayo: the lover of Giacometti in Paris in the 1920s” who was a single parent and who “had to give up art to raise her son.” It’s a more than appropriate tale for the now-Texas-based duo to take on given the Swiss Pavilion’s theme, “Women of Venice.”

3. “Philip Guston and the Poets” at Gallerie dell’Accademia

Running concurrently with the Biennale is the exhibition “Philip Guston and the Poets” at Gallerie dell’Accademia. Born in Montreal in 1913 as Philip Goldstein, the youngest of seven children in a Jewish family that fled the Russia/Ukraine region, Guston moved with his family to Los Angeles as a child. Later, he made his name as a painter and printmaker connected with the New York School before dying in 1980. According to the National Gallery of Canada’s website, Guston is “considered one of the most important Abstract Expressionists of his generation, alongside other important representatives of the movement including Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Willem de Kooning.” But the gallery notes that Guston was also “creating figurative work in the late sixties, a period in which abstraction had become the new orthodoxy. His subjects are both deeply personal and humanistic, his works socially-committed documents of a violent age.”

Though Guston’s later paintings are haunted by figures in Ku Klux Klan hoods—a motif some have interpreted as representing the anti-Semitism his family had to deal with in their homeland and their adopted land—it is appropriate that Guston is being featured in Venice, as his daughter Musa Mayer has written that his favourite painters were those of the Italian Renaissance: Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Giotto, Tiepolo and de Chirico. Guston’s first museum exhibition in Venice is long overdue given that connection.

4. James Richards and Steve Reinke’s What weakens the flesh is the flesh itself at Wales in Venice

The Welsh representation at this year’s Venice Biennale is helmed by artist James Richards, a Cardiff-born, Berlin-based artist who was nominated for Britain’s Turner Prize in 2014. But what many critics have noted most this month about the Wales exhibition is a collaboration Richards created with Canadian artist Steve Reinke, with whom he has collaborated on a few films in the past. Titled What weakens the flesh is the flesh itself, this video focuses on a series of images found in the private archive of Albrecht Becker—a production designer, photographer and actor imprisoned by the Nazis for being homosexual. Among Becker’s pictures of friends is a collection of self-portraits that reveal an obsessive commitment to body modification.

“Over footage, alternately mesmerizing and painful to watch, in which images are overlain in such a way as to echo the scarring of the body,” Frieze critic Pablo Larios writes of Richards and Reinke’s film. “The video reflects on the connections between desire and technology, employing digital effects and video clips, and an expert and precise use of sound, to steep itself in the themes that Becker lived out and experienced: human brutality, sex and machinic pleasure, the body and its appendages, and the capacity for humans to subjugate one another.” It is a key piece in what is, as Larios puts it, “easily one of the most disturbing, moving and intense presentations at this year’s Venice Biennale.” What weakens the flesh is the flesh itself is also noted in Biennale coverage by the Guardian and Artnews—and, unsurprisingly, the film’s themes are of a piece with Reinke’s signature concerns around sex, intimacy and masculinity, which also ran through his landmark work The 100 Videos, first exhibited in early-to-mid 1990s at venues like the small Canadian artist-run centre YYZ, and later acquired by MoMA.

5. Janice Kerbel in “Space Force Construction” at V-A-C Foundation

Russian billionaire Leonid Mikhelson has launched his new Venice gallery space, V-A-C Foundation, with fanfare this month, and amid the array of works on view are those by Canadian artist Janice Kerbel. The exhibition “Space Force Construction” runs concurrently with the Biennale, and aims to put works by Soviet artists of the 1920s and 1930s alongside contemporary work by international art heavies Wolfgang Tillmans, Barbara Kruger, Cao Fei—and yes, the Toronto-born, London-based Kerbel, who was nominated for Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize in 2015. Kerbel took a BA in anthropology at the University of Western Ontario before turning her sights to art, earning a BFA at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, and then heading to London to do her master’s at Goldsmiths; one of her earliest exhibitions took place in 1997 at non-profit artist-run centre Mercer Union in Toronto, and more recently she performed her Turner Prize work Doug at the 2016 Biennale de Montréal.