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What I Did On My Summer Vacation Part I: “Oh Canada” At the MASS MoCA

Catalogue Cover

Oh Canada, Oh Canada

Has come down to MASS MoCA Oh Canada, Oh Canada Visits the United States of America What’s in store? Beyond those doors? What exactly is contemporary Canadian Art? Is it: An interactive Mountie installation Or relational lacrosse? Maybe it’ll just be the Queen Serving poutine in the gallery

Excerpt from the music video “Oh, Canada Oh, Canada” by The Cedar Tavern Singers aka Les Phonorealistes (Lethbridge, Alberta)

“Why?” -- a typical Canadian reaction to the news that the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts (otherwise known as the MASS MoCA was curating a new exhibition featuring over 60 Canadian artists and the country. And then the corollary question—“why not?” followed by an understated shrug. I kid you not. This was the usual reaction from my Canadian friends when I told them I would be going to MASS MoCA to see the exhibition this summer .

“Americans were bemused while Canadians were amused…”

I am standing beside a small group of clearly American women in their late 60s and older considering Kent Monkman’s diorama Two Kindred Spirits “The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name”. They are clearly at a loss to explain it to each other and walk onward. I experience other such similar moments walking throughout the exhibition. I ask the one of the attendants at the entrance to the museum if they have had a significant number of Canadians coming to see the show and they sagely nod and say, “oh yeah….”

The first time I saw the MASS MoCA in the picturesque Berkshires it was the day after a particularly nasty ice storm in early November. I stepped into a restored 19th century factory with over 25 buildings on 13 acres. It sits in the heart of North Adams and was once a vital part of the industrial life of the city’s downtown core. It has now been transformed into a destination for lovers of contemporary art.

Installation art is the reason to visit MASS MoCA, most of it intriguing, some of it questionable and if you are lucky one or two elicit an emotional and inspiring reaction. I experienced Jenny Holzer’s “truisms” floating over my head while lying down on huge bean bags in a football sized auditorium on that first visit, saw a series of over a 100 pink canvases in a small exhibition room that symbolized Jackie Onasis’s pink pillbox hats. I was excited by the space and the breadth of work and made a mental note to return.

This time I arrived in the blistering heat of August looking forward to the architectural spaces of the factory buildings as well the “Oh Canada” exhibition. Denise Markonish, one of the curators at the MASS MoCA took it upon herself to travel throughout Canada and visit artists in their studios (a five year project) in order to understand the country and display the diversity of Canadian artistic talent to an American audience - quite an ambitious and laudable effort that Canada has only done in a limited way in its own country. The usual Central Canadian biases win out when most attempts have been made in Canada -- which is my own personal issue coming from the West and knowing what great work is being done there. However, I was excited to see familiar names together with lesser known names from all across the country.

As a Canadian viewing the work it is amazing to see so many accomplished artists from across the country featured together. Familiar themes and clichés are easily identified such as the ideas of land/geography, sense of space, the aboriginal experience, the colonizer and colonized etc. as well as tongue in cheek references to arrows throughout the show. The sense of Canadian irony pervades the show. There were also installations that were not specifically Canadian in content but edgy and intriguing as well, which took the show thankfully beyond clichés and stereotypes. Many American viewers were bemused yet interested while I am sure Canadians will find it a pleasant surprise to see their own country interpreted through American eyes. You feel like saying “thank you” in typical Canadian fashion but refrain. And yes, what truly Canadian exhibition is not complete without Molson and Labatts featured in some way? Here are some personal highlights from the show in no particular order:

  • Creating an imposing yet inviting entrance to the show is Janice Wright Cheney’s (Montreal) bear titled “Widow”.

My 14 year old daughter named her Rosie the bear, but you are greeted by a life sized bear made up of wool/velvet roses dyed a deep red. “Widow” is flanked on the left by a perforated cargo van/lamp by Kim Adams (Edmonton) titled “Optic Nerve”. It has appeared at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche event in past years and would definitely look impressive lit up at night…

  • The Cedar Tavern Singers aka Les Phonorealistes (Lethbridge) entertaining music video “Oh Canada, Oh Canada” asking the all- important question: “what is Canadian?” Anyone for a game of lacrosse? Americans are confused but the Canadians chuckle… btw, their CD is for sale as well…

  • Michael Snow’s (Toronto) video Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids) of curtains blowing in the wind…yes just curtains and the monotony of it is mesmerizing…all 62 minutes of it…

  • Graeme Patterson’s (Saskatoon) sculpture with video “Mountain”, an intricate

and impressive model of a mountain with miniature settings/models and stop-motion animation that delighted both adults and children. Both were competing for the viewfinders.

