“Over long expanses of time, the bottom-most layers of earth move slowly upward, continually revealing its past to us,” curators Tairone Bastien, Candice Hopkins, and Katie Lawson write in their statement for the second Toronto Biennial of Art. Titled “What Water Knows, the Land Remembers,” the exhibition was framed as a “move inland” from the shoreline, which served as an organizing idea for the inaugural biennial (“The Shoreline Dilemma”) that Hopkins and Bastien curated in 2019. The works on view were meant to suggest how land, like water, is an archive, and to ask questions about what current inhabitants have inherited.
Many artists documented histories of particular environments as they intersect with social or political issues. Susan Schuppli, in a video and printed informational chart that make up COLD CASES (2021–22), forensically outlines incidents in which extreme temperatures exacerbated racial violence, as when police have abandoned Indigenous and migrant people in frigid conditions, leading to their deaths. Ts̱ēmā Igharas and Erin Siddall traveled to Great Bear Lake—in northwest Canada, within the Sahtu Dene region—to make Great Bear Money Rock (2021–22), a project about a former uranium mine in a region where extracted resources once fueled the World War II–era Manhattan Project and have since contaminated the ground. Some of the resulting art, such as photographs of rocks printed on fabric draped over plywood and a tapered pedestal, struggles to convey the poetics or politics of the journey. But another element of the installation provides an apt metaphor: silent film footage from the artists’ 164-mile boat trip is projected through a plastic bottle filled with lake water and balanced atop a rectangular prism. The stacked objects impose a tall shadow over the moving images, as if the water were simultaneously a witness to, overseer of, and actor within the film.
A primary challenge for artists in the exhibition seemed to be producing work that was not just about the land but that worked in dialogue with the land. Among the most publicly advertised works was A Tribute to Toronto (2022), a pyrotechnic performance by Judy Chicago presented one evening along the Lake Ontario waterfront. Clouds of pigment billowing over spectators’ heads transformed the landscape as the artist intended, but also glossed over local context by feeling far too reminiscent, without acknowledgment, of Holi, the springtime Hindu festival much of Toronto celebrated earlier in the season with similar clouds of colored powder. The curators wrote that Chicago’s relatively immaterial contribution to Land art countered the invasive gestures of her peers, but numerous other participating artists offered more thoughtful strategies attuned to the locales their works engaged with.
Some of the most compelling contributions were video works that specifically address the politics of how land is shared and divided. In Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s video installation 45th Parallel (2022), an actor delivers a monologue about a contentious lawsuit against a United States border guard who shot an unarmed Mexican 15-year-old at the dividing line between their home countries. As the narrator explains, the Supreme Court ruled that holding the guard accountable for a cross-border fatality (the teen’s body fell in Ciudad Juárez while the agent stood in El Paso) could set an undesirable precedent for other “foreign affairs.” Hamdan’s script suggests the court wanted to shield the government from responsibility for casualties resulting from drone strikes abroad, and his dramatized narrative contributes to the biennial some messier examples of the curators’ stated key term inheritance—for example, legal precedent often becomes an excuse for morally indefensible and logically dubious verdicts.
A related standout was Jumana Manna’s film Foragers (2022), a damning portrait of how Israeli authorities and businesses have constrained and outlawed harvesting two wild plants common in regional cooking, za’atar and akkoub, under the pretense of protecting contested landscapes. The video opens with found footage in which an interviewer, speaking with Israeli men in the business of marketing za’atar to Arabs (or “sell[ing] ice to the Eskimos,” as she puts it) observes that for her interviewees, “za’atar is Zionism.” In the next scene, shot by Manna, a Palestinian character is interrogated about why he picked a bag of za’atar. “I won’t answer you,” he replies. “I am part of Nature. Nature is me… I would not harm myself.” Foragers offers a more subjective, sensory, and expansive exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than conventional news: later scenes depict women cooking for elders, pan across overgrown hillsides, and follow a man searching for choice specimens alongside his dogs. These visuals evoke delicate and long-standing relations between humans and the land, which seem harshly disrupted when Manna shows carefully gathered herbs being abandoned by the side of the road after brisk encounters between foragers and enforcers.
Many works on view read as case studies of disparate sites that are far from the particular geography, metaphors, and histories of Toronto explored in the curatorial statements. That breadth makes the show’s “archive” of the land’s memories unwieldy, but it occasioned an admirable body of research, including nonvisual types of knowledge. The Talking Treaties Collective (Jill Carter, Victoria Freeman, Martha Stiegman, and Ange Loft) published A Treaty Guide for Torontonians (2022), which details regional history in seven chapters identified as “layers.” Meant to encourage reflection on the relationships and responsibilities of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Toronto, the Guide explains specific treaties and alliances, defines Indigenous metaphors, and suggests crafty activities. Camille Turner and Yaniya Lee created the Black History Navigational Toolkit (2022), a card deck featuring stories highlighting people and sites important to Toronto’s African diaspora, with an invitation to create similar compilations: in the introduction, the authors ask, “Where and when and who is your Black Toronto?”
Alongside so many pieces resurfacing histories, two works optimistically point to the future. Shezad Dawood’s Leviathan, Episode 7: Africana, Ken Bugul & Nemo (2022) is set in 2050, when “Senegal, and particularly Dakar, have become beacons of a post-capitalist and decolonial society.” Syrus Marcus Ware’s MBL: Freedom (2022) reads as a series of video diaries by people building an imagined abolitionist community in Antarctica.
Perhaps the works in the Toronto Biennial will help us humans better remember and relate. In any case, the exhibition offers a more humbling, less anthropocentric argument that we necessarily depend on the land beneath us to recall and recirculate certain histories while breaking up the present ground.