Time for another conflict-of-interest-filled blog post! This time, I’m taking on “It Is What It Is,” the National Gallery’s current exhibition of contemporary Canadian art, which is pulled from recent acquisitions but is framed partly as a biennial (a format which, in the art world, is usually understood as not being based in a museum’s holdings nor including works older than two years old).
To be clear, the conflict in this instance comes about because I was invited to moderate a panel at a symposium related to the exhibition, Conversations about Contemporary Canadian Art, which took place last Friday, November 19.
In advance of the exhibition, I rounded up available reviews, most of which were fairly positive. Yesterday at Canadian Art, I also helped edit my colleague Bryne McLaughlin’s take on the show and proceedings. Oh, and in terms of other recent coverage, Robert Labossiere of the Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization took some rough notes during the panel and another that preceded it, which can be viewed here and here.
So that’s what everyone else is sayin’ and my two cents is really not needed. But damn the strictures of necessity! To this, I add my extra-biased, extra-long-winded rundown, divided into Congrats, Critiques and Conundrums. (I warn you, reader, this is on the very "un" side of "unedited" and leaves out a lot of complexities raised during the symposium, so feel free to add your views, conflicting and otherwise, in the comments.)
- It Is What It Is is actually a really great, enjoyable show overall. There. I enjoyed it. And I said it. It meets the "would recommend it to a friend" test.
- Part of the enjoyment is that I really did feel it’s a fairly accurate reflection of the contemporary Canadian art scene – even if it’s not totally completist, most of the key names are here. You feel like someone who isn’t that familiar with the art scene could use this as a good starter primer.
- There’s also a nice mix of expected and unexpected names – Simon Hugues, Rodney La Tourelle, Susan Turcot were less expected, for example, while David Altmejd, Shary Boyle more on the expected end. It’s not just a “usual suspects” show.
- Of course, part of the enjoyment is also that there’s some pretty great individual works in the show—the Rodney Latourelle, a set of large coloured structures that one walks through, is delightful, as is Luanne Martineau’s massive, floppy, felted Parasite Buttress. Sarah Anne Johnson’s Galapagos Project, Simon Hughes' pencil drawing, David Altmejd’s Two Holes, Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay’s Live to Tell, Rodney Graham’s the Talented Amateur—basically a good load of engaging, solid works to be seen here.
- It’s also a sizable show – though could be bigger, it’s big enough to not feel cursory or duty bound as a project, at least to the viewer (there were some wonderings from folks I spoke with about how into this project the curators were, given that it was likely director Marc Mayer’s brainchild, but the results remain engaging enough nonetheless). (Part of my noticing this size-of-the-show aspect relates back to the strange kind of space crunch that Toronto often lands in; though many TO institutions have expanded their galleries of late, few have the kind of square footage that the National Gallery can offer.)
- The overall result is that I felt warmly, and actually a bit mini-patriotic about this show. I felt glad it happened, and overall was impressed. It felt like the kind of thing a National Gallery should be doing.
- Also, the catalogue is a nice, pragmatic accompaniment. It’s a handy guide to some of the major contemporary art players at the moment. Probably not academic enough for some, but I like a good guidebook. I can see myself referring to it in future, like I do the catalogue for another Mayer project, the Quebec Triennial (though the Triennial catalogue was more useful in that it had some CV information for each artist in the back)
- Similarly, I appreciated that texts were provided in the gallery for almost every work. I get very annoyed by public-institution shows that assume the viewer already knows about an artist’s practice, or where a particular work has come from. I like shows that feel at least partway friendly to the public in terms of wall texts. So this fit the bill that way for me. And for the text-haters--don't worry, the texts were there, but unobtrusive.
- There were some interesting themes traced throughout the show, none of which are endemic to Canadian art in particular, but that made for some enjoyable conceptual weaving—like the first room focusing on art history and ideas about art, the next two rooms seemingly about different approaches to sculpture, the next two after htat somewhat about multipanel narratives and idealized landscapes, another room later on referencing décor and the politicization of space, and another room later on taking up ye olde photography/death dualities. Overall, a lot to grab onto conceptually and thematically (thinking about drawing, which was prominently featured throughout, for instance) as one worked one’s way through the exhibition.