  • Diane Landry Knight (Quebec City) “Knight of Infinite Resignation”. Mixed media, dark room kinetic with white wall and white ceiling. This kinetic sculpture made of sand bottles was fascinating to see in motion. Her commentary on the installation in the exhibition catalogue is also worth reading.

  • Mitchell Wiebe (Halifax) “Lasers in the Bubble/Concave Convex Portals/Ellipses and Disks/Shake Our Sphere/Rebirth of Painting as Parallel Worlds/ Cool.” The installation has the feeling of being in a Fun House at the midway fairs and captures the feeling of motion with a comic book flair with drawings, paintings as well as installation work which do include concave/convex mirrors.

  • Nicolas Baier (Montreal) “Vanity” Beautiful, chilling work made from aluminum, nickel, steel, glass, fluorescent.

  • Wanda Koop “Look Up” — one of my favorite Western Canadian artists. A colour study and observational commentary on “space” with bright acrylic paint on canvas “boards” going up the wall….

  • Amalie Atkins (Saskatoon) “Three Minute Miracle/ Tracking the Wolf” One of the most charming installations that captivated all groups of people with its inviting white felt tent and white felt boots –people sat on stools inside the tent and watched the fairy tale video all the way through. No one was in a rush to leave…

  • Annie Pootoogook (Cape Dorset) “Composition Evil Spirit/Two Guys Outside the Pool Hall/Crying While Making a Drawing/Woman Drawing While Girl Watches/Sleeping/Dr Phil”. Her very personal and naïve cartoon drawings carry sobering images of current aboriginal life. She is one of Canada’s most accomplished aboriginal artists. Based on current news reports, she is currently living on the street, homeless in Ottawa with her partner and expecting her third child. An all too common Canadian aboriginal tragedy on a personal scale that non-Canadians don’t hear about too much...

  • Luanne Matineau (Montreal) “Who are they you salute and that one after another salute you” Hand sewn Japanese paper, graphite and thread. Impressive in its delicate and detailed features made primarily from paper.

  • Ruth Cutland (Saskatoon) “Beaded Viruses” with glass beads thread and backing. Beautiful and intricate beaded images of deadly viruses such as H5N1 Avian Flu, HIV, West Nile to name a few.

  • Arrows stuck into walls throughout the show. Something a 14 year old definitely notices….

  • Dean Baldwin's quintessential “Chalet” a mixed media installation of a makeshift cabin filled with typical Canadian memorabilia and items was the most entertaining. The installation is inhabitable and acts as a bar in the evening.

It is located inside a small independent building on the MASS MoCAgrounds off the inner courtyard and near the river. There is also an outdoor patio in operation weather permitting.Look closely at the inner cabin/living room/kitchen area which has such typical Canadian items as Labatt’s 50, Molson Canadian beer, Mott’s clamato juice, Canadian Club whisky, Quebec maple syrup…

It has apparently become a big hit with the North Adams crowd at night where drinks are served from the cabin in the evening. The installation was conceived and fabricated onsite.

  1. Don’t forget to look outside on the campus to see more outdoor installations beyond the “Chalet”---Michel de Broin’s “Tortoise” made of wood, screws and bolts that we plebeians simply called very cool “picnic tables” and the BGL collective “Canada de Fantasie” installation at the front entrance.

The show is eclectic, sometimes edgy but never dull or clichéd—there is much to consider. How great would it be for a Canadian curator/institution to undertake a similar task and see the results?

“Oh Canada” is on exhibit until April 1 – well worth a trip to the Berkshires a tourist destination in its own right. I highly recommend getting the exhibition catalogue. Fellow artists in the show interview each other about the show and their work—the comments on their artistic process and studio practice offer further insight into their work and into the show itself. And there is a terrfic drawing retrospective of Sol LeWitt not to be missed while you are there.

If you are travelling to the MASS MoCA take the time to explore The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute located in Williamstown, Massachusetts (literally next to North Adams which is a ten minute drive away). It has an impressive collection of Impressionism and post Impressionism art to check out and much more. The Berkshires are also home to Tanglewood (the summer home for the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and there are also many historical landmarks and villages with lots of B&Bs and hotels/motels as well as one of the top rated spas in North America (the Canyon Spa) but I digress…

If you are staying in North Adams, try the popular Public restaurant/pub and make sure you have one of their regional microbrewery beers. After all, viewing art all day does create an appetite and on a blistering hot day a cold beer is the perfect end to the day…

Next blog entry—What I did on My Summer Vacation Part II: The Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston. I will have some pics of Josiah McElheny’s wondrous works of glass in his solo show “Some Pictures of the Infinite”. Can anyone say “lobster roll”?

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