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Biennale de Montréal: The Gamblers

Curators Claude Gosselin and David Liss couldn’t have settled on a better theme for the 2011 Biennale de Montréal than their “Elements of Chance.” Taking a cue from French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s free-form text construction Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard from 1897 (it translates as A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), the duo have crafted a curatorial gambit that ranges in time and temperament, from the unsettled complications of modern history to the dominant social and political hazards of today. Unpredictability, improvisation, risk and randomness are binding concerns throughout the exhibition, which gathers works by more than 30 national and international artists at the former École des beaux-arts building in downtown Montreal. As Liss writes in an accompanying text: “Even as we may be conditioned to avoid risk we dwell within a culture of uncertainty, of forces and factors relinquished to chance.” He continues, “The fortune teller and the stockbroker are one and the same.”

Yet, in their play on chance, Gosselin and Liss have perhaps inadvertently hit on another more long-standing theme of the Biennale de Montréal—the fact that over the years the event itself has always been a bit of a gamble. That’s not a knock to the efforts of Gosselin, an enduring fixture on the Montreal art scene who, as the director of the Centre international d’art contemporain de Montréal, has helmed the biennale since its first edition in 1998. With its influx of contemporary artists from across the country and the globe every two years (or so) and a related program of talks, films and web-based works, the biennale is always highly anticipated and hotly discussed. Even amid new competition from the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal’s Quebec Triennial and a possible biennale run at the National Gallery of Canada, the Biennale de Montréal remains a cornerstone exhibition both locally and nationally.

But while Gosselin’s singular vision has kept the biennale rolling, one still never quite knows what to expect. Lacking a permanent home and plagued by the same funding issues that can make or break any ambitious international art event, the biennale has jumped sites from edition to edition, with varying degrees of success. Installations are notoriously behind schedule and often left unfinished when the event opens. And the curatorial vision is hit and miss. I still think about the biennale’s second edition in 2000. Guest curated by Peggy Gale, it filled a warren of abandoned office spaces below a downtown roller-skating rink with stellar works by the likes of Christian Marclay, Francis Alÿs, Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, Rodney Graham and Tacita Dean, and it introduced a new generation of Canadian artists, including Euan Macdonald, Germaine Koh, Nicolas Baier and Jean-Pierre Gauthier. It was gritty and thought-provoking, a conceptually tight exhibition with impact and atmosphere that to my mind no Biennale de Montréal since has matched. On the other extreme, works on view in the architecture-themed 2004 edition were fully lost in the cavernous industrial spaces of the Gazette’s former press building. It was a biennale that held much promise but ended up as a resounding lesson in misdirected energy. In a sense, then, unpredictability, improvisation, risk and randomness are notions perfectly fit for the Biennale de Montréal. This year or any year, it’s all about chance.

Which brings us back to the École des beaux-arts and “Elements of Chance.” Gosselin and Liss have cast their curatorial net far and wide for the exhibition, drawing in works by seminal figures, such as French artist Jean Dupuy, Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri and Vancouver’s Ian Wallace and Rodney Graham, alongside noted up-and-comers Walead Beshty, David Armstrong Six, Gareth Moore, Nadia Myre, Derek Sullivan and Scott Lyall. There are less immediately familiar names here too: Sherbrooke-born artist Jean Dubois, net-art pioneer Mark Amerika, Montreal poet and artist Jhave and British duo Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead, to name a few. It’s a mixed bag, to be sure, and the results are likewise mixed. In many cases, the works are too overtly aligned with the theme. There seems to be little mystery, for instance, in Besthy’s cracked glass boxes which have been damaged in transit via FedEx between Los Angeles and Montreal, or in Dubois’ BrainStorm, a breath-powered, video game–inspired collision of randomly generated words that not only that takes up a huge room on the building’s top floor but is apparently being beamed into outer space as well. In an equally massive gallery next door to Dupuis, Paris-based artist Jean-Pierre Bertrand’s film work Playing Dices depicts the artist doing just that, again and again. Installations of rudimentary cardboard masks and amorphous sculptural growths on nutshells by Montreal artist Cozic (who gets a surprisingly generous allotment of exhibition space) and Toronto artist Kristiina Lahde’s ceiling-stamped die faces seem so obvious that they can’t escape a reading of simple playfulness. I also missed the meaningfulness—critical or otherwise—of a pair of comic book–style treatments of dumb luck by French artist Gilles Barbier.

