BY PAUL GESSELL
Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014 is more compact than the National Gallery of Canada’s two previous biennials, but this exhibition is far more memorable, with one wow after another. Several individual artists are each given a room to display their wares, making the overall exhibition seem like a series of mini-exhibitions of some of the best contemporary art being created by Canadian artists.
Additionally, most of the art chosen for the biennial is what curators call “accessible” — in that most people will “get” the installations, sculptures, paintings, drawings, photographs, and films, and not be left bewildered as to what is really going on.
From Vancouver, Geoffrey Farmer is represented by a massive installation, Leaves of Grass, originally exhibited in a somewhat different form at the prestigious international art fair dOCUMENTA 13 in Kassel, Germany. The installation includes more than 16,000 photographs of celebrities, consumer products, natural disasters, and wars snipped from Life magazines during the period 1935-85 and glued to sticks stuck into floral foam, forming a crowded line 124 feet long. The whole contraption sits atop a long, narrow table with the photos-on-a-stick rising six feet above the table top. One could spend a day just eyeing this photographic review of much of the 20th century.
Another room has seven large format photos from China by Toronto’s Edward Burtynsky. Nearby is a room for Kelly Richard’s imaginative film Mariner 9, revealing an imagined scene on Mars. Vancouver artist Luke Parnell fills a room with an installation about the commodification of West Coast Aboriginal art called A Brief History of Northwest Coast Design. Another Vancouver Aboriginal artist, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, has his own room to display drawings and paintings, including the iconic Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky.
The biennial is meant to showcase the gallery’s contemporary art (including indigenous art) acquisitions from the last two years. Not all new acquisitions are exhibited in the biennial. This time 80 works from 26 artists are on display. That’s only about a third of the acquisitions.
That means works by three Ottawa artists — Melanie Authier, Lorraine Gilbert, and Annie Pootoogook — are not part of the exhibition, despite being acquired during the past two years. Last time, one of Authier’s abstract paintings became something of a signature piece for the biennial. Paintings were scarce commodities in this new exhibition. The two drawings and one lithograph by Pootoogook are from 2004-5, before this one-time art star originally from Cape Dorset, Nunavut became a tragic street person in Ottawa.
Ottawa ex-pat Howie Tsui, now of Vancouver, is in the exhibition with his contemporary take on an ancient Chinese scroll painting. Tsui’s work, The Unfortunates of D’Arcy Island, tells the story of an island off the British Columbia coast that once housed a leper colony for Chinese-Canadians. Music fans will remember Tsui as part of the band The Acorn. In the last few years that Tsui has been away from Ottawa, his work has matured — it looks less like street art, has more gravitas, and, in the case of D’Arcy Island, a strong connection to Canadian history rather than Asian fantasy.
The biennials are products of a team of curators from contemporary art, photography, drawings and indigenous art. The chief curator for this biennial is Josee Drouin-Brisbois, curator of contemporary art. In a curatorial essay, Drouin-Brisbois explains how the exhibition came to be called Shine a Light: “Artists can be seen as modern-day philosophers and visionaries who shine light on events, places, and people that have been obscured, forgotten, or marginalized by history and societies.”
Shine a Light continues at the National Gallery until March 8.