- As was pointed out repeatedly at the related panels, it’s dubious whether a recent-acquisitions show can actually a biennial make. I’m not an expert in this field, so I can’t really say. Walking around at points I would think “Well, this is the best in Canadian art, really,” but then I would catch myself and remember “Well, the best that the National Gallery can afford.” There can be a difference, right? At the same time, I do appreciate the pragmatism of showcasing works that you’ve already spent money on—heck, if you’re willing to spend money on it, you must think it’s pretty good, right? Short version: Though the show was enjoyable, the labeling of it was problematic to some. As long as it’s a good show, I don’t know if it needs to be called a “biennial,” though the copy editor in me notes that as long as it’s a biannual event, that term might still technically fit.
- As a collary to the above, it could be argued that while there's a lot of strong artists in the show, not all are represented by their strongest works. I heard someone whispering this particularly around the Isabelle Hayeur, but it could also apply to the Adad Hannah, the Jeff Wall (though at least that was surprising in its gelatin-silverness and lack of figures and newness), the Tim Lee, etc.
- While the print catalogue was satisfying, I was disappointed not to see more of its information distributed online. The National Gallery put a lot of web resources into promoting an imported show, Pop Life, this summer. There were podcasts, artist bios, primers, etc. for that one. The site for It Is What It Is is a bit impoverished by comparison (not podcasts, no primers no bios) which is a shame, because our country is so big and it’s not like all Canadians will be able to visit the show. Only a very small percentage will be able to do that. Plus, I know there can be a fear institutionally of putting work online (if people can get the milk for free, etc.) but I really think putting more of it online would draw more people from the region into the gallery to see the show. The work is strong enough to provide this tempting effect.
- As a minor complaint, there were what seemed to be a few installation glitches; for example, six or seven works were relegated to quite small video monitors near the exit of the exhibition, and were easily missed as a result. For a few days last week, the Valerie Blass sculpture, a centerpiece of the exhibition, went AWOL due to damage, with no accompanying signage to indicate same. And (this is a small complaint, because it’s not something I immediately noticed), Geoffrey Farmer was promised as part of the show in the catalogue but in the end did not end up in the exhibition. When I asked about this, I was told by the gallery that during the installation process they realized there just wasn’t the space to showcase his work. (So there’s a case for the idea that even though the exhibition is large, it could be larger.)
Conundrums (many being borrowed questions that many others have iterated--if attribution is missing or incorrect, please let me know and I will fix!)
- Why did it take 20 years time between the National Gallery’s first biennial of contemporary Canadian art in 1989 and its second, this year? As Ken Lum pointed out during his appearance at a related panel, that’s a pretty crazy amount of time to wait, no? I can’t recall who clarified (it was probably Lum as well) that part of the problem after 1989 was that it had been assumed that regional venues would organize subsequent national biennials, and that just didn’t happen. Anyway, the result is kind of bittersweet—like, “Yay! Awesome way to revive something we really need!” on the one hand and “Why did it take so damn long?” on the other.
- How much is an exhibition like this tied up in notions of Canadian identity? And how do those ideas relate to power dynamics in our society? Part of the panels for the exhibition turned into what I might consider a classic CBC phone-in on this first question of “Canadian identity—what is it?" and extending it to "Can it ever be summarized in an exhibition? Is it too diverse and flexible to be named? Etc.” But part of the critique was also well warranted, as First Nations curator Ryan Rice pointed out that many of the First Nations artists he has worked with do not identify primarily as Canadian, or may (quite reasonably, given the circumstances of residential schooling histories, forced migration, etc.) even see Canada as an aggressor and not wish to be identified with it. Personally, I hadn’t considered these aspects of the show in much depth; I had considered Canadian art to maybe be “art made by someone with a Canadian passport or residing in Canada”—but I can see it’s an important question.
- Why is it always (or perhaps at least more often than one would like that it is) seemingly left to non-Canadians to do key documentation of (or key recognition of) Canadian culture? This question came up for me via a number of factors: that Ken Lum opined there is still no comprehensive history of contemporary Canadian art, saying the last useful book in this vein, Dennis Reid’s A Concise History of Canadian Painting, was published in 1980; that some curators in conversation then noted that a book like this is being released soon, but by a British publisher; that I remembered the book Art Textiles of the World: Canada was also recently published by a British house, Telos; and that I also read on the way back home via Leah MacLaren about a modern Canadian poetry book being also published by a British house. On top of all that, one of the panelists at the conference was Denise Markonish, an American curator who is actually organizing a survey of contemporary Canadian art for MASS MoCA, to open in spring of 2012 with an MIT-published catalogue. Crazy! Obviously this question is somewhat redundant—by doing “It Is What It Is” the National Gallery is making a gesture towards picking up the slack on documentation and recognition of the national scene—but it was a pattern that really struck me.
