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Features / January 21, 2013

Nancy Tousley Curates Alberta’s Growing Art Confidence

Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton January 26 to May 6, 2013

This week, the 2013 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art will open at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton. Curated this year by Governor General’s Award–winning arts journalist (and Canadian Art contributing editor) Nancy Tousley, the biennial features 36 artists from across the province. Titled “The News From Here,” it explores how Alberta creators now form their identities around considerations of the multiple places they live, work and travel, rather then being influenced by a single, dominant centre. Just before commencing the biennial’s installation, Tousley spoke with Tatiana Mellema about regionalism, Mount Rundle and the growing maturity of the Alberta art scene.

Tatiana Mellema: What is the theme of this year’s biennial?

Nancy Tousley: The theme makes the case that we’re in a period of post-regionalism.

Regionalism is a fairly complex topic that has changed in its connotations over the past few decades both in the United States and in Canada.

It has been commented upon before, of course, and Rick Rhodes, the Canadian Art editor who curated the previous Alberta Biennial, made a great case for the fact that Alberta artists participate in a global art world.

That still certainly pertains in 2013, but I think that what also needs to be said is that whereas Alberta art at one time could be labelled “regional,” those kinds of labels don’t mean much now. But there is a hangover of that kind of thinking that comes from the model of the centre and the periphery.

TM: What do you mean by “post-regionalism” in the context of this exhibition?

NT: Any term that has “post-” in front of it could not exist without the “-ism” that arrived earlier.

Until fairly recently, regionalism as applied to artists in Alberta implied that the art was derivative of art being made elsewhere—that is, in the “centres.” It also implied that nothing original or new in avant-garde thinking could come from an artist working in a region.

It seems ridiculous to entertain those thoughts today because of the way that artists work, travel, network and attend residencies abroad.

What this opening up seems to have done is also to bring an inward gaze back to place: the place where you live, the place where you work, the place where you draw sustenance from your lived experience. Alberta is in the foreground, in the background, in the content, in the imagery, in the subject matter of every piece in the show in different ways.

The work is very diverse. It’s certainly innovative in terms of form and material and approach. It could be influenced as easily by Berlin as by Toronto or São Paolo. For example, there are works in this exhibition that were conceived in Romania and Colombia.

TM: Can you describe “place” in the context of contemporary art in Alberta?

NT: When I first arrived in Alberta in the late 1970s, there was probably more landscape painting being done here than any other art form—although it was the beginning of Conceptualism and other kinds of painting practices like Colour Field and Pop had already taken hold.

For a while, you really didn’t want to look like you came from here if you were very ambitious, so the work tended to be hyper-conscious of the stuff happening in so-called art capitals.

I think it’s a sign of maturity and confidence that the whole construct of “out there” being better than “here” has relaxed. There is less self-consciousness or no self-consciousness in drawing on where you are and who you are, where you live and how you live.

The simplest definition of place is a meaningful location constructed by people in their practices. Place is a construct. The art we make here contributes to our sense of place, and place is a factor in the art we make—it’s a back-and-forth exchange. That has to do with art of the past as well.

It might seem contradictory that I think the condition which best describes us now is post-regionalism while I also think that place has taken on the greater importance—but the two are really not the same thing.

TM: How does place manifest itself in the artworks you have included in the exhibition?

NT: Let me give you some examples.

Experiment in Landscape No. 1, a video by Sarah Fuller, is a view across an icy field and, beyond it, a view of Mount Rundle and its iconic profile. It’s nighttime, the stars are twinkling, it’s a classic, sublime Rocky Mountain landscape.

A tall woman in a toque walks into the scene, attempts a headstand, falls out of it and walks away. A few seconds later, she walks back in, does the headstand and holds it for an incredibly long time.

There is something humorous about this, and at the same time there is a juxtaposition of small humanity in vast sublimity. When she goes into a headstand, it is her way of being “in place,” of being aware and present in this landscape. Fuller does this all over the world when she travels.

Elisabeth Belliveau makes a drawing every evening at dusk, wherever she is. She draws a darkened skyline. This is another way of projecting yourself into a place and, for her, that could be in Alberta or anywhere else in the world.

TM: What can we expect from the overall exhibition? How might the theme manifest in the biennial?

NT: One of the things I asked myself when I was planning the installation was, How much could this exhibition become a model of a place, or a provisional visual poetics of place? I think it will work through the content and interrelationships among the works.

But I’m not going to know for sure until everything is placed and the exhibition is physically concrete in the space. Place will be manifested through aspects of the landscape, flora and fauna, people, references to history, personal narrative and pressing issues, all of which are present in the themes of these works.

This interview has been edited and condensed.