National Gallery: 2017 Biennial crosses boundaries and borders

Detail from Nick Cave's Soundsuit, 2015 mixed media including gramophone horn, ceramic birds, metal flowers, strung beads, fabric, metal and mannequin. Copyright: Nick Cave, courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York Photo: NGC

What?

The Canadian biennial at the National Gallery is no longer exclusively Canadian, and now includes art from around the world?

Why, even the poster image is American — specifically, Nick Cave’s soundsuit, which initially looks like a cross between an embroidered wetsuit and an eccentric Christmas tree, but in fact is a poignant statement on the day-to-day danger of being a black man in the United States today.

The soundsuit surely speaks to the reality of being a black man in Canada, too, and that underscores the reason for including international works in what heretofore has been a strictly Canadian biennial. Art does not exist in isolation.

The purpose of the biennials — this is the fourth — has been to showcase recent acquisitions in contemporary Canadian art, and indeed, all of the more than 100 pieces in the exhibition were acquired after the previous biennial in 2014. (The interval of three years lets the current chapter fall during Canada 150 celebrations.) Yet, the gallery looks beyond Canada’s borders when it acquires Canadian art.

“We contextualize the art we acquire . . . against a context that’s not only national but international,” says Johnathan Shaughnessy, the associate curator of contemporary art, and one of a half-dozen curators who worked on the exhibition. 

Nick Cave’s Soundsuit, 2015, mixed media including gramophone horn, ceramic birds, metal flowers, strung beads, fabric, metal and mannequin. © Nick Cave, courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo: NGC

More importantly, Canadian artists, for the most part, do not create their art in isolation of the international context. Geographically, we know where Canada begins and ends, but the distinction is fuzzier when it comes to aesthetic and artistic observation and inspiration. Canadian art is intrinsically Canadian, but rarely is it undiluted by the influences that flow in, through our shared rivers, our shared airwaves, our collective heritage from every corner of the world.

Still, some might gripe about non-Canadian art in a Canadian biennial — it is, after all, a quintessential and beloved Canadian pastime to gnash our teeth and furrow our brows over American cultural imperialism. The gallery may have anticipated such discontent, for in the very first room of the exhibition is a painting by Montreal artist Cynthia Girard-Renard that critiques rhetoric against immigrants. It’s title is No Foreigners.

The rooms that follow are full of enlightening contrasts between art from home and away, some more obvious than others. Two photographs of “grandiose” scenes by the German artist Andreas Gursky share a room with Canadian Steven Shearer’s scrapbook-like “thousands of found images of people sleeping.”

Anyone who walks through the dozen or more rooms, from the Canadian artist Zin Taylor’s “lichen wall” at the beginning to the “Young British Artists” star Tracy Emin’s bird atop a bronze pole at the end, will find their own instances of art conversing across borders, sometimes obliquely. The Argentine-American artist Mika Rottenberg’s installation includes video of Chinese women grading huge piles of pearls — hunched over, eyes down, hands flicking pearls this way and that, pearl, pearl, flick, flick. It resonated a couple of rooms later in the mounted dance yoke of the Anishnaabe Ottawa artist Barry Ace, with its seemingly infinite beadwork. Hundreds of beads, thousands of beads.

Anyhow, who’s to say what is Canadian and what is not? Taylor is Canadian but “lives and works in France.” The artist Elaine Ling was born in Hong Kong but died in Toronto, and here has photographs of baobab trees from South Africa. What of it all is Canadian enough? Cue the debate over Canadian content, another favoured cause for handwringing in this country.

Even from within the contested borders of Canada there is cross-pollination. The Inuit artist Shuvinai Ashoona and the non-Indigenous artist Shary Boyle created drawings together, literally handing the large sheets of paper back and forth.

Latifa Echakhch Untitled (Black Cloud) IV, 2015 China ink, wood, canvas, acrylic paint and steel wire © Latifa Echakhch Courtesy Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, Swtizerland. Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography

All of this speaks to how no art exists in isolation, even if the conspicuousness of influence ebbs and flows. The Canadian biennial is not just Canada, it is Canada and the world, and that allows a greater understanding of both.

It also demonstrates the strength of Canadian art, and nowhere better than in Kent Monkman’s Casualties of Modernity. It’s vintage Monkman, a life-sized hospital room where the artist’s alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (in this case, a nurse) stands over a bedridden figure from Picasso’s iconic drawing Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. A monitor tracks the heart rate of ‘Cubism,’ which is dying of a case of primitivism, despite the efforts of a handsome ‘Doctor of Fine Arts,’ who appears in a network-style hospital TV show. It’s a witty, captivating statement on cultural appropriation and so much more, from an artist of breath-taking talent.

There is, it should be noted, a practical reason for expanding the borders of the biennial. Due to this year’s vast expansion of the Canadian and Indigenous galleries, there’s almost no international contemporary art on display, and that context was lacking. So the expansion is all a compromise. How Canadian is that?

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.