Fillip 18 — Spring 2013

Great White North
Vanessa Nicholas

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.

Such curatorial license did pepper Oh, Canada with poetic moments. In one gallery, for example, a trio of works featured writhing and flickering demons and monsters: Brendan Fernandes’s From His Handz (2011), Valerie Blass’s She Was a Big Success (2009), and Mitchell Wiebe’s installation of paintings, Lazers in the Bubble. Concave Convex Portals. Ellipses and Disks Shake Our Spheres. Rebirth of Painting as Parallel Worlds, Cool. (2007–12). Fernandes’s neon masks, representing the artist’s childhood experiences in Kenya, challenge the reduction of African cultures to exotic commodities. Similarly, Blass’s figure of hair extensions and heels appears as a sexualized Cousin It that laments the commodification of women and the social effects of today’s porn culture. Behind the masks and Blass’s beast, Wiebe’s walls of paintings created a fluorescent, psychedelic dreamworld that seemed to absorb both works.

Another poignant pairing in the exhibition was Michael Snow’s Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids) (2002) with Charles Stankievech’s LOVELAND (2009–11). Solar Breath is an hour-long video that records a plain cottage curtain dancing with the wind. The curtain blows in the breeze and then slaps glass-flat against the space created by the window frame, creating the illusion of a closed window in a simple but commanding visual paradox. Beyond the gallery where Snow’s video played was LOVELAND, which began in a short, darkened corridor punctuated by a fluorescing Chatham emerald and a spotlit, handbound edition of The Purple Cloud by Matthew Phipps Shiel (1901). The viewer’s focus expanded in the succeeding space where Stankievech’s steady, panoramic shot of arctic ice was projected large-scale, making the room appear boundless. The video is quiet and hauntingly white at first; but soon, a tiny cloud of bright purple smoke erupts on the horizon. The swift wind carries the smoke towards the viewer and the landscape is momentarily obliterated, obscured by the rushing, purple haze. Though Stankievech used military smoke grenades to create this dramatic, mystical episode, there is an underlying sense of nature’s sublimity that speaks to Snow’s Solar Breath. Both works marvel at the awesome, unknowable complexity of nature, and inspire in viewers both awe and fear.

Despite the sprawling size of the exhibition, it seemed that space constraints nevertheless forced awkward curatorial decisions. For example, Shary Boyle’s large-scale, black-lit installation, White Light (2010), was literally shoved into a corner and then darkened by a curtain. Similarly, Wanda Koop’s Look Up (2009), a towering arrangement of gradient monochrome canvases, was installed across a gallery dividing line. This clumsy hanging of Koop’s work belied a kind of curatorial neglect. In the same room, Ed Pien’s shadow puppet installation, Suspension (2012), was weakened by the sunlight that streamed in through the gallery’s north facing windows and Rebecca Belmore’s Eagle Drum (2012) was hidden behind and dwarfed by Range Light Borden-Carleton, PEI (2010), Kim Morgan’s full-size cast of a decommissioned range light.

Whatever its curatorial successes and failures, Oh, Canada can’t help but imply a disturbing dichotomy between the Canadian and international art scenes. A Canadian-specific exhibi­tion south of the border can’t exist without the perception that the Canadian art community is isolated, something to be imported and introduced to the American centre; as Markonish put it: It’s really about this group of artists getting attention [and] about creating a platform for people that aren’t recognized in the United States...some of the artists included in this show aren’t even recognized enough within Canada itself.5 This curatorial narrative ignores the increasingly decentralized nature of the art world and ultimately undermines the achievements of Canadian artists. Consider, for example, Markonish’s characterization of Michael Snow: “He is the most famous living Canadian artist, to Canadians. In my experience, people outside of Canada don’t necessarily understand just how important Snow is to international conceptual art.”6 On the contrary, Snow’s reputation outside of Canada needs no boosting, and so it seems that Markonish downplays Snow’s notoriety in order to inflate the importance of her own subjectivity as an outsider curating Canadian art.7

Markonish is quick to counter any self-congratulatory remarks with modesty. For example, she has said: “I’ve long felt uncomfortable about the discovery aspect of this’s so completely ridiculous and complicated.”8 Additionally, in the exhibition catalogue, she writes: “be warned, this is just a snapshot, one curator’s view.”9 Markonish thus simultaneously lauds and downplays her comprehensive research; but can one deflect criticism by simply pleading guilty? Markonish goes as far as to claim that the whole show grew from a place of pure curiosity [and] you have to go into it with [that aforementioned] spirit of discovery in order to make a survey show that’s about the artists and not everything surrounding them.10 But, is it possible to organize an exhibition around a national category and then exclude context and politics from the discussion? Canadian content held Oh, Canada together thematically as there were literally no other organizing principles beyond the concept of “Canadian,” which by default put national identity at the centre of the reflections and conversations around the show. The opening line of the curator’s exhibition essay for the catalogue attests to this curatorial thesis: “As an American, I am intrigued by the idea of what is Canada and who are Canadians.”11 Similarly, in the catalogue’s introduction, Markonish takes delight in listing the Canadian cultural clichés that animated her trip north of the border.12 Nevertheless, when asked about her definition of “Canadian” and its bearing on Oh, Canada, Markonish replied: Oh, Canada has never been about the meaning of Canadian-ness because that would have been a completely ridiculous thing to do....The Canadian category is therefore more of a random organizing principle.13 Why did Markonish insist on emphasizing her laborious research into Canadian identity and then undermine the significance of the national theme?

