Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Oct. 17, 2014 to March 8, 2015
By Paul Gessell
Remember, not so long ago, when Vancouver photo-conceptualists Stan Douglas, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace and Rodney Graham dominated most contemporary exhibitions of Canada’s best artists?
But they are all absent in the third biennial of recent acquisitions at the National Gallery of Canada. A new group of ambitious Vancouver artists now reigns: Geoffrey Farmer, Althea Thauberger and Luke Parnell, who were given spacious individual rooms for this five-month exhibition of 80 works by 26 artists from across the country.
Howie Tsui, "The Unfortunates of d’Arcy Island," 2013
"THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL..."
"The Cave Painter"
"A Brief History of Northwest Coast Design"
"Leaves of Grass"
"Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky"
The result: A series of eye-popping mini-exhibitions spread over two storeys in which a team of curators selected largely accessible art rather than esoteric brainteasers. Visitors will “get” this art.
Farmer is definitely the headliner with his installation Leaves of Grass, originally commissioned for dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany. The piece sits six feet high atop a 124-foot-long table. Thousands of photos clipped from Life magazines from 1935 to 1985 are attached to stick-like stems of miscanthus grass stuck into floral foam. Walk the length of this unusual bouquet and much of the 20th century passes before you like a high-speed movie.
Thauberger awes with a 45-minute macabre film with a 43-word title. To summarize: A Czech theatre troupe performs, in an asylum, a play within a play about the Marquis de Sade. It’s a riveting commentary on psychiatry.
Parnell’s room includes the moving, powerful Phantom Limbs in which 48 unique basswood carvings of Haida figures are encased in Plexiglas and arranged on the floor like transparent coffins. The figures represent Haida human remains and sacred objects removed and eventually repatriated to the West Coast. Each absence wounded the robbed communities.
Down the hall is a room filled with paintings, drawings and assemblages from veteran aboriginal artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun of Vancouver. Among the treasures: The iconic painting Red Man Watching White Man Trying to Fix Hole in the Sky from 1990. Twenty-two Yuxweluptun creations were donated by Vancouver philanthropists Jack and Maryon Adelaar in the gallery’s largest-ever gift of aboriginal work.
Among the Vancouver newcomers is Howie Tsui with his take on ancient Chinese scroll painting in The Unfortunates of D’Arcy Island, illustrating, with Chinese paint pigments and gold calligraphy ink on mulberry paper, the tragic tale of a former Chinese-Canadian leper colony off the B.C. coast. This man is going places.
Other highlights include a mesmerizing installation by Toronto’s Shary Boyle, The Cave Painter, created for the Venice Biennale last year; painterly photographs of the Chinese landscape by Toronto’s Ed Burtynsky; and drawings by Moncton’s Mario Doucette that re-imagine Acadian history.