A still from Mark Lewis's 2017 film Valley depicting electrical power equipment behind a gray-painted wooden fence.

Idea of North

Text,

When I pitched a review of Mark Lewis’s solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, my editors responded by asking me to survey Canadian arts institutions’ efforts to address the country’s sesquicentennial. The resulting essay was published as “The Idea of North” in frieze 189 (September 2017).

July 1 marked the 150th anniversary of Canadian federation—and, as a new arrival from the United States, my first Canada Day. For many here, 2017 has occasioned pride and celebrations. Outside interest in Canada swells in part due to a photogenic prime minister seen as a welcome contrast to the US president. The country he leads is understood to be politically liberal-minded, economically stable, and relatively tolerant and welcoming. For others, though, including many in the art world, Canada150—as the anniversary has been marketed—prompts reflection upon the centuries-long mistreatment of Canada’s Indigenous peoples: the colonial occupation of unceded land, broken treaties, and continuing inequities.

These two stances, or narratives, are not mutually exclusive. Rather, the question, especially as it pertains to arts institutions marking the occasion, is where on the spectrum between them a museum or gallery believes it should position itself. Operating budgets do not determine everything, but they determine a lot. The larger the institution, the more likely it is to present a program directly related to Canada150. And, in a country with relatively generous government funding for the arts, including grants specific to Canada150, the larger the institution, the more likely its program will have softer edges.

In Ottawa, at the National Gallery of Canada, large parts of the collection have been reinstalled in a blend of chronological and thematic displays that integrate Canadian and Indigenous art. The years-long effort to organize this presentation was undertaken by National Gallery curators alongside two Indigenous Advisory Committees and resulted in the inclusion of nearly 100 Indigenous artworks loaned from elsewhere. Both decisions suggest the National Gallery, like the government itself, is beginning to recognize the challenges presented by redressing historical deficiencies.

A view of the new Canadian and Indigenous art galleries at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The photo includes an Indigenous-made canoe and a wall hung salon-style with landscape and portrait paintings.
A view of the new Canadian and Indigenous art galleries at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC.

Smaller organizations can perhaps hazard more comprehensive gestures—though, it should be noted, relatively few have done so. One notable exception is SBC Galerie d’Art Contemporain in Montreal, which has renamed itself and is operating for the year as Wood Land School, after an itinerant project initiated by the Omaskêko Ininiwak artist Duane Linklater in 2011. The gallery’s identity is nearly subsumed and all programming decisions are being made by Linklater, Tanya Lukin Linklater, and cheyanne turions with Walter Scott (rather than by SBC’s director/curator, Pip Day).

Others have used Canada150 to reconsider the country’s centennial, in 1967. That earlier moment of profound optimism was marked most famously by Expo 67, the world’s fair in Montreal that drew 50 million visitors. The Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montreal has brought together 19 artists and artist collectives to reflect on the legacy of that six-month extravaganza exploring “Man and His World.” Many have created moving-image and installation work relying on material from Expo 67’s vast archives—and in acknowledgment of Expo 67’s emphasis on new media and technology.

While millions toured the pavilions erected on two islands in the St. Lawrence River, Toronto in 1967 played host to its own unprecedented exhibition. In the plaza between the two towers of architect Viljo Revell’s newly constructed Toronto City Hall, National Gallery curator Dorothy Cameron presented sculptures by 51 avant-garde Canadian artists such as Les Levine and Michael Snow. Fifty years later, Ian Carr-Harris and Yvonne Lammerich, who had attended the City Hall exhibition as art-school students, are marking its anniversary by interviewing an equal number of artists who have emerged since that time. These videotaped interviews, presented singly and in tightly edited compilations, will be exhibited at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre beginning in late September. The conversations they recorded engage not only each subject’s artwork, but also the circumstances by which they became artists and their relationships to the current art system. Carr-Harris and Lammerich see this endeavour, with its shoestring budget, as surfacing networks of affinity and countering amnesia about Canadian art history. Their project joins other recent scholarly efforts, including the indispensable Art Canada Institute, which launched in 2013 and publishes accessible and authoritative print and online monographs about Canadian artists.

The sesquicentennial celebration also occasioned a novel endeavour from Partners in Art, a group of charitably minded arts patrons in Toronto that, since 2002, has sponsored more than 60 arts projects at nearly two dozen organizations. (Full disclosure: the gallery I now direct is among those organizations.) Foregoing gallery partners, this year PiA stepped into the foreground to produce “LandMarks 2017,” an exhibition featuring site-specific interventions by Canadian artists in various national parks and historic sites. The curatorial team PiA hired selected an admirably broad range of artists and their works, often sculptures or performances, engage the landscape as site, subject, and possessor of histories.

Elsewhere in Toronto, The Art Gallery of Ontario’s attempt to acknowledge the power, persistence, and centrality of Indigenous cultures is the large-scale group exhibition “Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood.” The density of the installation and the number of large-scale artworks hint at the plethora of artists whose work deserves institutional acknowledgment and those artists’ exceptional ambitions.

As a new arrival to Toronto, that show serves as a welcome introduction to the fertile conversations about identity and place that occur here. But it was another show on view in the museum, by artist Mark Lewis, that resonated with me most strongly, perhaps because he, too, has a distanced perspective on the questions of nationhood and identity that pervade the projects described above. Lewis was raised an hour southwest of the museum in Hamilton but has lived in London, UK, for two decades. He signalled the push-and-pull of his relationship to his homeland by titling the show “Canada,” then ambivalently (or protectively) claimed it refers to one of the three 2017 films it includes—which is itself named after the novel Canada (2012) by the US writer Richard Ford.

A still from Mark Lewis's 2017 film Canada depicting a young woman, in a coat, hat, and gloves, reading a book near the waterfront.
A still from Mark Lewis’s 2017 film Canada.

The film Canada, depicting a young woman at a waterfront park reading a worn copy of Ford’s novel, and another, Things Seen, also depicting a water’s-edge encounter with a single female subject, are shot in Lewis’s characteristic style. They’re silent and relatively short; the camera moves languidly; subtle manipulations and references to the history of cinema abound. But the third film, Valley, encapsulated for me the complexity and challenges of addressing place and identity at this moment. Toronto locals will immediately recognize the film’s setting as the bottom of the Don Valley Parkway, an unloved expressway that follows the parklands alongside the Don River, near where it intersects with another highway. As the film opens, we see a commuter train in the distance. The camera begins a complicated but smoothly rendered dance: over a fence, in between the bars of a tower holding electric lines aloft, along a bicycle trail. Familiar—or infamous—sites come into view, such as a BMW dealership and an enormous, disused industrial building now up for sale. It is the type of non-place that is created when unconsidered planning brings multiple uses against one another. The camera pans down as it passes a small bridge over the Don River, alongside which stands an Indigenous man. We see a blue tent, a red milk crate, a tarp; it’s clear he’s homeless. He puts on headphones and bobs his head to music before the weather abruptly shifts to snow and he climbs inside his squat.

“It’s not a political statement per se, but a reflection of something I’ve seen,” Lewis told the local newspaper of his choice of actor. It is, of course, a political statement, and one that is certainly open to interpretation and criticism. Perhaps Lewis acknowledges as much at the end of the film, when the camera, which has climbed to a surprising height, surveys the messy industrial sprawl. A lone billboard stands at the centre of the frame, its image blank. Like the landscape itself, its white expanse is a screen onto which we project our own understandings of this place so many different people call home.

Selected projects