“Here one can be both modest and ambitious”: Report from the Québec City Biennial
Manif d’art 9 – The Québec City biennial
February 16–April 21, 2019
The Québec City Biennial is exceptional in many ways: It is certainly the coldest Biennale anywhere in the world; it is entirely bilingual, often known better by its French name ‘Manif d’art;’ and it is indeed the only major biennale in Canada, at least for the moment, Montreal having collapsed and Toronto not launching until September this year.
For a city the size of Québec, its biennial, now in its 9th iteration, has always been unusually ambitious and this year pulled out all the stops by appointing as chief curator Jonathan Watkins, the highly respected director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England. Veteran organiser of many previous biennials including Sydney and Shanghai, Watkins is tipped as the future artistic director of Venice itself.
His poetic title for Manif d’art, Small Between the Stars, Large Against the Sky, was taken from a song by Leonard Cohen – a favorite Québecois – and its broad theme was the interaction of nature and the city, which is particularly pertinent to this town perched above a vast empty landscape.
Whilst extremely international in scope the exhibition happily also included a judicious range of not just Canadian but French-speaking Canadian artists, acknowledging Québec as the heartland of a very specific and intense battle over identity politics. But the Musée national des beaux arts du Québec – which for only the second time ever gave the Biennale a whole pavilion – broke their own firm rule of only exhibiting Québecois- as opposed to Canadian- artists. Of some 100 artists included there, only 20 were Canadians and 6 from Québec itself.
In fact it was a local Québecois, the indomitable Claude Bélanger, who not only created the Biennale back in 2000 but is also largely responsible for transforming his city into a veritable web of contemporary art practice, transforming numerous buildings into a chain of alternative spaces. Most notable in this respect is the Méduse, a complex of run down factories which he personally rescued and built into a large multi-purpose arts center for some ten organizations. The Méduse is the hub of a city wide regeneration. The Biennale is spread out all over town and if commercial galleries are relatively rare in the mix, by contrast there is a dense network of small non-profit organizations and performance venues. This is a pleasingly old fashioned and genuinely close-knit community of artists of every sort who all know, help and drink with each other, thus transporting one to a Gallic-accented version of the legendary New York art world of the 1940s. Impressively, Bélanger and Watkins decided to give space to twelve young Canadian curators who in turn chose and displayed some 40 Québecois artists, a show within the show. As Bélanger comments, “People are very serious about art in this city but unpretentious and quiet about their own work. Here once can be both modest and ambitious and most importantly everyone is very mutually supportive.”
The bitter cold helps to reinforce this sense of community and the Biennale opened amongst spectacular blizzards which made the public art projects all the more dramatic – it was actually freezing in contrast with another major art world opening of the same weekend, the inaugural Frieze LA. Having personally attended the Antarctic Biennale I can attest that Québec was much colder, indeed both featured a Tomás Saraceno ‘Aerocene’ but there was certainly not enough sun here to make this one fly, unlike at the South Pole.
But the weather only added to the exoticism of the locale, not least crossing the vast icy width of the St Lawrence river to visit Regart located in Lévis, a small arts enclave where Shimabuku was exhibiting his swan pedal boats all the way from Okinawa, Japan.
Watkins has a particular interest in indigenous artists, which is especially appropriate to this part of the world, and convincingly brought together embroideries by the Swedish Sámi tribal elder Britta Marakatt-Labba with work of local peoples including Nunavut artists Manasie Akpaliapik and Shuvinai Ashoona and such ‘First Nation’ practitioners as Marianne Nicolson and Meryl McMaster, the latter staging extraordinary faux-documentary photographs of her own performances. One of the most intriguing Biennale venues is the Huron Wendat museum, 15km outside the city, which is run by the tribe itself and featured installations by indigenous artists Hannah Claus and Sonia Robertson. Their significance was ably explained by the impressive Guy Sioui Durand, one of the few native sociologists and art historians and an expert in his own people’s visual traditions.
Likewise,Le Lieu, an avant-garde performance venue, presented an impressive film installation by Nadia Myre that brought together a panel of indigenous practitioners to talk about their heritage. In many ways Watkins has put together the first example on a widely indigenous Biennale, as groundbreaking in its own way as the groundbreaking 1989 Pompidou Center exhibition, Les Magiciens de la Terre, with a strong and logical emphasis on what is here called ‘autochtone’ practice. One cannot help ponder, nonetheless, the fate of those contemporary French-speaking Canadians who, with the notable exception of Jean-Paul Riopelle, remain one of the few true ‘minorities’ to never have their work included in any such international exhibitions.
Watkins also did well by his own particular minority, the English, with the world premiere of Reanimation a notably impressive new film installation by Oliver Beer; strong sculpture by Haroon Mirza and an exemplary exhibition at the very English Villa Bagatelle pairing paintings by George Shaw (including a brand new and very Canadian image of a man peeing against a tree) with prints by Thomas Bewick, the only dead artist represented. There were, of course, other stand-out works: a window suite of transparent photographs by Beat Streuli; a set of wood block prints by the Leipzig based Christiane Baumgartner; a spooky mise-en-scène of tiny terracotta figures by the Swiss duo Lutz & Guggisberg. There was also a delightfully upbeat display of specially knitted festive winter caps by Polly Apfelbaum, generously made to be given away to each of the other participating artists.
Watkins is well aware of the risks of ‘regionalism’ attached to such events, some artists assuming the Biennale would be in Montreal rather than the city of Québec itself and it remains a surprisingly, perhaps stubbornly, hidden corner of the world. But Watkins turned any such parochialism to his advantage, doing what every Biennale should do, revealing a whole strand of current practice, in this case the indigenous and ‘autochtone’, whilst simultaneously demonstrating the hidden cultural wealth of the host city.