Five Highlights from the 2017 Canadian Biennial
by Anna Kovler
For the first time since its inception in 2010, the Canadian Biennial at the National Gallery of Canada includes Indigenous, Canadian, and international artists, making it a unique chance to see local works alongside iconic, international ones. The common thread tying together the enormous variety of works (by more than 50 artists) is a desire to revise, question, and reject the Western narratives that have, and continue to dominate museums and the wider social sphere. From representing and celebrating previously marginalized groups to revealing the hidden systems of power that order contemporary life, the multitude of works in this exhibition prove that certain artistic preoccupations are indeed global in scope.
B. 1970, Ft. Saint John, Canada, based in Vancouver, British Columbia
A mysterious sound emanates from stacks of orange, yellow, and pink cafeteria trays. Yet walking around the stacked trays does not provide any explanation for the sound, as the stacks appear to form a solid rectangular block. Only after consulting the wall text does it become clear that there is something embedded inside this block of trays. A TV set hidden inside the stacks plays scenes from the 1963 film The Great Escape, while the cafeteria trays represent the number of Indigenous men in Canadian prisons in 2001. The film references an escape from a prison in Bath, Ontario in which stacked cafeteria trays were used to hide the escaping prisoner. By hiding the television set, Brian Jungen suggests there is a hidden reality we don’t know about – the inordinately high number of Indigenous men inside Canadian prisons.
B. 1971, Camden, New Jersey, based in New York, New York
In Mickalene Thomas’ monumental and bedazzled painting, a black woman’s face looks out boldly at the viewer. Wearing bright blue eyeshadow and a coral top, the sitter exudes an air of confidence and pride, aware of her beauty and strength, her force of presence supported by the massive size of the painting. Thomas inserts strong black female subjects into Western art history, a place where traditionally back women appeared only in the background. Here, the flower pattern behind her friend Qusuquzah evokes the work of Henri Matisse, an artist whose oeuvre distinctly lacks people of color.
b. 1968, Remscheid, Germany, based in London & Berlin
Wolfgang Tillman’s main preoccupations resound in this large-scale photograph. A close crop of two young men passionately kissing, the massive photograph elevates the passing moment and the lovers, by virtue of its size, to the status of billboards or altarpieces. Capturing tender, youthful desire, Tillmans presents a bold statement of support for a community that continues to experience marginalization in a predominantly homophobic world.
Shary Boyle and Shuvinai Ashoona
B. 1972 , Toronto, Canada, B. 1961, Cape Dorset
In this surreal collaborative drawing by Toronto artist Shary Boyle and Cape Dorset artist Shuvinai Ashoona, a phantasmagoria of humans and monsters unfolds. A green octopus-like creature joins a hand sprouting human heads and a pair of legs with an eyeball for genitals. A little paper boat constructed from an Inuit newspaper floats down a jet-black river towards a huge red moon. Little prayer candles float down the river while two Inuk stand on the banks of the river, taking photographs. Although the two artists completed different sections of the drawing, the complex scene coheres into a singular, disturbing nightmare. The newspaper boat and prayer candles in the river make reference to the tragic reality of suicide among northern communities.
B. 1976, Buenos Aires, Argentina, based in New York, New York
Mike Rottenberg’s installation and video centre on the pearl industry in China. Sacks of rejected “imperfect” pearls lie on the floor of a strange small room with a tile floor and low ceilings, the same room that appears in the video playing nearby. The video consists of parallel plot lines, one of real footage of Chinese women working at a pearl factory, and a second of a Caucasian woman with a magical nose whose “desk” job entails sniffing flowers and sneezing out plates of food. Both the real work environment and the staged, fantastical one are awful places to work, each for its own reasons. In China, the women’s work is wet, dirty, and repetitive, while the other woman’s work is equally repetitive and leaves her with an elongated, irritated red nose. With humor and absurdity, Rottenberg reflects on the oppressive conditions of labor that are required for the production of mundane consumer objects.