Posts tagged: Mass MOCCA
Image credit: Kim Adams, Optic Nerve (2010)
Following this recent post, a friend in New York introduced me to the term “Canadian ghetto.” It was made in reference to an artist we both know who straddles the Atlantic ocean and takes offense at being introduced as “Canadian.”
Meanwhile, I have been in sporadic contact with American curator Denise Markonish for the past year with a recent concentrated effort to discuss her upcoming exhibition, Oh, Canada, at Mass MoCA.
Below is an exchange between Amy Fung and Denise Markonish about thinking and traveling across and through Canada, America, survey shows, ruffling feathers, and of course, a sense of place.
Amy Fung: I want to begin by sharing my own thought patterns in first hearing about Oh, Canada. The first time I heard about the show, I grappled onto the “largest survey of contemporary Canadian art ever produced outside Canada” line. I grappled because from this I infer the fact that Canada has been producing really strong contemporary artists, but no one until now has paid attention. But then I had to ask: Yeah, but is anyone in Canada paying attention? I haven’t found a single person who actually knows every name in your line up. I don’t think this type of show has even ever been produced within Canada, and I am not counting acquisition shows as that’s about something else entirely … The concept of a Canadian biennial has been murmuring for years, but there is absolutely no consensus. What sort of insights can you share about your grand tour?
Denise Markonish: Yes, we struggled with that line a little bit, I do believe it is the largest show of contemporary Canadian art period. In my research I came across biennials from decades ago (Diana Nemiroff’s biennial at the National Gallery was in 1989), and sure there have been plenty of regional shows inside Canada and out. In some ways it is a completely ridiculous endeavor to “survey a country,” but I like that absurdity - especially in a time when I think most of the international art world looks towards places like China or India.
What does it mean, then, to look at Canada, a place that is less considered by most or wrongfully thought of as “just like the U.S.”?
I have always thought Canada to be a kind of stealth producer of all things - from culture to natural resources, to even things like the paint roller and the Wonderbra! But I realized I didn’t know nearly enough about the artists there. Sure, I was familiar with folks like Rodney Graham, Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Janet Cardiff etc, but when you think about the Canadian artists that are players on the international stage the numbers are rather small. So I became really interested in finding out more, to taking on the absurd idea of surveying a country.
It was a bit of a grand tour, I went to nearly every province and territory; looked at over 800 artists in preparation and visited 400 over a three year period. Because I had a number of artists in mind from the start (like those listed above) I wanted to challenge myself in what it means to not include some of the usual suspects, I wanted to dig deep and find those surprises, which is really more fulfilling to me. I could have done a great show with the artists I could find easily but then I would have never had a chance to meet every one I did, and to bring more Canadian work to the forefront.
Plus it was important for me to not just get a sense of the art, but to come to know the place. For even if one is not directly making work about place, it has ways of informing a practice. For instance, the funding systems in Canada, which both provide individual artists funding and are geared more towards alternative rather than commercial spaces, allow for artists in general to have more freedom in their practice, more time in the studio which leads to a different kind of practice than is possible in the U.S.
These are the kinds of things that fascinated me and were real revelations. I have always been the kind of curator who looks outside of trends, I have built a career by never going to a place like New York City, and I think that perspective happily forces me to look at art in a broader way. Canada opened my eyes, there is so much amazing work there, so it is really my hope that this show does the same for others. I am glad that you say that not everyone knows all the artists, in my eyes that means, even before the show is up that my endeavor was successful.
Image credit: Divya Mehra, The Pleasure in Hating, 2010, digital c-print, 22.5” x 30”
AF: I wholly support your curatorial approach of looking “outside” the trends or centers, as I think it’s not common enough especially within a country as geographically vast as Canada, but quite small when it comes to its “art world”. Any Canadian survey would seemingly have to include these type of artists mentioned above because that’s what the international art world/market understands as Canadian — if it was curated within the country.
That’s why I wonder if a show like this can only have been done outside of Canada. Do you feel your position as being a so-called “outsider” has given you any advantages/disadvantages? Say for example, the names you list above are all noticeably based in British Columbia, names based in B.C. but with a foot in the international scene. In this way, artists on this side of the Rocky Mountains — which as a recent transplant from the prairies — I have noticed as possibly even more isolated within a Canadian identity, which I understand as an identity struggling with internationalism on a regionalist level.
DM: I do think that in some respect it is easier to approach a show like this as an outsider, it releases one of a certain level of insider politics. I felt like I could be totally free with my choices and omissions in that respect. However, as an outsider I do think lots of folks question whether this is a “true” reflection of Canada rather had it been undertaken by someone living in Canada.
There will always be omissions, how can there not be, and I think the one people pay the most attention to are artists from Vancouver. I think that is because the Vancouver scene is, as you say, “what the international art world/market understands as ‘Canadian’.” So then, what does it mean to take out of the equation that which people identify as “Canadian art?” Hopefully it creates a whole new equation, which broadens the view of what people think of as “Canadian art.”
Though this show includes some historically important artists, I wanted to choose artists who were less identified (and in some cases not known) in the United States. To place these artists next to younger generations, shows that strong art comes from all across Canada and not just one place. I also think that since Vancouver is so often identified with a certain style that many artists get left out of the conversation. My choices or omissions (which ever way they are viewed) were not an aim at dismissing anything, but rather at revealing what often gets lost.
