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May we suggest

Reviews / April 2, 2009

GGs in Review: Raising the Ottawa Bar

Winners of the 2009 Governor General’s Awards for Visual and Media Arts / photo Martin Lipman Canada Council for the Arts

When I lived in Montreal there was a special term that used to come up from time to time: “Ottawa bar.” It meant a bar that was tidy and serviceable, if a little bit dull and early to close. This contrasted, of course, with the implied “Montreal bar” ideal, which meant something messy and vibrant, disordered and bohemian—and most certainly open late.

Yet visiting Ottawa last weekend—in part to take in the just-opened Governor General’s Awards exhibition at the National Gallery—seemed to put the lie to Rideau’s dull-as-dishwater psychogeographic stereotype. Sure, Ottawa’s the seat of our (mostly) sedate government. Sure, it’s rife with civil servants and other stable, risk-averse, middle-class professionals. Sure, its best-known festival focuses on delicate tulip-sniffing, not hot, crowd-thronging jazz nor cool, paparazzi-hunted film celebs.

But by golly, Ottawa is interesting in its own ways—ones quite acutely important to those of an artistic bent.

Visually, the city is a treasure trove of national iconography. Almost every viewpoint along Sussex Drive offers rich architectural juxtapositions: A peacekeeping monument superimposes on, alternately, the American embassy or the Canadian parliament, at the same time seeming to surveil both powers. The American embassy has that incredible, can’t-believe-the-architect-got-away-with-it two-faced façade, transparent on its parliament-facing side and fortress-like on the other. Further down the drive, two silvery spires of a Catholic church mirror twinned Canadian flags reaching heavenward across the way. Viewed through the legs of Louise Bourgeois’s primal, scheming, organic Maman, the church, and its Virgin Mary figurehead, becomes something else completely. The National Gallery’s transparent glass atrium mirrors the opaque Peace Tower across the Bytown Locks. Further afield, across the Gatineau River, the buildings of Hull loom, so close and yet so far away, contemporary evidence of those fabled two solitudes. And speaking of those rivers, which curl through it all—they evoke at once archaic military advantage, valued aboriginal traditions and the complexities of the natural landscape.

So Ottawa, it turns out, is where the prime symbolic battles of Canadian visual culture are made, however slowly and however quietly.

Moshe Safdie’s National Gallery architecture—opened back in 1988 but seen with new appreciation following recent reno-mania at the AGO and the ROM, with more to come at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Alberta—reinforces this sense of Ottawa as a visual amalgam, as architectural metaphor. Though Safdie’s palace of Canuck culture has had its own problems with roof leakage and renovation (with construction, in fact, ongoing during this visit), a stroll up its glass-walled entrance ramp is an education in architecture’s ability to reframe. Its expansive vista treats our existing landscape of power as image, underlining the visual arts, in turn, as a key means of communicating power and importance.

Given all of the above, it’s clear that the smallish space for the GG Awards exhibition, reached by traversing galleries in the process of installation, does well to reflect the Canadian tendency to self-diminishment. Not only is the room small, but there are just one to four works representing each artist—generally too few to get a sense of each award-winner’s full impact, or, in other words, what made each artist award-winning in the first place. While the awards themselves were no doubt deliberated for some time before being announced on March 24, this related exhibition feels quite slapdash, a bit of a “whatever we have in the permanent collection” type of thing. It best functions as a 3-D (or, in a few cases, 4-D) support to the awards website and brochure, rather than vice versa.

Still, thanks to the geographic and generational span of the artists chosen, the exhibition is likely to hold some interesting discoveries for many contemporary art viewers, particularly younger ones.

Robert Morin’s films, which I have never seen despite his incredible fame in Quebec, blew me away. (Such are the linguistic divides in Canada that I’ve seen Steve Reinke’s work several times, but never his.) Four films from Morin’s early 1980s production seem to master the condition of the unreliable narrator, and of using fragments from one experience to talk about another. His 1984 film Evil Madness is a tour de force, combining campy werewolf legends, unreliable narrators, down-home Quebecois snowmobilers and socioeconomic unease to terrific effect. Morin’s work with amateur actors here and elsewhere is also breathtaking, blending reality and fiction with terrific skill. Fans of more recent works by the Coen brothers and Guy Maddin should find a lot to savour here.

Also strong in contemporary feel is documentation from some of Rita McKeough’s recent performances. McKeough’s combination of interests in sound, animatronics, environmentalism, labour and gender makes her, when nestled quietly into the drywall during some performances, like a kind of Ana Mendieta of the Home Depot generation. Whether walking city streets with a pet tree on wheels or hanging onto the bumper of a carlike machine as it moves slowly across a gallery, McKeough’s interweaving of art’s macho and fey impulses is very effective.

