Delayed six months by the pandemic, the long-awaited second edition of the Toronto Biennial of Art opens to the public on Saturday, March 26. As the exhibition’s founder and executive director Patrizia Libralato said during a press preview on March 23, “I’ve been saying we’re not a biennial until we’ve done it twice, so it’s official—we are now a biennial. Otherwise, we’d just be an -ennial, I guess.”
Featuring more than 100 works by 37 artists, including 23 new commissions, this iteration of the biennial takes as its title “What Water Knows, the Land Remembers.” The curatorial team consists of Candice Hopkins, Tairone Bastien, and Katie Lawson, who all also worked on the 2019 edition. The biennial’s title reflects their guiding idea of water and land serving as an archive to the histories that have been purposefully lost, hidden, buried, and erased in Toronto, Canada, and beyond. Some of the stories of Indigenous and Black people, and of people of color, may not have survived to today, but the water and land can serve as a witness and source of knowledge to fill in the blanks.
[The biennial’s curators discuss their vision for the exhibition.]
Spread out across nine venues throughout the city, with various programs and performances unfolding throughout the biennial’s run, the exhibition, which ends on June 5, offers a sweeping survey of various approaches to contemporary art, with a specific focus on installation, film and video, and textile works. Many of the works on view poignantly reflect on belonging and place, aptly attuned to a public that has largely felt a sense of isolation since the onset of the pandemic two years ago.
“‘What Water Knows, the Land Remembers’ draws from polyphonic histories that are sedimented in and around Toronto,” Hopkins said during the preview. “These narratives can reveal entanglements and ecologies both across time and space. … It’s an opportunity to ask the question, especially now ‘What do we believe in?’”
Since the late ’90s, Brian Jungen (Dane-Zaa) has fashioned Nike Air Jordans into forms that recall ceremonial masks used by various First Nations tribes in the Pacific Northwest. When the pandemic began, he translated these sculptures for a new time, remaking them so that they recalled plague masks worn by doctors beginning in 17th-century Europe amid breakouts of diseases. Meant to protect physicians from “bad air” that could endanger them, the historical plague masks often offered little protection. A guiding focus of this edition of the biennial is “what it actually means to breathe together when doing so is incredibly risky,” as Hopkins recently told ARTnews.
Ghazaleh Avarzamani’s Forced Afloat is a pile of 7,000 square feet of blue rubber mulch resembling a large pool. Situated in a parking lot outside 72 Perth, it will act as a site for outdoor programming for the biennial. The installation’s focus is the contradictions of its material, a semi-soft padding that is often found in children’s playgrounds. It was chosen “because it slows down the movement of bodies and protects against scrapes and bruises,” per the wall text. Despite the fact that the material may make play safe, its production isn’t necessarily safe for the planet. The mulch comes from reused tires, which themselves are “often lauded as environmentally conscious reuse, yet is made from petroleum-derived hydrocarbons and highly toxic chemical compounds.”
The artistic output of Denyse Thomasos, one of the four deceased artists in the biennial, is still relatively underknown in New York, where she was based until her death in 2012 at 47. (That may soon change when her work appears at this year’s Whitney Biennial.) Thomasos has been more widely recognized, however, in Toronto, where she was raised. On view here are three charcoal drawings Thomasos made while an M.F.A. student at Yale School of Art in the ’80s; all three of them were recently discovered by the artist’s sisters. Though Thomasos is better known for large-scale semi-abstract paintings, these works display a more explicit approach to exploring how architecture can cause feelings of confinement, specifically as it relates to slave ships and prisons. In an interview shortly before her death, Thomasos said, “I was struck by the premeditated, efficient, dispassionate records of human beings as cargo and also by the deplorable conditions of the slave ships—so many Africans stacked and piled into the tiny, airless holds. In my artworks, I used lines in deep space to recreate these claustrophobic conditions, leaving no room to breathe.”
On view nearby Thomasos’s drawings is a three-channel video installation by Camille Turner. The works on view by Thomasos and Turner seem to initiate a call and response to one another, as they both reflect on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in particular Canada’s own role within it, which has often purposefully been erased from the country’s telling of its own history. For her video, Turner drew on her dissertation research into the building of slave ships in Newfoundland. One specific focus was the means by which the materials used to make those ships—timber for the structure, stones for the ballast—traveled the Atlantic. In Turner’s view, these materials act as a witness to the horrors of slavery. Her 12-minute video is a deeply moving and experimental telling of this history connecting those now-nonexistent ships to a still-standing church in Newfoundland. Built around the time of the ships, the church would have been constructed from the same wood as these vessels.
Tanya Lukin Linklater
Hanging overhead in the center of the 72 Perth space is this breathtaking sculpture by Tanya Lukin Linklater (Alutiiq) made from various Kohkom scarves, which are worn by Indigenous women as a sign of solidarity and intergenerational knowledge. (“Kohkom” is the Cree word for grandmother.) Displayed over a circular platform that is painted bronze, the piece seems to point to the presence of various forms of Indigenous knowledge, particularly those carried, embodied, and passed down by Indigenous women. What, exactly, that knowledge is isn’t necessarily for non-Indigenous people to know, as it’s not theirs to behold. That doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t exist. She once said, “The audience may not have a context for the knowledge.” Also on view by Lukin Linklater are a series of four videos of four dancers performing various choreographies over the course of 10 weeks.
