Many years ago I visited the Venice Biennale and stood around under the hot, white, Venetian sun examining the paintings of Agnes Martin.
I remembered that long ago trip as I downloaded the absolutely free pass to the second occurence of the Toronto Biennale. And later, visiting some of the exhibitions, things felt almost normal.
The Biennale is a breath of fresh air! Wandering around in the early spring sunshine, mask free, I forgot for a short while that we are in the midst of a sixth wave.
The exhibition is spread out around the city, but largely clustered in the west end, in an area dotted with construction cranes and debris. 72 Perth Avenue, the site of a future condo complex, now slated for demolition, functioned as a church before it was snagged to host the Biennale. The visitor can appreciate the raised, oratory platform and the long, vertical, stained-glass windows as evidence of its former incarnation as the Praise Sanctuary Ministry, Church of the Firstborn Apostolic and consider the connection between houses of worship throughout history and today’s grand museums; austere, white cube galleries; and newly minted biennales seeking an affordable venue.
Nadia Belerique‘s installation, made of white plastic cargo barrels, anchors the space at 72 Perth, where it functions almost like an alter. The apparent lightness of the materials, their translucent, glowing, jewel-like coloured surfaces, which capture daylight flowing from behind, create the rooms’s focal point with an original sense of monumentality: lightfilled, colourful, airy. Within each barrel Nadia Belerique creates assemblages of found materials which may or may not refer to their original purpose.
What Water Knows, The Land Remember , is the title of the “curatorial vision” of the Biennale. This vision is highly idealistic, referencing the Toronto region i.e. the Great Lakes and their tributaries, and tying together ideas about ecology and the environment, inheritance and ancestry, relationships and collaboration. I did have a jarring sense of dislocation, faced with these touchingly utopian ideals and scrupulous political correctness, after a steady media diet of fear and despair: brutal war in Europe, global rise of authoritarian leaders, rage of white males, mass extinction and climate meltdown, endless Covid waves of misery. It was great to step away from all that for a few hours!
I was excited to be introduced to the work of Paul Pfeiffer. He did a fascinating, multi-media piece about a pop-star and his billions of fans around the world. In this case: Justin Bieber. He used this utterly contemporary phenomenon to explore the encarnacion-style of woodworking, which originated in sixteenth century Spain, and continues to this day in the Philippines, as a way to produce lifelike icons of religious figures.
The artist named Aki Onda created a piece that had an uncanny resemblance to so much work that went on in the seventies. I really like looking at outdated technology, particularly from the seventies and eighties, so his piece called “Nam June’s Spirit Was Speaking To Me,” was a hit for me. The text that accompanies the piece, an oversized booklet, describes the artist’s ongoing attempts to channel Nam June Paik through various garbled radio broadcasts he chances upon.
Scanning through the station, I stumbled upon what sounded like a submerged voice, and began recording. I concluded this was Paik’s spirit reaching out to me.Aki Onda, from the booklet “Nam June’s Spirit Was Speaking to Me”
It’s hard to know if Aki Onda is just relating his experiences earnestly, or not. I too have heard strange, submerged voices on the radio, from time to time.
In the gallery. the sound was very low, almost inaudible, but you can listen to Aki Onda’s piece on You Tube.
Lingering at the exhibition made me think that the fact that it takes place in a former church possibly influenced the curators decisions. Many of the pieces referenced spirituality, liturgical items or connections with deceased beings or those of distant generations.
For example, Andrea Carlson shows a sculpture and huge painting, referencing “Man Mound,” which is a 214-foot-tall earthwork in Wisconsin, dating back to between 600 and 900 BC, when it functioned as a burial and ceremonial site.
The painting, which is immense, composed of numerous panels, and painted in a joyful mash-up of styles, appears to contain many messages, laments, pleas and warnings from the beyond, or the distant past, or just elsewhere.
Tanya Lukin Linklater‘s sculptural piece has many components. I was very attracted to the drapped scarves that hung from the ceiling, which in keeping with the theme of this show at 72 Perth Avenue, appears to reference liturgical garments, tapestries and shamanistic cloaks.
Kohkom is Cree for grandmother, and for Tanya, the scarves are a way to evoke “women’s intergenerational, embodied, experiential (and sometimes land-based) knowledge.from Toronto Biennale of Art Website
I dashed over to MOCA — apparently my free pass entitles me to a discount on coffee at the MOCA cafe — which is around the corner on Sterling. The main floor of MOCA is part of the Biennale.
It was very enjoyable to look at the installation by Maria Qamar. This artist strikes me as completely of the moment, freely moving between the worlds of fashion, art and digital stardom.
Strolling into MOCA, and Maria Qamar’s installation, I had left the spiritual realm behind at 72 Perth, and was into a version of the material now: young, glamourous and Desi!