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Image: Laura Tulaite (Stock.Xchange)
Michael Turner questions a US-curated exhibit of Canadian art that exoticizes Canadian artists while suggesting they are un-exotic.
In May 2012, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art opened an exhibition of Canadian art claiming to be “the largest survey of contemporary Canadian art outside of Canada’s borders.” The name of the show is Oh, Canada. MASS MoCA, as the museum is known in the art world, lies deep in the Berkshire Hills, 240 km northwest of Boston and 350 km southeast of Montreal, in the repurposed mill town of North Adams (pop. 13,708). With more than 100,000 square feet of exhibition space, MASS MoCA is one of the largest venues for contemporary visual and performing art in the United States.
Rumours of a massive exhibition of contemporary Canadian art in the Massachussetts hinterland had begun to circulate in Canada’s bars and cafés as early as 2009, when a MASS MoCA curator, Denise Markonish, then a thirty-five-year-old graduate of the Bard College Curatorial Program, made the first of some four hundred Canadian studio visits, extending from urban centres into remote towns as far east as Newfoundland and as far north as the Yukon. From these visits, she selected work by sixty-two Canadian artists, some well-known, others emerging. In addition, she commissioned a handful of writers to contribute texts to a 450-page doorstopper catalogue. Over a three-year period, Denise Markonish saw more contemporary Canadian art than anyone else in Canada.
According to a blurb on the MASS MoCA website, “Canada is the second largest country in the world by area and boasts both a vibrant nationwide arts community and a strong public commitment to culture. And yet Canadian contemporary art has not received widespread attention outside Canada’s borders.” This apparent lack of attention appears to be the only rationale for the show, at least that I could find on the website. A glance at the Oh, Canada roster of participating artists (also on the website) reveals but a few of the many Canadian artists who have in fact received “widespread attention outside Canada’s borders.” A case of wilful exclusion? Or are these artists who have received international attention indifferent to an exhibition where all they would have in common would be their passports?
And what to make of the title of the show: Oh, Canada? Is this an allusion to the scandalous Broadway play (Oh! Calcutta! ) or what a host says to someone known to them but who arrives at the party uninvited? Or is it merely the opening of the Canadian national anthem? If the latter, then how condescending is that? At least a subtitle might excite, if not orient, the viewer beyond the banalities of time (contemporary) and space (Canada), especially after a three-hour drive from Boston—or a six-hour drive from Ottawa. As it is, the phrase Oh, Canada seems to stand in place of a theme, while thwarting any attempt to extrapolate one. One might expect more engagement with the question from someone who has seen more contemporary Canadian art than anyone else in Canada.
Whether MASS MoCA’s lack of engagement is reflective of past curatorial endeavours bears mention. Case in point: the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel’s 2006 outsized installation Training Ground for Democracy, a project that proved too complex and too sophisticated for the museum, which eventually barred the artist from completing the work while museum staff, in public view, attempted to complete it for him. Büchel is a difficult artist, to be sure, and given the content of his piece (based on US military training techniques to help soldiers adapt to unfamiliar cultures) he likely counted on the museum’s frustration as a secret ingredient. But it is the cruel and vituperative manner in which MASS MoCA dealt with this artist, both in the media and in the courts (which ruled in Büchel’s favour two years ago), that shows the museum closer to its former industrial wasteland than a destination for creative engagement.
A more ominous factor that might explain MASS MoCA’s reluctance to present a specific rationale for the exhibition could lie with its underwriters. The lead sponsor of Oh, Canada is TD Bank, with “additional support” from the Quebec Government Office in Boston. TD Bank and the Quebec government have been bedfellows since the 1970s, when TD Bank (then Toronto-Dominion) helped finance the draconian re-orientation of the La Grande River watershed, known also as the James Bay Project, which resulted in the diversion of entire rivers and the displacement of numerous Cree communities. Oh, Canada opens as Hydro-Quebec gears up for another expansion of its dams and grids—in order to supply even more power to the New England states. Whether the Aboriginal artists participating in Oh, Canada address this historic relationship in their work is indeed something to look forward to.
In a recent interview in Canadian Art, Denise Markonish gives a conflicting account of what “triggered” the exhibition. “I had started noticing that a number of the artists I was interested in were Canadian,” she says of those Canadian artists who “have all been in Whitney Biennials—biennials of American art,” where they “assimilate really easily,” an observation that contradicts her museum’s claim that “Canadian contemporary art has not received widespread attention outside Canada’s borders.” However, in the next breath she adds, “At the same time, I was pushing back against what I was seeing as a trend toward a kind of exoticism on the part of many curators, who were saying, ‘Let’s find the next big. Let’s go to China. Let’s go to India…,’” a response that suggests Canadian artists are un-exotic while at the same time exoticizing them.
Oh, Canada is not the first large-scale exhibition of Canadian art outside of Canada. In 1978, the German curator Jean-Christophe Ammann mounted Canadian Artists, a showcase of sixteen contemporary Canadian artists at the Kunsthalle Basel. In 1982, Berlin’s Akademie der Künste hosted O Kanada, a perplexing exhibition that paired landscape paintings by the Group of Seven with contemporary multi-media practitioners in an effort to enter Canadian art into the international conversation—an effort that, in straining to convince the world of the relationship between modern and contemporary Canadian art, only alienated those it had hoped to engage. Although Oh, Canada is decidedly contemporary, the Art Dealers Association of Canada chose a much older work for a poster advertising an advance publicity lunch in Toronto: Joyce Wieland’s O Canada (1970), sixty-eight lipstick traces laid out in a rectangular format, many of which look less like kisses than a more explicit form of oral communion. Is this the kind of engagement MASS MoCA hopes to foster when they write: “Canadian contemporary art has not received widespread attention outside Canada’s borders”? Clearly not, especially when Markonish has provided evidence to the contrary.
Ever since the United States emerged victorious from the Second World War (a victory whose swag bag included the keys to Modern Art), artists from that country have enjoyed the privilege of being modern or contemporary artists, and not “US” artists, which explains why we never see exhibitions of “contemporary United States art” in Canada. So why must artists who live and work in Canada accept anything less? (Are we not one big NAFTA family?) Indeed, the absence of the many Canadian artists who have achieved “widespread attention” in Oh, Canada is as relevant to this exhibition as its lack of a more focussed raison d’être. The last thing anyone who follows contemporary art wants to “discover” deep in the Berkshire Hills, regardless of the art on display, is an exhibition that has non-Canadians looking not at the work but at why this work was not known to them before.