In “It Is What It Is,” the National Gallery of Canada has staged a shotgun marriage of parallel responsibilities, a coupling that brings the gallery’s recently collected works together under the banner of a newly (re)minted biennial of Canadian art. The exhibition proposes to “take the pulse” of Canadian contemporary art by provocatively suggesting that what the NGC buys is, de facto, representative of what is most important now in art across the country. The failure of this proposition undercuts the exhibition’s core strengths, which are significant, and frames a real need for the gallery to mount two shows in place of this one—a collection survey and a national biennial. It also poses the question about how a biennial in 2012, should there be one, (and there should be one), might be shaped.
The show has much to recommend it, with recent, significant and intelligent purchases, including excellent works by artists exercising promise: one sees this in James Carl’s dexterous venetian-blind sculptures, for example, or Rebecca Belmore’s sandbag fence fashioned from men’s suits. The country’s core contingent of internationally recognized artists—still dominated by two generations of Vancouverites—are represented by key works, including a subtle black-and-white interior by Jeff Wall and The Gifted Amateur, Rodney Graham’s elaborate backlit self-portrait. In a soft reversal, the placement of a neon sign by Ron Terada unfortunately dampens this artist’s normally caustic curatorial intervention; here it simply lends the exhibition its title. There are intelligent purchases that elaborate and expand on our appreciation of the country’s emerging talents, including an installation by Shary Boyle, a large, luxurious drawing by Shuvinai Ashoona, and even the case of an artist who only sporadically intersects with the art world—the important voice of Thirza Cuthand, pointedly included with a video work made more than 10 years ago, in 1999.
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Yet throughout “It Is What It Is” and its accompanying two-volume (French and English) catalogue, one senses that tying these works together as a biennial was an afterthought parachuted onto an exhibition well developed along prior lines. The curatorial texts make no mention—anywhere!—of a biennial as a unifying concept, and the resulting uncertainty is reflected (perhaps ironically, but still almost purposefully) in the exhibition title, which studiously avoids giving us a position with which to reflect on the show or on the larger question of the nation’s art. It is certainly difficult to apply any unifying theme to the country’s heterogeneous art scenes, but perhaps the exhibition’s shuffling feet stem more from its avoidance of serving two vital, but competing, responsibilities: to build a collection of work by important Canadian artists for future audiences and to make a representative survey of contemporary Canadian art practices for an audience here and now. Surely the point of a national biennial (as the Tate Triennial in the UK has quickly established, or the Whitney Biennial has, sporadically, done well with in the US) is to effectively take stock, to reflect and to showcase not only what a nation’s artists are achieving, but also their current conversations, their priorities and, critically, the means with which they are trying to achieve their ends.
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There’s a great deal that a biennial could show that would elaborate more expansively on the nation’s so-called pulse, including performances, interventions, blogs, artist’s books or even feature-length films. Could a biennial speak to the great wealth of public sculpture erupting around the country? (Here in Vancouver we see this with important commissions by senior artists like Ken Lum and Stan Douglas.) Could a biennial incorporate temporary works or works in development? Is there a place for provisional, unproven works? Could it show works made a month prior? How could a biennial give voice to some of the current conversations artists in Canada are having, or the dialogues between our artists and their international peers: for instance, Toronto artist Derek Sullivan’s ongoing collaboration with New York–based artist Gareth Long? Why could a biennial not include work that the National Gallery is not ready to purchase? How would it show work that would never be purchased? What are the things that we are not seeing? We need the National Gallery of Canada to show us the nation’s art. It also needs to show us its biases.