From October 19, 2017 until March 18, 2018, the Canadian Biennial will run at the National Gallery of Canada. The Biennial provides the gallery an opportunity to curate a show of the departments of Contemporary Art, Indigenous Art and the Canadian Photography Institute’s acquisitions since 2014.
The fourth Canadian Biennial includes, for the first time, works from international artists. Senior Curator Jonathan Shaughnessy stated this inclusion sought to highlight works by women and artists of colour. Furthering this intention to provide space for those traditionally marginal to mainstream contemporary art is a showcasing of Indigenous artists within Canada. Alongside this inclusive representation are contemporary Canadian artists who, like their Indigenous and international peers, are responding through contemporary art to our daily world.
The Biennial creates an experiential environment of calculated tensions and unique reactions to the narratives and categories that seek to define our daily lives. The show is at the same time whimsical and serious as well as dark and incredibly colourful. Quebec City-based artist collective BGL’s Canadassimo (Dépanneur) recreates a typical Quebec City dépanneur (corner store) while another work consists of an intimate photographic installation documenting the tragedy of Lac Mégantic by Montreal’s Benoit Aquin. Other works find ways to subvert dominant histories, social norms and the construction and dissemination of history. Some do this with overt humour and irreverence, such as Toronto-based Cree artist Kent Monkman’s installation Casualties of Modernity. Others are serious and still, in a way, uncomfortably comical like Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades, or New York-based Argentine artist Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows.
Art allows an open response to the social and personal world that can be bright and colourful. This is seen in the works of American artists of colour Mickalene Thomas’ Qusuquzah, Une Très Belle Négresse #3 and Nick Cave’s Soundsuit. Other works illustrate the tension between the traditional and contemporary, the natural and technological. Now Ottawa-based Inuit artist Ruben Komangapik’s work Nattiqmut Qajusijugut (the seal that keeps us going) features a seal skin prepared and hunted by the artist as well as an embedded QR code that links to a YouTube video of the artist explaining the story of the piece.
Altogether, the Biennial provides one an opportunity to experience a rich and diverse array of works from Turner Prize winning international artists to contemporary Inuit artists. The observer will be provoked to laugh, reflect, to feel uncomfortable or unsure. In general, the Biennial invokes a contemporary art happening through Canada, not because of it. In the wake of the Canada 150 celebrations, the Biennial draws attention to the art of those who have been marginalized within Canada with works by Indigenous artists and those historically marginalized from contemporary art with a strong representation of women and artists of colour. This less than nationalistic and intentionally inclusive feel is welcomed as it allows for multiple identities, sovereignties and ways of being and living in the world to be shared and celebrated.