The answer might lie in the exhibition’s inherent conflict. As Mari Carmen Ramírez, curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, writes in “Brokering Identities”: Curators who champion artists from [perceived] marginal areas can thus claim to have pushed the borders of contemporary art, reorganized cultural frontiers....This situation places the [curator] at the very core of a contradiction: on one hand, she/he can be credited for helping to tear down artworld hierarchies [but] on the other hand...the framing and packaging of images of the collective self can only result in a highly delusionary enterprise.14

This daring project that was Oh, Canada was therefore both visionary and limited, which accounts for the curator’s confusing commentary, as well as the sense of both achievement and failure lying therein. Ultimately, an exhibition—despite sprawling size and poignant moments—can’t say anything meaningful or coherent about an entire country. The certain criticism that this project’s survey framework invites, as well as its inevitable failure, adds further charge to the question concerning the value of this and other Canadian-specific exhibition projects. That is to say, if national representations are generally acknowledged to be problematic, then why is Canadian art experiencing an unprecedented popularity?

In an interview with Sarah Milroy for Canadian Art, Markonish praised Canada’s government grant system, saying it encourages “a more project-based, experimental kind of work rather than market-driven work, which is what the States is mostly after.”15 And, in her exhibition essay, Markonish credits the Canada Council for the Arts and the enduring artist-run centre tradition for creating “an art world unbeholden to traditional market-driven forces.”16 She explains: here in the United get a commercially based practice that is about repetition and selling....[The market is] breeding post-studio practices and the dematerialization of art.17 Thus, Markonish is evidently working to impress upon Americans a romantic idea of the publicly funded Canadian artist in order to criticize her own country’s art economies.18

She is also quick to criticize the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which, she claimed, “hasn’t given money to an individual artist since the 1980s.”19 On the occasion of her first Canadian studio visit, she remembered, Canada was in the midst of a federal election: So many people were lamenting that Stephen Harper’s election would result in cuts to the country’s arts funding, which was astounding to me because they’d already completely cut arts funding in America and no one’s ever talked about it.20 In the United States, there are private foundations that give generously to arts initiatives; however, as Markonish knows, the fierce competition for private funding means that many deserving artists go without it: “I was on a panel for Creative Capital grants in New York this year...and I personally read approximately eight hundred applications [for] eight [available] grants. It was so hard. It’s painful.”21 It seems that Markonish may have turned to Canada for an alternative arts funding model, which meant that Oh, Canada was, at least in part, about establishing an idea of Canada to prompt self-reflection among Americans.

To an outsider, it may seem that Canada’s government support creates the ideal context for artistic production; however, inside the country, the tone is much different. In 2008, for example, Toronto’s YYZBOOKS published Decentre: Concerning Artist Run Culture, an anthology of testimonials reflecting on the state of the Canadian government grant structure and the national artist-run centre network, and the general tone of the anthology is grave and pessimistic. Artist Emily Vey Duke writes, “we’ve built our identity so entirely around opposition to the commercial art world that we can’t effectively participate in [that] scene.”22 In the same volume, curator Haema Sivanesan makes a case against the government patron: “artists and curators have to buy into government interests and rhetoric...there is a lot of art that we don’t see or engage with because it is not in the government’s political interest.”23 Daniel Roy, who was acting director of the Artist-Run Centre and Collectives Conference at the time, titled his testimonial “Under Valued Riches”; he writes: “It’s fun to work in an artist-run centre and we chose to do so freely. Nevertheless. If we had time, we should go on strike.”24 Dependence, grant-guided artistic production, and undervalued labour are real problems for Canadian artists and administrators; therefore, the political undercurrent of Oh, Canada is ultimately misguided and simplistic. Validation and celebration of the status quo by an American may in fact do a disservice to the Canadian art community, which is constantly fighting an uphill battle against budget cuts.

It is worth noting that the emphasis on Canadian craftsmanship in Oh, Canada contributes to Markonish’s political agenda by strengthening the romantic image of the Canadian artist, living a luxurious, studio-based existence. She has argued that Canadian artists get to be artists with a capital “A” because they get to make work in their studio, and they don’t need to work four adjunct gigs at four different schools in order to afford the studio space that they won’t ever spend time in.25 High bets have thus been placed on Luanne Martineau, Ed Pien, Shary Boyle, and Clint Neufeld, the “craft contingent,” as outlined in Oh, Canada’s exhibition brochure. Though Markonish was pessimistic about affecting change on the US federal funding front, she believed that her advocacy for high production values and traditional skill-sets in Canadian art practices “might have a larger ripple effect and spark a renaissance of sorts that will see [American] artists returning to the studio.”26 It’s evident that Markonish is instrumentalizing Canadian art for the purposes of making changes in the American art scene.

