Review: Immersed in sensation with the Sobey Art Award finalists

Spend long enough looking at art, and there may come a moment of revelation — it’s not just about what you’re seeing, it’s also about how it makes you feel, how you allow yourself to open up to it, what sensations go through your body and mind. That said, the exhibition of work by the 2018 finalists for the Sobey Art Award is sensational, indeed.

The award is for Canadian artists under 40, and the National Gallery exhibition includes five regional finalists; Joi T. Arcand (Prairies and the North), Jordan Bennett (Atlantic Canada), Kapwani Kiwanga (Ontario), Jeneen Frei Njootli (West Coast and Yukon) and Jon Rafman (Quebec).

Ice Fishing by Jordan Bennett is part of the Sobey Art Award exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.

By the time I walked out I felt like I’d tumbled through a sensory bungee jump, plunged into darkness and yanked back up again, largely due to the installations by Rafman and Kiwanga. The works could hardly be more different, yet they’re like bookends at the extremes of sensory response.

The notes say that Rafman “creates immersive video installations . . . to create surreal narratives that question our relationship to technology.” Immersive is the operative word.

It’s a large room with a wall-sized video screen, facing a section of three chairs that seem salvaged from a theatre or arena, and covered with padding and fabric that looks, well, earthy? (It’s dark in there.) The same fabric covers an 1960s’-style egg chair, and that’s the place to be, if available.

Animated clips loop on the big screen like a panoply of discontent — skeletons slowly fall in blackness, brownshirted men march obediently into a stone wall, citizens fight to get through narrow conduits, escaping from something. Thoughts of technology, immigration and tribalism fill my head, as my body, seated in the egg chair, literally vibrates with the sound of it all. A sonorous voice dominates “the only thing I can perceive is the motion of bodies” — and I am riveted, even as I want to get the hell out of there. Eventually, surely, it would be sensory overload.

Jeneen Frei Njootlin now lives in Vancouver, but she did spend some time in Ottawa as a teenager. Her work communicates the importance of Indigenous rights. 

To walk out and into Kiwanga’s installation is like stumbling out of a desert of dystopia into an oasis of calming colour.  Kiwanga covered the entire gallery wall in earthy (there’s that word again) green, and diffuse yellow, and built walls of lumber covered in soft tones of blue, brown, grey, etc. They’re mined from “correctional colour theory” and explore “how specific colours have been used to calm, motivate or enforce discipline.”

The notes refer to it as a sound-based work, though I couldn’t decipher what a disembodied voice was saying and, also, it was competing with the audio of Rafman next door. Regardless, a physical sense of calm flowed over me as I walked among those restful hues, especially as I looked through the window cut into one wall, out onto what seemed a world of prescriptive Pantone. My senses settled like leaves falling to the forest floor.

Jordan Bennett’s installation evokes “home, visiting and temporality.” I step through a small, wooden ice-fishing hut into a large room, where “holes” in the floor offer access to fish swimming below, seen on small video screens. He’s of  Mi’kmaq heritage deeply rooted in the land, and he’s recreated a strong sense of being there. The room is twilit, as winter seems to be in Newfoundland, and two walls are filled with a video of an ice-bound lake. Hardy evergreens line the distant shore, and I hear audio of a frigid wind as it scours the ice. The senses are piqued by the occasional, slight bobbing of tiny fishing rods as fish beneath the ice “bite,” and by a transistor radio in the hut that plays a local AM station, which warns of caribou blocking a local highway.

Ontario’s Kapwani Kiwanga likes to explore colour and instituttional architecture in her work.

The other artists, Joi T. Arcand and Jeneen Frei Njootli also evoke sensory responses, of alienation in familiar spaces, culturally speaking.

Njootli, a member of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, creates mixed-media statements on the “dialogue” between western and Indigenous cultures. The titles are vivid and essential: a piece of caribou hide is held against the wall by a bare steel pole, and entitled, “I Can’t Make Those Mitts Because There Is a Hole in My Heart and My Hands Hurt.” Next to it, rested against the wall, are two large steel plates, marked with the ambiguous impressions of Njootli’s body and beadwork. It’s titled “Wind sucked in through bare teeth,” which perhaps conveys a sense of what it’s like to be Indigenous in a western culture that is ubiquitous, and often oblivious.

This installation is the work of Quebec artist Jon Rafman.

Joi T. Arcand’s photographs imagine “what an indigenized public space could be.” Signs over small shops, originally written in English or French, are rewritten in Plains Cree. A large  neon sign on the wall is also in Plains Cree, or nehiyawēwin, and vinyl characters in the same language cover the steps just outside the exhibition space, leading up to the gallery administration offices.

All the phrases “express hope and encouragement to Indigenous peoples,” say the notes, “especially those discovering their language following generations of suppression and loss.”  Yet Arcand doesn’t translate the messages, so they’ll be impenetrable to most viewers. Even the alphabet seems alien, which heightens a sense of isolation, of being a stranger in your own land.

The exhibition for the $240,000 Sobey Art Awards, funded by Nova Scotia-based grocery family, continues to Feb. 10. The $100,000 winner will be named Nov. 14.

Cree syllabics by Joi T. Arcand greet the visitor to the Sobey Art Award exhibition.

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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.