Stepping into the pages of a storybook has been a fantasy of mine ever since I was a child. This year, three very different experiences conjured that dreamy sensation, reminding me that the tale of art still bears wide, blank expanses for interpretation and play.
1. “The Encyclopedic Palace” at the Venice Biennale
You know what happens when you go to the Venice Biennale for the first time ever? It is totally overwhelming and makes an indelible impression, thereby ending up on your year-end best-of list. Besides the Alice in Wonderland quality that Venice-the-city bears for tourists, Massimiliano Gioni’s thematic exhibition for the biennale was inspired by a very large book indeed—the encyclopedia, or at least the sprawling impulse behind it. What made this exhibition matter to me, bookish references aside, is that it reminded me that art can come from a lot of different emotional places, and that that is okay. Though some might view its strategies as trendy or well-established in certain international circles, it was refreshing for (li’l ol’ Canadian) me to see a major exhibition putting works by Grade A art stars like Fischli and Weiss alongside pieces by non-art-schooled unknowns for whom art is (explicitly) a matter of healing, compulsion and expression rather than a game of intellectual and aesthetic one-upmanship. Of course, a lot of thorny issues also come up in such a presentation—like what some might call a colonial desire to bring all manner of experience under the umbrella of one’s own, most familiar way of knowing, or the tetchy ethics of presenting private objects for public view. But there were many instances in which I found the exhibition and its works quite moving, and I wondered what a Canadian exhibition taking this broad approach might look like—Maud Lewis alongside Michael Snow? Creative Works Studio next to Christian Giroux and Daniel Young? I remain curious about this, as well as grateful that I got to experience this exhibition (and pavilion installations nearby by Jeremy Deller, Sarah Sze and Shary Boyle, which I also found moving).
2. Geoffrey Farmer at Mercer Union, Toronto
Maybe Geoffrey Farmer is like Massimiliano Gioni in miniscule—rather than curating artworks, he curates images of art and life from various time periods, and in bringing them together, makes you see much of it anew. In the case of Farmer’s presentation at Mercer (I also would have loved to see his much larger show at the Art Gallery of Alberta this year, but it wasn’t in the geographic cards), he offers a universe of paper artifacts that provoke both wonder and dread. Boneyard (2013), the central installation here, puts art-history-book cutouts of (mostly ancient) sculptures in perpetual march around a set of sculpting tools donated by artist Ted Rettig. This arrangement sets up a ricochet between the tools that wrought the sculptures (at least symbolically) and the images which, though small, often end up superseding the artist, living on through centuries as icons and ideal forms. (The arrangement might also seem planetary in nature, prompting comparisons to the inextricable linkages and distances between Saturn and its rings.) Farmer’s genius can also be a genius of scale; in some cases he takes images of sculptures that in print are no more than a centimetre tall, and he sets them next to much larger images of similar works, making one feel as tenderly towards a looming, canonical sculpture as one might towards a lost and vulnerable child. His matching of forms across eras—reclining odalisques in one section, for instance—compactly traces the remarkable conversations in art that evolve through millennia. In the next room, where a digital projection produces its own kind of algorithmic collage of printed images and sound, I felt like Farmer was taking me on another walk through history—one that is both linear and circular, painful and wondrous. I appreciate the poetic sensibility he brings to his work, and the way he tends to open things up, rather than close them on down.
3. Séripop at YYZ Artists’ Outlet, Toronto
If Farmer’s delicate, meticulous cutouts represent one extreme of excellence in paper-based installation, the other would have to be the eye-popping, maximalist pulp-pasteup party consistently offered by Montreal’s Séripop. The duo takes the idea of the exploded book in a whole different direction, one that aligns more with the world of punk zines and underground comix than that of art-history textbooks and mid-century Life magazines. Custom screenprints and papers covering the floor and walls at YYZ, as well as a central structure/sculpture, conveyed exuberance, while a massive paper hand wrought further absurdity. (I was intrigued when I saw fellow Montrealer Cynthia Girard exhibit a paper hand of similar scale concurrently at Art Toronto—so perhaps there’s something, Quebecois or not, I’m simply missing about the hand reference?) I also have to say that beyond enjoying the work of these artists, I appreciate YYZ providing the space—it (along with Mercer) provided a reminder that in an environment where major institutions often prioritize ticket sales over nurturing new talent (yes, I’m looking at you, David Bowie, even though Ziggy Stardust got me through art school) these so-called alternative spaces are ever more vital as venues. I’m doubly reminded of this when I reflect on the continuing touring success of “Beat Nation,” another exhibition I enjoyed quite a bit this year, which began as a project at artist-run Grunt Gallery in Vancouver, or recall the Sobey Art Award triumph of Duane Linklater, who first created his Sobey-show neons for an exhibition at North Bay’s (!) artist-run White Water Gallery. I’m not naive enough to think artist-run spaces are a be-all and end-all, of course; Farmer’s Mercer show was sponsored by a bunch of special private donors, the AGO is showing his work this coming year, and dealers do a lot of important work in supporting new art too. Still, I’m interested in how this narrative of spaces and works evolves in future, and who might write it down.
Leah Sandals is the online editor of Canadian Art.