One artist that will almost certainly be unfamiliar to many viewers is Kevin Lockau, exhibited here under the aegis of the Saidye Bronfman Award for excellence in fine crafts. While the bulk of Lockau’s work tends to the abstract, the more figurative work here, of two dogs, is quite appealing. Lockau pioneered techniques of glass casting, and his dog figures are impressive amalgams of concrete, sand, natural rock and steel as well as glass. He gets the gesture of these animals just right as they prick up their wonderful transparent ears to check each other out. It’s one of the first things you see when you enter into the space and it well suggests viewers approaching strange pieces of artwork, sniffing them for familiar reference points.

Sculptor John Greer, unfortunately, is represented by a not-so-strong work. In 1989’s Reconciliation, five stone-carved fruit-pit shapes are arrayed around a large bronze leaf. It’s the leaf that throws the work off for 2009 viewers; it seems clumsy and dated, even though the elegant stone-carved forms maintain their appeal. Greer’s scope of work across his career is so broad that it would be good to see more or different work by him, or even photographs thereof.

Also perhaps in need of more elucidation are works from Nobuo Kubota. His Sound Loops video from 2003 is striking, with nine streams of video and sound interwoven into a grid format. All the sound is Kubota’s manipulated vocals, conjuring the experimental voice works of John Zorn and John Cage, as well as, perhaps, the Zen-monk traditions an accompanying text alludes to. Yet the work is also, in a sense, claustrophobic; in this and in Kubota’s “phonic slice” works, there is a reading that suggests being overwhelmed and hemmed in by language rather than rising above it into another plane. Perhaps more examples of Kubota’s diverse practice would have conveyed, again, the wider backdrop of his interests.

A single painting by Gordon Smith does stand as strong evidence of his work on landscape and abstraction, with easy links to Monica Tap’s blurred and layered landscapes and other contemporary trends. But again, it would have been nice to see more.

Generating more excitement than some of these artworks is a small display case containing letters and press clippings related to CARFAC, which GG Award winners Kim Ondaatje and Tony Urquhart were involved in founding. Some of the commentary in these documents could easily fly today. In response to federal Art Bank cuts in the 1970s, Dale Amundson wrote a letter where he stated, “The culture of this country is a fragile thing, worth far more than the few dollars saved by the removal of the meager support funding that keeps it alive.” One could practically photocopy this letter and mail it in today to the current administration—on the same weekend this show opened, the Ottawa Citizen ran a front-page story on the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography losing their purpose-built facility to government offices and meeting rooms.

A related political frisson runs through some of the works of architect Raymond Moriyama. Through one 3-D model, a dozen photographs, and a text, one gets a sense of Moriyama’s struggle to balance history and culture, past and future, in the buildings he creates. For the Canadian War Museum in particular Moriyama deliberated on how to honour the victims and soldiers of armed conflict while refusing to glorify war itself. Though architectural solutions, like all others, are never perfect, Moriyama’s process provides means of thinking through conflicting human needs, as well as strategies for serving the public through cultural institutions.

Weaknesses of the show acknowledged, it might seem paradoxical to suggest that the GG Awards show should tour. Yet that’s clearly a much-needed elaboration, both now and in the future. After all, if the point of these awards is to give senior artists some national recognition, what better way to provide same than by exhibiting their work across the country? This practice is already in place for private awards for younger artists, like the RBC Canadian Painting Competition and the Sobey Award. Our senior artists (and the oft-cloistered art regions that make up the Canadian scene) deserve and need no less.

Further, what might be useful in the future is a clearer sense of the standards used to decide the awards. Last week, Toronto Star critic Murray Whyte noted it seemed strange that well-recognized artists like Rodney Graham and Jeff Wall—heck, I’ll add in Gerry Ferguson and Agnes Martin, the latter of course before her 2004 death—have never won a GG. Is the prize, practically speaking, off limits to those who already have ample popular recognition? Are there unspoken age guidelines? While there’s certainly nothing wrong with recognizing those many good artists slaving away in the background, it does seem unusual that some of the most recognizable Canadian artists have not yet been honoured with this prize.

So maybe it’s not time, after all, to jettison that silly phrase “Ottawa bar.” Maybe the time is simply right to reframe the capital’s standard—and more importantly, to raise it. (380 Sussex Dr, Ottawa ON)

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via