Year in Review: Montreal From the Ground Up

Richard Mosse, "Love Is The Drug," 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

A principal difference between year-end lists, rankings, and recollections about art, and those about music, books, or films is that it’s much more difficult to maintain an illusion of objectivity with the latter. These can be accessed by anyone, from anywhere (legally or illegally), and it’s still assumed that, in order to properly experience an art event, you actually have to be in a specific place at a specific time. So any critic’s view is constrained by their itinerary: of all the places you wanted to be, where did you manage to arrive? The only commentators who enjoy the privilege of authoritatively pronouncing on the year’s best work do so from a vantage point 30,000 feet in the air, as they jet from one art fair or biennial to another.

As an earthbound art critic, not among the international jetset (not even the poverty contingent), my authority quotient is admittedly low – though one could argue that being rooted has its own rewards. For example, I got to spend a lot of time with my baby daughter, whose birth in May was, without question, the biggest event of my year. I also discovered that seeing art with an infant strapped to your chest is a great way to keep both of you entertained – a fact that became especially clear during my half-dozen visits to this year’s excellent Montreal Biennial and its many, many hours of video.

The biennial was great, in part, because it felt so plugged-in to events and anxieties in the broader world (climate change, financial capitalism run amok) and the artworld at large. Post-internet art, for example, hit the mainstream this year, with Karen Archey’s Art Post-Internet show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing providing a semi-definitive explanation for the term. (It did so, appropriately enough, via its free, downloadable catalogue, accessible to the Western art public that couldn’t make the trip). Here in Montreal, ideas about the increasingly digitally-mediated condition of contemporary life also took center stage at the biennial, where some of the most urgent and engaging works came from internet-aware artists like Simon Denny and Hito Steyerl.

Similar themes emerged elsewhere in the city, as in Jon Rafman’s Hope Springs Eternal II at galerie antoine ertaskiran, which felt like a promising warm-up for the Future Generation Prize nominee’s impending solo exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MACM), in spring of 2015.

Jordan Loeppky-Kolesnik also had an intriguing (if brief) pop-up show following his summer residency at Eastern Bloc. Before the presentation opened, Loeppky-Kolesnik offered video teasers for Breezy Plaza that perfectly nailed, with a sort of normcore-like blankness, the pre-fabrication of subjectivity promised by predictive analytics and stock-footage databanks. The exhibit itself was a hybrid stage set/post office that seemed designed for photographing products before shipping them out to consumers, but actual commodities were missing and the installation lay dormant. I liked its branding-without-a-product premise and the way it displayed the back-end infrastructure of point-and-click consumerism, but I felt it could have used an animating element. Nevertheless, it piqued my interest for Loeppky-Kolesnik’s 2015 show at Toronto’s 8-11.

Montreal also remains a center for archival re-animations of historic conceptual and neo-avant-garde practices, in part thanks to the efforts of independent curator Vincent Bonin and Michèle Thériault, director of Concordia University’s Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery. Bonin’s highly ambitious and expansive two-part exhibit about the reception of French theory in the English-speaking artworld (for which he earned the nod for “best curator” at the Gala des Arts Visuels) was showcased in a staggered exhibition involving two separate venues. It incited me to query the current state of relations between art, theory, and criticism in a two-part article featured on MOMUS.

A more playful take on archival curating could be found in SBC Gallery’s Centre de recherche urbaine de Montréal (CRUM) exhibition, 119 m Above Sea Level, which opened in early December and runs until February 2015. It’s a show about a show, with CRUM investigating the archives of the Saidye Bronfman Center (the predecessor to SBC) and finding that the institution hosted one of the first conceptual-art exhibitions in Montreal’s history (1971). But aside from a pack of index cards, no documentation of the show or records about it exist whatsoever. CRUM’s proposition was to invent the missing archives by way of telepathy and hallucination, invoking some fairly loopy ideas, stemming from Buckminster Fuller, in the original catalogue. The centerpiece of the show was a geodesic dome flipped upside down and covered in tinfoil to resemble a satellite dish, surrounded by boxes of documents (with a couple issues of the Whole Earth Catalogue jutting out). There was also a Sun Ra-referencing sound piece, a pile of “archivally-grown” wormwood, and a bunch of info about the new Quebec hydroelectric meters. It was all quite weird but also very much in line with the psychedelic vibe that went along with the original show’s emphasis on invisible phenomena existing only in the mind, a likable zaniness that accounts of conceptualism typically exclude.

