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In their post-structural opus A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, the French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari characterized nomadic movement as “maintaining the possibility of springing up at any point.” Open and spontaneous, nomadism thus undermines organized social institutions and constitutes an independent, heterogeneous form of political sovereignty. It is therefore surprising to find it at the root of an exhibition presented by the National Gallery of Canada.

Organized in conjunction with the National Arts Centre’s BC Scene festival, “Nomads” features the work of six contemporary Vancouver artists. According to its curator, Josée Drouin-Brisebois, the project represents a curatorial experiment in which things are left “unresolved and open-ended.” It thus includes a variety of work, but focuses mainly on process and installation art. Geoffrey Farmer’s The Surgeon and the Photographer (2009), for instance, is a compelling exploration of the aesthetics of accumulation that features 366 puppets meticulously crafted from a wide range of found images. In an adjacent gallery, Hadley + Maxwell’s fascinating multimedia installation 1+1-1 (2007–09) playfully “unfinishes” Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 film Sympathy for the Devil (originally titled One Plus One) while transforming the gallery into a post-minimalist sound studio. Hovering at the fringes of the exhibition are Myfanwy MacLeod’s wry explorations of modernism and drunkenness and Gareth Moore’s engrossing installation Works from Uncertain Pilgrimage (2006–09). The latter mixes objects gathered during Moore’s year-long voyage across Europe and North America with works from the gallery’s permanent collection and new works created on-site. Finally, Althea Thauberger’s collaborative video project La mort e la miseria (2008) dramatizes a folk tale from Italy’s Fassa Valley, a region whose inhabitants speak an ancient Rhaeto-Romance language known as Ladin.

Although the work in “Nomads” is excellent, the exhibition itself does not meet the challenge set out by its conceptual framework. Despite Drouin-Brisebois’s well-intentioned desire to do something outside the box, the format remains traditional, and the layout of the show appears disjointed rather than open. Fortunately, the same cannot be said of the exhibition catalogue, where one encounters a more spacious, fluid relationship among the artists’ works and Drouin-Brisebois’s essay sparkles with clear, accessible prose.

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