Great White North
In May 2012, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, Massachusetts, opened a landmark exhibition of contemporary Canadian art showcasing work by over sixty artists, including Daniel Barrow, Rebecca Belmore, Marcel Dzama, Luis Jacob, Kim Morgan, Hadley+Maxwell, and Myfanwy MacLeod. Notable artists such as Jeff Wall, James Carl, Geoffrey Farmer, Nadia Myer, and Rodney Graham, to name just a few, were absent from the line-up. Nevertheless, curator Denise Markonish can claim to have mounted the largest survey of contemporary Canadian art outside the country to date. Oh, Canada is the latest in a string of Canadian exhibitions presented abroad, including My Winnipeg (2011) at the Maison Rouge, Paris, and, more recently, the Group of Seven’s largest European exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. Within Canada, the National Gallery revived its Canadian Biennial in 2011. What do such nationalistic representations signify? And, what does Canada, or the national survey model in general, have to offer? These questions seem particularly urgent in light of the globalized context in which these exhibitions have taken place.1
The idea of a “national art” category crystallized in the nineteenth century with the development of the World’s Fair exhibition model, a history that includes The Great Exhibition in London (1851) and the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia (1876). The art world’s most notable recurring contemporary art exhibition, the Venice Biennale, emerged from this festival fervour in 1895. According to Frederica Martini and Vittoria Martini, “as early as 1968, the national representation system adopted in Venice was already considered unproductive and questionable.”2 The Venice Biennale has continued to organize its pavilions by nationality despite the problematization of such categories vis-à-vis cultural production following the advents of postmodernism, feminism, postcolonialism, globalization, etc.
A number of contemporary artists and curators have also critiqued the enduring attachment to cultural nationalism at the Venice Biennale. In 2009, for example, Britain’s representative, Steve McQueen, presented Giardini (2009), a film shot on the biennale’s grounds in wintertime. In this film, the national pavilions, which function as pseudo embassies during the exhibition, appear as empty shells, devoid of the loaded political attachments imposed upon them every other summer during the exhibition. That same year, the British artist Liam Gillick, who works between the UK and Germany, was selected to represent Germany, and the Danish and Nordic pavilions teamed up to present Elmgreen and Dragset’s The Collectors, an ambitious endeavour (i.e., in that it was the first time two pavilions teamed up to present one project) that transformed neighbouring national pavilions into impressive homes with the aim of “dismantling the national representation model [and] designating instead a transnational neighbourhood within the Giardini area.”3 The self-reflexivity of these artists on the issue of national art categories demonstrates, to some extent, the failure of the Venice Biennale’s conceit, or at least its limitations. What can the curatorial premise of Oh, Canada communicate in light of such high profile, contemporary critiques of national art categories? And, in light of these critiques, who might be the imagined audience for this exhibition typology?
Oh, Canada opened at MASS MoCA’s entrance, where a working, manpowered carousel made from crowd control barriers by the artist collective BGL set a jovial, playful tone. The exhibition continued over approximately 20,000 square feet between the museum’s ground floor, upstairs galleries, and exterior grounds. As a renovated factory building on a thirteen-acre campus, MASS MoCA can accommodate large-scale shows and installations such as Oh, Canada, having over 80,000 square feet available. The museum looms large on the local arts and culture scene, taking up close to one-third of North Adams’s downtown core. And, it belongs to a constellation of museums in the rolling, green Berkshire Mountains that includes the prestigious Clark Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art, both situated next door in white-collar Williamstown.
Though the physical layout of Oh, Canada followed no thematic organization, the exhibition brochure divides artists into eight broad categories of production: “Cultural identity, national hybridity, and colonialism”; “The use and quotation of craft methods and traditional materials”; “Nature and the vast Canadian landscape”; “A dialogue with painting”; “Conceptual or performative practice”; “The transformation of everyday materials”; and “References to popular culture, and use of parody and humor.”4 To confuse matters, the exhibition’s catalogue, Oh, Canada (2012), divides artists along regional lines and makes no mention of the thematic groupings emphasized in the brochure. Supposedly, the purpose of isolating classifications to the exhibition brochure and catalogue is to allow for curatorial freedom in the exhibition space.
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About the Author
Vanessa Nicholas is a Toronto-based writer and art historian. She worked for the British and Canadian pavilions at the 53rd Venice Biennale; and currently is Programs Coordinator at the Ontario College of Art and Design Student Gallery.