1. Magnetic Norths at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery
Two works from this eclectic spring “research project” of Arctic-related historical ephemera (from Thomas Edison, R. Buckminster Fuller and Glenn Gould, among others) and conceptual artworks (by N. E. Thing Co, Michael Snow, Kevin Schmidt and more), orchestrated by Dawson City–based artist Charles Stankievech, still resonate in my mind at year’s end. The first is a rare 1595 map of the polar region by cartographer Gerardus Mercator, loaned to the exhibition by Library and Archives Canada. With its dual magnetic-north poles and skewed landmasses, it offered a serious yet speculative projection of unknown northerly latitudes—a product of Mercator’s vibrant geographic imagination that fit perfectly with the exhibition’s interest in the blurring of fact and fantasy that tends to inform many conceptual-art practices and many impressions of the north. This leads to the second work in the show that I just can’t shake. French artist Laurent Grasso’s large-scale video projection, HAARP, fed my fascination for the concealed truths of conspiracy theories with its digitally rendered footage of the top-secret High Frequency Active Aural Research Program run by the US military in remote Alaska. The HAARP antennae array in Grasso’s video has a distinct land-art and sci-fi look. Can the real thing actually control and create global weather systems? Google it and decide for yourself.
2. Eija-Liisa Ahtila: INT. STAGE DAY at DHC/ART and the Darling Foundry
DHC/ART curator John Zeppetelli deserves praise (once again) for delivering some of the best work in international contemporary art to Montreal, this time in the form of a broad survey of video and photography by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. Titled “INT. STAGE DAY,” the show filled post-industrial exhibition venues at DHC and the Darling Foundry, a promising curatorial conceit for the kind of spectral play at work in Ahtila’s art. To my mind, Ahtila’s multi-panel projections and photo series at DHC suffered for lack of exhibition space, especially in the gallery’s main building, where the works felt shoehorned into the gallery’s tight footprint. It was physically impossible to stand back and appreciate the full dimensions of her work, which took much away from its mystical charge. This was not the case at the nearby Darling Foundry, where Zeppetelli collaborated with curator Marie Fraser. Here, Ahtila’s six-channel projection Where is Where? found plenty of space to work its magic. Loosely based on a 1950s incident where two young Algerian boys murdered their French playmate, the work weaves between past and present, delving into historical criticism of the French colonial presence in Algeria at the same time as it embeds the narrative of lost childhood innocence with haunting magic realism. The installation created an immersive environment with large-scale projections on multiple walls, an effect that left my head spinning for all the right reasons.
3. Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980 at the University of Toronto galleries
The fact that we know so little about our own history is a much-lamented fact among artists, curators, critics and other art professionals, as is the truism that there are so few opportunities to fill in the gaps. This omnibus exhibition of works from Canada’s conceptual-art heyday, which drew on the expertise of a cabal of curators from across the country, went a long way to correcting that historical debt. Arranged as a series of regionally focused exhibitions at the University of Toronto’s four gallery spaces this fall, it was an unprecedented chance to see key works that you may have only read about in the past—or not even have been aware of at all. For me, this notion of missed histories really hit home in the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery’s presentation of vintage conceptualism from Montreal. Organized by Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery director Michèle Thériault and independent curator Vincent Bonin, the tight selection of Quebec conceptualism was an eye-opener. Thériault and Bonin have spent a lot of time thinking about archives and art through their recent Montreal exhibition series “Documentary Protocols,” and that showed in their deep awareness of issues at stake and of related practices developing in Montreal at the time. Unlike artists in other parts of the country, who were often mulling over the influences of conceptual practices from south of the border, Montreal artists had the omnipresent impact of the October Crisis and the fantastic hype of Expo 67 to respond to, not to mention the linguistic divide that gave their practices a crucial distance from the lingua franca of the conceptual canon. This was a site of real, charged social and political histories that made many of the concerns raised in other “Traffic” exhibitions seem, well, academic.
Bryne McLaughlin is managing editor of Canadian Art.