- Why has the nonexistent book Ken Lum mentioned not been created yet? Is it because art history works best with the far past rather than the near past? Is it because art history requires secondary sources into order for research to be considered “serious” by one of its many academics? Is it because it would be too politically risky for any institution to take on such a project? Or is it the classic “no resources available” for such a long-term, wide-aiming, travel-require project? Is the answer all of the above?
- How can we get more Canadian art institutions working with decent online formats? And distributing information about art in ways that Canadians can actually access and use? It was clear to me during the panels that curators are very comfortable discussing physical exhibition formats and physical documentation and research (ie. catalogues). But they clam up when asked about how to better distribute that information (both visual and text) online. And you know what? To a large extent I get this. We see this every day even in the media industry, where print publications are given way more eyeballing and way more financial and human resources than their related web counterparts. But! But! The fact is that it seems kind of crazy to sweat every comma and colour balance on an exhibition catalogue that will likely sell just 5-20% of its print run, and that to a limited audience, while the website for that show or institution, online 24/7 to a potential audience of thousands, is barely updated, or even, in some cases, nonexistent. (!!!) People, you don’t have to sell me—a word nerd and an art nerd—on the importance of print. I like a beautiful book object as much as the next library luster. But! But! But! I also use this thing called Google to find information these days, y’know? Just like you probably do. So… if you really want to share information about art you’re showing, Canadian and otherwise, you need to start making some beautiful websites too. Or at least some functional and informative ones. I know there can be copyright issues involved, but please, let’s get working on this! The word nerds and art nerds need to meet up with some tech nerds, alright? And stop pretending there is just one or two kinds of nerdom that are valuable. Nerd convergence. Nerdvergence. Let’s use it for the greater educational good. (Sorry to seemingly go off the deep end on this one, but these concerns were further exacerbated by reading Amy Fung's Akimblog report on a recent curators' conference in Banff where some outright *refused* to write for online. What?????)
- Further to the above question, what websites are actually useful for helping high-school teachers (or anyone else) teach Canadian art and learn about Canadian art history? And, by extension, helping non-traditional art audiences learn about art? According to one audience member who stepped up to the mic, the answer is “nil.” The National Gallery representative told her Cybermuse (the gallery’s web-archive project, which I’m told has been updated more recently) was a good bet, and I filled her in on Canadian Art’s soon to be launched canadianartschool.ca. But this is a very valid question. We have no Art 21 equivalent here. And even if we did… or if we do in future… is it being marketed well enough to actually connect with the people who need it? Can that connection be made? I hope so. This teacher’s question really seemed to signify for me the disconnect between art-worlders and interested “non-art-worlders” (ie. people without an art degree or positions in art institutions) – the latter might actually be quite interested in art, but as they can’t find anything about it online, they are left with the impression that it is not all that interested in them. At the same time, because the institutions are not putting (we might qualify this with sufficient or appropriate) resources into web and marketing and being friendly and open, they are left with the feeling that the wider public actually doesn’t like them very much. I urge the institutions to make the first move on this front—reach out to people as much as possible. Be friendly. Be easy to find. Make information about art available online, so people can be drawn into its narratives and wonder from their living rooms, and yearn to seek it out in person. Well, to be honest, I don’t know how accurate my interpretations and connections are on this. All I know is there is a disconnect between art institutions and their non-traditional publics, and it would do well for the art institutions to reach out a bit and try to bridge some of those gaps.
- And finally.... how on earth will the National Gallery be able to pull together something similar over the next couple of years? What will the next "biennial" of this sort (should it, please God, actually happen to actually fulfill the term) look like? Do the curators feel like they actually have time to pull it together in addition to all the other stuff they have to do? Will the acquisitions style (or acquisitions pressures) change if it's understood that this exhibition is an ongoing affair? Is doing a first biennial like doing a first amazing pop or rock album, the kind of thing that actually takes the accumulated experience 20 years (or even 10) to do rather than just two? Anyway, as is probably already clear, I do hope another exhibition of this type does get organized by the gallery for 2012. It was impressive to see how much material the gallery has acquired over the past few years, and what good quality most of it seems to be. So I wish the gallery best of luck on the next go-round with the caveat to please consider pumping some more web-info-distribution into the mix.
There's a lot of other issues to be discussed about this show, many of which were raised in the symposium. I hope everyone and anyone feels free to post comments about their views, critiques, congrats and questions below.
(Image of the "you're running out of time" notes I passed to panel speakers in Ottawa from yours truly.)