Several articles of clothing made from home-tanned rawhide are affixed to six hanging abstract sheets of cloth for this commanding installation by Amy Malbeuf (Métis). Designed to be worn by everyone and anyone (all body types and gender identities), these clothes won’t stay on view forever. By the end of the biennial’s run, they will all be removed from the hanging sculptural and gifted to people—their former presence simply alluded to, though not shown. Malbeuf has also intentionally left the clothes unembellished, as they would have been by the Indigenous communities of northern Alberta, where she was born. “In eliminating the decorative aspects, my aim is to highlight the beauty of the hide itself,” she said of the work.
This textile-based installation by Eric-Paul Riege (Diné), who is best known for sculptural works made from his weavings that also act as the sites of durational performances, has an embodied presence. a home for Her presents dozens of white weavings that Riege made with women in his family. They are suspended from above and form a maze-like structure which can be entered. The structure is meant to represent the artist’s childhood home. The family moved out of that house a decade ago and into another next door. Despite the building’s closeness, Riege has only entered it once since the move. “I feel like it’s important when I talk about my practice to introduce my hands first,” the artist recently told Art in America. “My hands knew what they were supposed to do before my body did.” This work, too, will serve as the site of a performance by the artist on March 27.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan
This 15-minute filmic work takes as its subject the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, a building that straddles the U.S.-Canada border. In fact, the border between the two countries bisects the building (represented inside by a thick black line). Visitors from both countries are allowed to enter the library, but they must do so from designated doors. A U.S. border agent watches from a car parked not too far away to make sure that people exit from the door in which they entered. As Mahdi Fleifel, who gives the films central monologue, says, “The border cannot be crossed here, and yet inside it’s like the border doesn’t exist.” Visitors can move freely within the building and even stand in two countries at the same time. When the U.S. instituted Trump’s Executive Order 13769, known as the “Muslim Ban,” this library became a site where separated families could reunite, if only for a brief moment. This poignant work speaks to the true purpose of borders and their impact on vulnerable communities.
Aycoobo / Wilson Rodríguez
A major theme of the 2022 Toronto Biennial is kinship in all its many forms, whether as familial relationships or artistic connections. Nowhere is that more clear than the works on view by Aycoobo (Wilson Rodríguez) and his father Abel Rodríguez, a sage and elder in the Nonuya Indigenous community of the Cahuinarí River in the Colombian Amazon. Now based in Bogotá, the two artists had their works displayed in relation to each other for the 2019 edition. Whereas Abel typically creates drawings from his memories of his homeland, often with a focus on the various plants of the area that are significant in Nonuya culture for the healing powers and used in ritual, Aycoobo uses his drawings to imagine a more metaphorical realm. Aycoobo depicts botanical elements within Nonuya creation stories that offer an expanded rendering of their community’s knowledge. On the facing wall from Aycoobo’s works is a commissioned film, titled Mogaje Guihu, The planter namer, that the two made where they return to their homeland.
Jessie Oonark took up art-making relatively late in life, at 59, when she moved to Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake). By the time she died at 78 in 1985, she had become one of the most influential Inuit artists. Of her 13 children, nine survived into adulthood, and eight became artists. Through her mentorship of her family and other artists in the community, Oonark created “what is distinctly a matriarchal practice,” according to the biennial’s curators. In her art, Oonark primarily depicted Indigenous women in various scenes of both daily life and fantastical scenarios. Often, it was done through a focus on symmetry or “double vision,” which lends its name to this exhibition within the biennial that pairs her work with that of two of her daughters, Janet Kigusiuq and Victoria Mamnguqsualuk.
Janet Kigusiuq, one of Jessie Oonark’s children who also became an artist, came to paper collage late in her career, when arthritis made it difficult for her to continue making detailed drawings. Her mostly abstract collages are pure expressions of color and form that delight the eye. She often depicted the Arctic landscape of Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), where she was based until her death in 2016. Kyra Vladykov Fisher, who led a collage workshop that Kigusiuq took, once observed, “The Baker Lake artists’ approach to drawing was different from the way I had been taught, which was to start a drawing using a line. Possibly because of their sewing background and use of appliquéd designs, many including Kigusiuq would sometimes cute out a shape and trace around it to get their lines and composition. They started a drawing using the element of shape rather than line.”
One of the biennial’s odder works is an installation by Aki Onda that is placed on either side of the 72 Perth location. In each instance, on a wall is a photo of the pioneering video artist Nam June Paik giving an interview as part of Michael Snow’s 1974 experimental film Rameau’s Nephew. Below it is a shelf holding a stack of printed pamphlets describing the work. On the floor are vintage radios playing a host of eerie sounds that sound more like screeches that anything else. These noises are recordings of séances that Onda did while scanning various radio frequencies that he believes was Paik, an artist he says he’s “always felt a close kinship” with, attempting to contact him. In the pamphlet, Onda writes, “These recordings became a way for me to explore the mythic form of radio—a medium which is full of mysteries.”