Another of the year’s highlights, also presented by the Ellen Gallery, was Adventures can be found anywhere, même dans la mélancolie, a durational performance by the collective PME-Art (helmed by multi-talented writer and performer Jacob Wren, whose novel Polyamorous Love Song was also one of my favourite reads this year), in which the six participants collectively re-wrote Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet over a week in the gallery and displayed their pages on custom-built shelves. This project gave me a lot to consider regarding the relationship between art and literature, a topic that was already on my mind thanks to Ben Lerner’s excellent novel 10:04, a trenchant meditation on how art, life, and politics intersect.

Literature (especially poetry) is a resurgent influence within recent artworld discussions. Frieze’s summer issue focused on “Artists’ Poetry,” and going forward, SBC Gallery’s long-term Focus Program will be loosely based around Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva (first published 1973), a book that coincidentally shares many features with Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet – they’re both interior monologues with no real plot that mainly concern the narrator’s examination of their own spiritual landscapes (though the two are utterly different in tone). How the gallery will translate Lispector’s difficult text into their programming will be worth seeing.

In less high-minded literature, Walter Scott’s indispensable Wendy comics were anthologized in a proper book by Koyama Press this November, for which we should all be thankful. Scott has since moved to Toronto, but the post-BFA adventures of his aspiring art-star heroine, partly set in a fictionalized version of Montreal, are a national treasure.

Video, performance, and intersections between the two blossomed in Montreal this year, not just in the video-heavy biennial, but in shows by Julie Favreau (who won the Prix Pierre-Ayot at the Gala des Arts Visuels), and Olivia Boudreau, as well as the UQAM-organized Videozoom: Between-the-Images exhibition that showcased recent video works from Quebec.

Karen Kraven’s wonderfully mercurial shape-shifter of a show at the Darling Foundry, Razzle Dazzle Siss Boom Bah, was noteworthy in part because it evaded any classificatory net you might want to cast over it. (It also earned consideration from MOMUS contributor Benjamin Bruneau).

Painting wasn’t absent from the scene, however. As the MACM’s long-running exhibit A Matter of Abstraction (which finally closed in September, to more than a few sighs of relief) testified, abstract painting has held a historically dominant position in the province, though one largely insulated from painting trends elsewhere. While this tendency appears to be on the wane, there were still some strong shows by painters this year, including RBC Prize winner Colleen Heslin, who had a terrific duo exhibition with Jen Aitken at Battat Contemporary and a solo at Laroche/Joncas not long after. At Pierre-François Ouellette, Kent Monkman debuted an impressive new series of large-scale paintings titled Urban Res. In the new year, Les Ramsay’s forthcoming solo exhibition at antoine ertaskiran is something to look forward to.

The biggest painting event in Montreal, however, was undoubtedly Peter Doig’s major survey at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Regrettably, I missed it.

A show that I deliberately avoided was Jake & Dinos Chapman’s Come and See at DHC/ART. I knew I’d loathe the collective’s adolescent pseudo-provocation enough that I’d be forced to write about it, but I preferred to save myself the mental suffering. I was thrilled, however, when my colleagues over at Passenger Art held their noses long enough to do the necessary dirty work.

Richard Mosse’s more recent presentation at DHC, The Enclave (imported from its highly-lauded debut at the Irish Pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale), also left me less than eager to critique, though for very different reasons: it was difficult to reconcile the show’s ravishing, multisensory beauty with my lingering unease about its aestheticized violence and colonial adventurism. Nevertheless, I bought the catalogue, and would happily read more about his persistently disconcerting work. What else is writing for, if not to wrestle with those things that unbalance us?

On that note (and beyond Montreal), it’s been an inspiring year for writing and discussion about art. Ben Davis’s 9.5 Theses About Art and Class is a touchstone I keep returning to for its acuity in moving past some of the impasses of establishment criticality and its timely reassertion of Marxist political economy. The economy of art was a resurgent topic elsewhere, too – not the big auction prices, but how entry- and mid-level artists and art workers make a living and support what they do. I’m thinking of W.A.G.E.‘s fee schedule and certification and the great talks I heard at the Make Work symposium at Artspace in Peterborough, as well as the incisive little book The Social Life of Artistic Property, published by a New York-based collective including Pablo Helguera, Caroline Woolard, Michael Mandiberg, Amy Whitaker, and William Powhida. It was also gratifying to see the expanded conversations around cultural appropriation, gender disparity, rape culture, and race and privilege in the artworld this year, as an echo of the impossible-to-ignore unrest going on elsewhere – the Yams Collective’s withdrawal from the Whitney Biennial, Emma Sulkowicz’s Carry That Weight, and Kara Walker’s A Subtlety were particular flashpoints for powerful debate. In the new year, my hope is that MOMUS can be a platform for continuing to wrestle issues just like these.


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