Jan. 30, 2013 - Issue #902: Come cry with Daniel Romano
The Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art
The most highly anticipated, at times controversial, always passionately debated and ultimately seminal visual art event in Alberta is the Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art, held at the Art Gallery of Alberta Since 1996 the biennial has offered Albertans a snapshot of arguably the finest, contemporary art created in the province. At its best, this comprehensive exhibition—featuring 161 artists to date—provides Albertans with a historic map of esthetic trends and creative directions within our flourishing art community. Nancy Tousley, a Governor General's Award-winning journalist and Canadian Art contributing editor, curated this year's event, The News From Here. Tousley, who also served as the art critic at the Calgary Herald for over 30 years, has had the opportunity to intimately observe the evolving art scene in Alberta since the 1970s.
Her first challenge as curator was to winnow down 164 submissions to a shortlist of 62 studio visits. As Tousley doesn't drive, she flew or took the bus to nine towns and cities ranging from Lethbridge to Fort McMurray, but she had no complaints.
"I like that part of the process; it's one of my favourite parts," Tousley explains. "As long as I have been doing what I do, I still feel it's a privilege to have access to artists in the place where they make their work."
Strong submissions made the job difficult, but Tousley eventually selected 36 artists to be featured in the biennial.
"When I started looking at artwork, I wiped my mind of expectations; I went to see what's there," she explains. "I wanted the form that the show took to come out of the work rather than this being something I imposed on it."
Three quarters of the way through the selection process, the theme emerged: "I saw something that I haven't seen before to the same extent," she explains. It was the way Alberta was present in the foreground or background of the work in terms of subject matter, content and critical issues.
There is evidence of a significant shift in attitude in Alberta's artistic developments: from the late '70s on, conversations addressed regionalism. "Art was derivative of the centre; the centre ruled the periphery," explains Tousley. Artists now have opportunities that were unthinkable not so long ago. Due to ease of travel and ease of communication, the isolation from cultural crucibles such as New York or Toronto, that set artistic agendas, has vanished. Artists now participate in a global environment, a change that Tousley refers to as "post-regionalism."
"There is a discourse in the way we talk about things that's changed," she observes. The sense of being provincial has vanished and is replaced by a vibrant, even celebratory, sense of place. Alberta artists are paying attention to where they live and in turn create a sense of what it means to be Albertan. There is a renewed and reflective interest in place and a growth of confidence.
"I see it in the imagery, in the subject matter, in the content and the critical issues that are addressed," explains Tousley with a note of passion. "I see it in the myth making and in the way history is drawn on." For her, this show is a model for constructing a visual poetics of place.
Although Tousley doesn't see any one work as exemplary of her thesis, one example she cites is a video by Sarah Fuller entitled "Experiment in Landscape, No 1." The historically celebrated and artistically iconic image of Mount Rundle forms the background. The artist walks into the scene and does a long headstand in the moonlight. "It's her way of being present in the landscape," explains Tousley. The subtle, mythological sense of place that Fuller creates is juxtaposed with a note of humour: grand scenery notwithstanding, she fails in one of the clips and falls.
Bruno Canadien offers a more political take on what it means to be Albertan. His work entitled "Pipe Dreams", from the Freedom Fighter Series, addresses resource exploitation from an aboriginal perspective. As Tousley explains, this perspective sees oil as a sacred material, one that should be protected. "This piece has a real sense of presence," she adds as she points it out in the freshly-minted exhibition catalogue. "I want this show to be fresh."
Tousley selected works by highly esteemed and established artists and by some younger ones for whom this show is a first outing: the age of artists in the biennial spans about half a century.
"This province has many wonderful artists", explains Tousley. "The existence of these biennials is important as it is the only exhibition that regularly calls attention to the wealth of artists in the province."
Until Sun, May 5
Curated by Nancy Tousley
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