Despite all of this we still come back to the question of whether or not this endeavor could have been undertaken by a Canadian curator. I always come up with the same answer: Why not! Look at shows like the Whitney Biennial - love or hate it - it is a survey of a country by curators who live there…
AF: Don’t even get me started on a national survey by curators who live here … that conversation remains stalled for similar reasons to why I think your curatorial choices have ruffled a few feathers, namely, that Canadians still don’t have a sense of their nation. Geographically speaking, it’s safe to wager that you have seen more of Canada than most Canadians ever will and that you have thought more about Canadian identity more than most Canadians (and Americans) ever will.
I must admit I am actually delighted your choices are ruffling a few Canadian feathers as the show, after all, is going to be seen on the majority by non-Canadians who may never have thought about Canada in any critical or conceptual way let alone the differences between art made in Lethbridge versus art made in Montreal. The level of myopic regionalism in this country is brain damaging. However, it’s all related, as what interests me most about Oh, Canada is its synchronicity with a local (and often emerging) desire to move beyond these historically dominant and stagnant perspectives of Canadian art and Canadian identity (ie. the impenetrable West Coast photoconceptualism legacy still rampant in Vancouver and the Greenbergian Formalism still alive and well in Edmonton and Saskatoon via Emma Lake). It’s a regional if not local conversation that has no national legs, and here via Mass MoCA it suddenly becomes an international conversation. Do you feel like you are participating in a number of local conversations rather than any one national dialogue?
DM: In terms of the local vs. national dialogue, it did feel that way at first. I think because of the geography of Canada separating pockets of artists, a national dialogue takes a lot of work. So, sure I have had lots of regional discussions, but then in putting the show together as a whole and writing the catalogue I really wanted to bring it back to the national, and more importantly the international. I have said all along that though this show is deeply steeped in Canada, that in the end it is a great show of international art that just happens to be made by a bunch of Canadians. My early litmus test for success was whether or not the final list of artists would surprise people. Once the show is up my measure for success is that it keeps people talking, and opens a dialogue that can continue well after this show disappears. The only way to solve these problems of the regional or local is to talk to others about it and before you know it the conversation will be (hopefully) international.
Image credit: Amalie Atkins, In the Reeds with the Bolex from Scenes From a Secret World, 2009.
AF: One last question, or maybe parallel, and that’s this idea that Canada is this vastness filled with untapped potential. This image immediately makes me think of our natural resources that we mine, pump, and excavate for international trade. But instead of bitumen and potash, this show has excavated something else that’s raw? Sure the market value vastly differs, but does this parallel hold any resonance for you?
DM: I have just been talking with the museum director here, Joe Thompson, as he is writing his foreword for the Oh, Canada catalogue. His first draft was all about NAFTA and the changing state of trade over the last decade or so (and the continual cry to “buy American”). And of course there is much talk about pipelines and the fact that most of Canada’s resources get shipped south. So I do think this is an apt metaphor. I find it interesting that in an era where borders are increasingly militarized that an art exhibition can be done that essentially opens up that border and hopes to make it more porous. I guess this is more about exchange that “tapping into resources,” but in many ways the ideas go hand in hand.
Have I “tapped into Canada’s art community” in an attempt to find the more unrecognized, sure… but not from a point of greed but it goes back to exchange. For so long Canada to outsiders has been known for a few stereotypical things like natural resources, comedians, hockey… I think its time it is know for its art too!
It’s been really interesting to think of someplace else for so long. But lately I have been thinking more about here - the United States. I have heard over and over again through my Canadian adventure that it would be impossible for a local curator to do what I did, yet at the same time I ruffle some feathers by not including what everyone expects. So its a funny back and forth…which in all honesty is not that funny at all (maybe funny strange rather than funny ha ha), because it does lead to a stall, which is a no-win situation for anyone.
But back to how Canada got me to think about the U.S. - I don’t actually think anyone here really looks at the whole country. Sure we have the Whitney Biennial, but that is often a pretty myopic view based on current trends. But I don’t get the sense that any American curators are traveling across the country to seek out artists. Maybe as an exchange a Canadian curator should do that! Its a really hard thing to do, to tackle a country, to try to suss out what makes it, and as a result, its art tick. I don’t think it’s impossible to do as an insider either.
Oh, Canada runs May 27, 2012–Apr 1, 2013 at Mass MoCA.
Opening party on Saturday, May 26 with a dance party DJ’ed by Brendan Canning (Broken Social Scene).
Artists include: Kim Adams, Gisele Amantea, Shuvinai Ashoona, Amalie Atkins, Nicolas Baier, Daniel Barrow, Dean Baldwin, Rebecca Belmore, Patrick Bernatchez, BGL, Valérie Blass, Shary Boyle, Bill Burns, Eric Cameron, Cedar Tavern Singers AKA Les Phonorealistes, Janice Wright Cheney, Douglas Coupland, Ruth Cuthand, Dave and Jenn, Michel De Broin, Wally Dion, Mario Doucette, Marcel Dzama, Brendan Fernandes, Michael Fernandes, Eryn Foster, Noam Gonick and Luis Jacob, Hadley + Maxwell, David R. Harper, David Hoffos, Kristan Horton, Terrence Houle, Allison Hrabluik, Sarah Anne Johnson, Garry Neill Kennedy, Wanda Koop, Diane Landry, Micah Lexier, Craig Leonard, Myfanwy MacLeod, Kelly Mark, Luanne Martineau, Rita McKeough, Divya Mehra, Chris Millar, Kent Monkman, Kim Morgan, Andrea Mortson, Clint Neufeld, Graeme Patterson, Ed Pien, Annie Pootoogook, Ned Pratt, Michael Snow, Charles Stankievech, Joseph Tisiga, Hans Wendt, Janet Werner, Mitchel Wiebe, John Will, and Étienne Zack.