The exhibition’s poster is a school-room map of the world—with Canada missing. That and the show’s title, From Sea to Shining Sea, contain just the touch of irony to be expected from AA Bronson, the general of Toronto’s art-making trio known as General Idea. But what is most interesting about the group show at To-
ronto’s new Power Plant gallery in the Harbourfront complex is its subtitle: Artist-initiated activity in Canada.
What Bronson has proposed is not just another anthology exhibition but an ambitious reflection on the Canadian art scene—or at least on that part of it represented by that particularly Canadian institution, the artist-run space. As Bronson himself puts it in the show’s promotional material—in a fair imitation of the breathless style of Vogue magazine: “We have all been talking about artist-run spaces, their new authority, their recent history, their white walls and market-conscious curating, their young smart directors on the way up. Now contemporary Canadian art is 20 years old, and we are all talking about how it’s high time we looked at our own recent history and that’s what we’re doing.”
It is Bronson’s contention that 20 years ago there was nothing resem-
bling a real art scene in Canada—and that Canadian artists had to gaze wistfully south, their noses pressed to the windowpane of life. To fill the void, he writes, “we had to construct not only our art but the fabric of an art scene. We had to start our own institutions, open our own galleries, publish our own magazines and develop our own
networks.” The result was a networkmore bureaucratic than anarchic—of artist-run galleries and resource centres across the country, starting with a handful in the late 1960s. Currently, they number more than 70. This artistrun system, Bronson argues, has created the face of current Canadian art, resulting in “surfeits of performance, video, installation and other media forms that could be dispersed within our linear country.”
Unprimed visitors will not realize that such assumptions are based on dubious sociology and incomplete history. In fact, contemporary Canadian art predated General Idea’s founding in 1968. And it could be argued that the face of current Canadian art has equally been formed by artists who have been supported by a few vanguard commercial galleries.
What is visible at the Power Plant is a judicious selection of installation
works that could have come from almost anywhere. In fact, the largest piece in the show, Iain Baxter’s Bagged Place, was first executed in 1966 in the Fine Arts Gallery of the University of British Columbia. Twenty-one years ago Baxter’s recreation of a four-room apartment in which every object and piece of furniture is wrapped in plastic
was seen as a cutting comment on a sterile consumer society. Now the work has less edge—and only in part because Baxter himself has since ventured into the capitalist world as a visual consultant to a brewing company.
The handsome white spaces of the Power Plant itself also play their part in neutralizing the work. Bronson has noted with misgiving the tendency among artist-run centres to start with raw industrial space and to end up with a perfect museum cube. The Power Plant, although not run by artists, is another example of an institution going upscale. Known formerly as the Art Gallery at Harbourfront, it was an informal space devoted primarily to local contemporary art. Recently, it has undergone a $4.6-million rehabilitation: its airy exhibition rooms are pristine, and every space except the washrooms seems to bear the name of a corporate donor. Clearly, it is not a
place where artists can misbehave.
The result is a show that might have been agreeably unruly but that instead has a somewhat muted air. The most high-spirited piece is by Toronto artist Tom Dean, who attempted to re-create a work he did at Montreal’s Véhicule Gallery in 1972. In it, he coated four chairs with heavy industrial grease and burned a fifth chair, leaving char marks on the gallery’s floor. Equally effective is Sandra Meigs’s recreation of an installation that originated in Halifax in 1980. The Maelstrom is a typical installation hybrid—it employs sound, video, a table that collapses violently, then rights itself by means of mechanical pulleys, and even a wall of small, manic watercolors, all creating a mood that has the intensity of a high-pitched scream.
Video, according to Bronson, was the medium of the period reviewed. But the 10 video monitors located in a gallery corridor at the Power Plant are almost unwatchable. They contain more than three hours of material by such leading video artists as Lisa Steele, Colin Campbell and Susan Britton. However, for some reason the public is expected to watch standing up and wearing earphones. The only inducement to persevere is the admonition “Viewer discretion advised.”
Last year the Harbourfront gallery attracted about 600,000 visitors, the majority of them tourists sampling Toronto’s waterfront leisure world. To some, part of AA Bronson’s show must appear like fragments of a distant, unfathomable civilization: Eric Metcalfe’s wall of leopard-skin spots or a shamanistic mask made by performermusician AÍ Neil speak of the earlier headier days of Canada’s West Coast art scene.
Some help in interpreting it all will come with the September publication of the show’s catalogue, which contains a selective but still sprawling chronology of artist-initiated activity since 1939. Sometimes gossipy, at others coldly factual, the chronology is useful in conveying the sheer range of activity in Canada, from the communal, laid-back openness of Vancouver in the late 1960s to the rigorous, inquisitorial atmosphere of Halifax Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
Perhaps inevitably, From Sea to Shining Sea fails to recapture that diversity. It may be impossible to represent convincingly activity that is so often ephemeral by design. For several years the artist-run spaces thrived on being outside the system. From Sea to Shining Sea is an attempt to stamp the consciously marginal with the official seal of history.
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