Whatever the show’s long-term influence, it’s certain that although it’s both easy and popular to interpret Oh, Canada as a simple celebration of Canadian artists, any such reading refuses that national exhibitions are self-defeating and ignores the exhibition’s markedly American agenda. The artists featured in Oh, Canada are ultimately done a disservice by the simplifications and stereotypes used to frame the national art community as a naive and sheltered utopia for liberal Americans, who, Markonish admits, “thrust Canada into the spotlight during the Bush administration.”27 She remarked that “while this fantasy has died down a little bit, it keeps ebbing and flowing, and the current surge of Canadian content in the art world is a result of the magnifying glass turned north for a decade.”28 Canada is not a catchall fantasy; and in these uncertain, lonely, and conservative times, it would prove more powerful to eliminate outdated cultural boundaries and instead collaborate and propose alternative economies.

  1. Nicolas Bourriaud has argued that the age in which we live is characterized by “the emergence of a global altermodernity.” Nicolas Bourriaud, “Altermodern Explained: Manifesto,” Tate, 2009,
  2. Frederica Martini and Vittoria Martini, “Questions of Authorship in Biennial Curating,” Biennial Reader, ed. Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø (Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, 2010), 264.
  3. The Collectors (pamphlet) (Venice: Office for Contemporary Art Norway and the Danish Arts Council, 2009).
  4. Oh, Canada (brochure), MASS MoCA, North Adams, 2012.
  5. Denise Markonish, interview with the author, May 30, 2012.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Michael Snow’s work is represented in many high profile international collections including those of MoMA and the Centre Georges Pompidou. Additionally, he has had career retrospectives all over the world, including in Tokyo and Paris. In 1964, Snow moved to New York and enjoyed enough success to leave the city in 1972 with the Guggenheim Fellowship in hand. Notably, the French Minister of Culture awarded Snow the highest Order of Arts and Letters in 1995. He’s been a visiting professor at both Yale and Princeton, and, in 2004, the Université de Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne awarded Snow with an honourary doctorate. The last artist to receive this honor was Pablo Picasso. “Artists: Michael Snow,”, accessed June 2, 2013, and “Michael Snow,” La fondation Daniel Langlois, 2011,
  8. Markonish, interview.
  9. Denise Markonish, “Oh Canada; Or, How I Learned to Love 3.8 Million Square Miles of Art North of the 49th Parallel,” in Oh, Canada: Contemporary Art from North North America, ed. Denise Markonish (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 52.
  10. Markonish, interview.
  11. Markonish, “Oh Canada; Or, How I Learned to Love 3.8 Million Square Miles of Art North of the 49th Parallel,” 19.
  12. I have tried poutine, Nanaimo bars, caribou, Saskatoon berries, and Timbits; I watchedhockey, rode a Ski-Doo, came to understand what a “dry cold” is; I drove through Vulcan, Alberta, and Dildo, Newfoundland; I know who Grey Owl, Emily Carr, and the Group of Seven are; I know that the motto of Captain Canuck (Canada’s superhero) is “peace, order and good government.” Denise Markonish, “A Love Letter to the Great White North,” in Oh, Canada: Contemporary Art from North North America, 14.
  13. Markonish, interview.
  14. Carmen accuses American curators of importing Mexican art under this very pretense and excludes Canadian art from this exchange, which makes MASS MoCA’s exhibition something of an anomaly. See Carmen Ramirez, “Brokering Identities,” in Thinking About Exhibitions, ed. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne (New York: Routledge, 1996), 23.
  15. Sarah Milroy, “MASS MoCA’s Oh, Canada Offers American Take on Canadian Art World,” Canadian Art, Fall 2012,
  16. Markonish, “Oh Canada; Or, How I Learned to Love 3.8 Million Square Miles of Art North of the 49th Parallel,” 34.
  17. Markonish, interview.
  18. In 2005, the Canada Council released a preliminary report on government arts funding in nine countries, and there is a shocking discrepancy between the total arts grant spending per capita of the Canada Council and that of its American counterpart, the National Endowment for the Arts. Between 2003 and 2004, the Canada Council’s total arts grant spending per capita was CAD$4.15 and the NEA’s was a meager CAD$0.44. The United States ranks lowest across all comparative categories in the report’s pool of nine countries, which also includes Australia and England. Additionally, it’s important to note that “there is no national government department responsible for the arts” in the United States, as the NEA is an independent agency of the American federal government. See Claire McCaughey, “Comparisons of Arts Funding in Selected Countries: Preliminary Findings,” Canada Council for the Arts, 2005, 4–7.
  19. Markonish, interview. The NEA stopped awarding grants to individual artists in 1994. See Diana Jean Schemo, “Endowment Ends Program Helping Individual Artists,” New York Times, November 3, 1994,
  20. Markonish, interview.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Emily Vey Duke, “96.1,” in Decentre: Concerning Artist-Run Culture, ed. Robert Labossiere (Toronto: YYZBOOKS, 2008), 254.
  23. Haema Sivanesan, “88.1,” in Decentre, 235–36.
  24. Daniel Roy, “85.2,” in Decentre, 229.
  25. Markonish, interview.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
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.

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