Reflections on the National Gallery of Canada Biennale

Last night Annie and I attended the opening of the Biennale. Its distinguishing conceit is that the work on display represents a selection of recent (2014-17) acquisitions by the National Gallery. So, not a truly contemporary biennale, but for all that a powerful one, featuring some exciting and intriguing artworks.

Ruben
Natttiqmut Qajusijugut (the seal that keeps us going) by Ruben Komangapik, detail

The best work is – once again – by the substantial indigenous and Inuit contingent, led in my view by Barry Ace, Nadia Myre, Kent Monkman, Brian Jungen and Ruben Komangapik’s impossibly cool sealskin QR code, which links to a video of Ruben telling us an old tale in Iqaluit.

International artists are well-represented too, including Tracy Emin and Kiki Smith, while one of Nick Cave’s flowering (yet sadly silent) Sound Suits serves as the exhibition’s emblematic image. Maya Lin’s Silver Niagara, a wallmounted set of sublime great lakes (Erie and Ontario), is also a highlight.

Iconic Canadian artists abound, and both make and miss their marks. Of note, the BGL depanneur is open for business, or the illusion of it. The dep is as brilliant as it is banal, with that tension giving it its real depth. Of course the dead giveaway that this is intentional simulacra is the beer fridge – understocked by several orders of magnitude. Speaking of simulacra, I enjoyed sitting through some of Stan Douglas’ funky 6 hour video Luanda-Kinshasa, but what exactly is the point of putting so much effort into recreating an idealized version of the Bitches Brew recording session? Especially since the absence of a Miles-like figure to fire the whole thing up puts the lie to the happy harmony Douglas reimagines, as it was Miles’ demanding and disruptive ego that made it happen in the first place. In the end it is just a delightful 6 hour video of a good band jamming.

To my mind the single most remarkable work on exhibit was a video installation by Mika Rottenberg called NoNoseKnows. One can see why it was a hit at that other biennale, in Venice. After traversing an anteroom modeled after the foyer of a cultured pearl factory in Zhuji, China – where much of the video in fact takes place – one enters a simple screening room and starts watching. The 21-minute video interweaves absurdist hilarity featuring Bunny Glamazon with extraordinary shots of Chinese women hard at work in the pearl factory (think Burtynsky’s Chinese sweatshop shots but with a touch more elegance and compassion, possibly due to the omnipresent pearls, possibly also due to the female eye behind the camera.) And yet it is a third intercut video vignette, set in the factory foyer, that yields the work’s genius: for in that empty sterile office we see enormous shimmering wobbly smoke-filled bubbles that not only dance like pearly ghosts in the air but – gasp! – pop audibly, leaving puffballs of ethereal smoke to dance away in turn. Those piercing moments of popping – viscerally symbolic, achingly beautiful and utterly fresh – and their instantly diffuse aftermath, are the apex of this exhibition, and possibly of life itself.

Alone, they are worth the price of admission. But there is much more to see. If in Ottawa, go. Either way here’s a lovely interview with Mika Rottenberg talking about NoNoseKnows and her work in general:

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