Where some works play with chance too literally, others beg the question of a significant connection to the theme. Spoerri is represented by an array of life-sized bronze figurative sculptures which take a prominent spot in the exhibition layout. They may have been created with an element of chance in mind, but they strike me as being hideously tortured rather than aggressively poetic. Narratives of chance are written all over Sullivan’s towering, found-street-posters-meet-Brancusi’s-endless-column sculpture Endless Kiosk, but selections from his Illustration from The Albatross drawing series are so symmetrical, slick and visually precise they feel intentional and out of place. Lyall’s five-panel painted wall work Sans Papier, installed in a light-filled top-floor gallery, suggests a fleetingly unique experience with shifting tonal values depending on the time of day. The effect, however ephemeral, is more like a measured study of light and form than a random encounter. Similarly, Karilee Fuglem’s work with barely visible sculptural constructions has often won praise, but here her installation is underwhelming and feels disconnected. And while Dupuy is well placed in the exhibition with a classic brand of automatic conceptualism in works like Lazy Art: Pencil and Les confessions de Rousseau, an installation involving a stripped-down motorcycle with its exhaust pipe rigged out a window is hard to grasp. I’m willing to guess there is something unpredictable to this apparatus, but it wasn’t turned on when I was at the exhibition and, from the lingering stench of exhaust in the gallery, it’s no wonder why.

So what did work? Lois Andison’s kinetic sculpture 1,000 Catastrophes makes a natural choice for the show with its chaotic spiralling of personal insecurities and anxieties written down and trapped in a bell jar. Moore’s Collaboration with a future individual at the present time invokes time-capsule humour with a travelling salesman’s suitcase filled with various items to be put to uncertain use in the year 2047. In one of Liss and Gosselin’s most successful and worthwhile curatorial risks, paintings by Wallace and sculptures by Armstrong Six keep unexpectedly good company, revealing shared formal and theoretical concerns that revolve around colour, line and balance. Two works from the biennale’s parallel electronic arts section, curated by Paule Mackrous, also stand out. Thomson and Craighead’s Template Cinema uncovers endlessly random narrative structures in a merging of real-time feeds from web cameras (for instance, a static, on-the-ground weather surveillance site in Mälmo, Sweden) and archived audio tracks taken from various online sources (including an Abbott and Costello–worthy crossed-lines phone conversation from 1965). And in what is bound to be the most talked-about work in the biennale, Give Me Your Light, Jhave employs a random algorithm to construct a trenchant portrait of suffering in images of a chained monkey and dying kitten that the artist came across by chance and then filmed. It’s a sequence that borders on emotional exploitation, but is nonetheless unforgettable.

All things considered, one wishes Gosselin and Liss might have grappled with more aspects of the theme. They started with Mallarmé and the poetics of chance, but it might also have been interesting to have further explored the science of chance, a branch of human understanding that is constantly evolving and endlessly fascinating. What about gambling, that ancient temptation that continues to embody the flash and fallacy of fortune? Spoerri’s work for one might have gained contextual heft next to a slot machine or two. As it is, the exhibition never quite finds a total sense of curatorial gravity. And the choice of artists seems at times eccentric. Certainly they could have made safer, less surprising, and in turn less disappointing selections of artists and works, but they didn’t, and perhaps rightly so. We need more wild cards in a heavily institutionalized, arguably status quo art world. The Biennale de Montréal is one of those wild cards. As Gosselin and Liss well know: Nothing risked, nothing gained.

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