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Isa Tousignant
ISA TOUSIGNANT in Montreal 05/17/11
May 17, 2011

I’m a person who’s okay with emoting, but I’ve got to say I’ve never before walked through a gallery with tears streaming down my face. My friend was chatting away as we exited the video rooms at the Montreal Biennial last weekend until she looked at me. “Are you okay?” she asked, incredulous, laying a hand on my shoulder like one does with those unhinged. And honestly, I wasn’t sure that I was.



Jhave, Give Me Your Light

I imagine mine was the money-shot reaction sought by Montreal artist Jhave, the digital poet behind Give Me Your Light. The video, part of the biennial’s digital programming curated by Paule Mackrous, is the simplest thing: an alternating juxtaposition of two happenstance occurrences filmed by the artist on a trip to Macau. One half of the footage is of a monkey, tied by a two-foot chain to a fence and slowly going mad with boredom; the other is of a kitten, filthy and abandoned in a parking lot, about to die. Two-minute scenes of one and the other alternate according to a changing and unpredictable algorithm, which adds an element of suspense to the work. Nothing really happens, except that it creates – at least in me – an endless and unbearable feeling of hopelessness in the face of human stupidity and helplessness in regards to fate’s cruel path. Not an experience I expected on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

What at first seemed like a catchall theme astutely applied to a process fraught with chaos (producing a biennale with few funds and big ideas), the notion of “chance” ended up showing impressive clout in the curation of BNL MTL 2011. The starting point for biennial creator Claude Gosselin and this year’s guest curator David Liss (an old friend of the Montreal arts scene, who left the city to go do cool things for Toronto’s MOCCA about a decade ago) was the 1897 Stéphane Mallarmé poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. As much graphic art object as it is literally experimentation, it is considered by many an arty egghead to have heralded the birth of contemporary art. It’s not a work that Liss – nor I – knew particularly well a few months ago, but it was a fitting seed for an experimental and intelligent project that grew into a gathering of international artists who sculpt unpredictability in very different ways.



COZIC, Face à Face

For Quebec duo COZIC, chance plays on various levels. It starts with the simple perception which informs Face à Face, a wall of faces composed of found objects like cardboard pieces, Styrofoam packaging, and part of a Vuitton purse. It also appears on a more conceptual level in the visual rendition in colour wheels of an email exchange they had with the curators. Vancouver’s Ian Wallace stays cerebral with his extensive series of photo/paintings on the subject of the actual book by Mallarmé, displaying its various happenstance arrangements amid the mess of his own desk. Germany’s John Bock creates an environment typical of his work and fraught with coincidence in that he manipulates objects found in situ and imbues in them new significance through performance and installation. Post-performance, however, it leaves me utterly cold (though I will say that the surreal angular walls seemed like a fun playground for the kids visiting the show). Karilee Fuglem’s My Darling, a suite of hanging sculptures, adapts to natural phenomena by changing with the wind and light. Too bad the three times I went, Mother Nature wasn’t offering much up in terms of transformative experiences.



Jean Dubois, Brain Storm

Brain Storm by Québécois artist Jean Dubois is the clearest stroke of genius in the show. In a vast darkened room in the upper levels of the historic École des Beaux-Arts, it’s a grandiose installation that’s part video game, part poetry. In the centre of the room there’s an apparatus visitors are invited to blow upon. Like a windmill, it starts spinning and sets the projected words that float about the room – white type on black surface – into a frenzy. Eventually, one word will bump into another and blast it, and all the other words will shift into new configurations. Because the words aren’t real, their amalgamation of existing words becomes richer with meaning the more they circulate. My favourites were “atomystique,” “concubinaison” and “destinérrance.” (I plan to slip them into my next French conversation and see if anyone notices.)



Walead Besthy, Fedex® Medium Kraft Box ©2004 FEDEX 155143 REV 10/04 BP, International Priority, Los Angeles-Montréal, trk# 797011682234, April 20-21, 2011­, 2011, copper, accrued shipping labels (courtesy WALLSPACE Gallery; photo: Ludovic Beillard)

Walead Besthy’s works also win on wit: strewn throughout the vast exhibition space, glass cases he shipped around the world by Fed Ex (a reference to the shipping of art and to our globalized consumer culture) sit next to the cardboard boxes that carried them. The cases are all bashed up and dinged – a curator’s nightmare, except that here it’s the whole point of the thing. The message: Nothing survives contemporary life intact! Monkeys and kittens sure don’t… and doesn’t that just make you want to cry?


Isa Tousignant is senior editor at enRoute and contributing editor for Canadian Art magazine. She cut her teeth as the arts editor for Montreal weekly Hour magazine, where she worked for eight years. She helped curate a bunch of exhibitions and happenings over the years including, in no particular order, a band bonanza, a petting zoo (lama included), and a debate about graffiti art. Her favourite pastime these days involves the happy marriage of contemporary art and plushophilia. She is one of Akimblog’s Montreal correspondents.


Montreal Biennial: http://biennalemontreal.org/en/
BNL MTL 2011 continues until May 31.

 

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Posted by Jay Wilson, on 2011-05-19 11:15:30
 
I love this review for two reasons. One, I can't stop thinking about it and two, I have been thinking a lot about what I at first thought of as Attention Deficit Disorder, but which is really more accurately described as a need to do two things at once. I haven't seen the MTL Biennial but now the Walead Besthly is lodged in my mind and driving me crazy. The simple articulation of three or four artists in the show is emotional and critical. How do you do that? Awesome.