Taysir Batniji, image from the series Interface (2014), series of 79 photographs, inkjet on paper, 80 x 53 cm. Courtesy of the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut, Lebanon and Hamburg, Germany, and Eric Dupont, Paris; commissioned by the Ministry of Culture of Bahrain, 2013
We humans have a tendency to look at the future through a rearview mirror. “Futuristic” predictions from previous eras can seem almost comical in retrospect. The Victorians imagined cities with flying cars where women still wore long skirts and bustles. The astronauts of 2001: A Space Odyssey had sentient computers but still needed phone booths. Predicting the future is a tricky business. The theme of this year’s Montreal Biennale is “looking forward,” but — like most clairvoyant endeavors — what the exhibition really does is hold up a mirror to who we are right now.
Our era’s popular culture — from movies to television to video games — is full of dystopian, post-apocalyptic futures: The Walking Dead, Fallout, The Hunger Games, The Last of Us, and on and on. Something in our collective anxiety can’t help wondering what happens if war, natural disaster, or a species-threatening virus overtakes us. That same anxiety comes through in the Biennale. It can feel at times like a curated look at our deepest fears. And is there any better reason for art to exist?
The hub of the Biennale is the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, but there are exhibits, conferences, and events all over town. It’s impossible not to compare this citywide event to Expo 67, and indeed, some of the artists make that connection themselves. For instance, Etienne Tremblay-Tardif’s imaginary signage for the Turcot highway interchange suggests how that utopian public project — opened on the eve of Expo 67 — is now literally a crumbling dream.
Isabelle Hayeur, Bayou Terrebonne 01 (2013), digital photograph, inkjet print on polyester, 102 x 213 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Division, Montreal and Toronto
What’s different between 1967 and now is how we see the future. All those happy 1960s daydreams about technology came true. Our phones have more computing power than Apollo 13. We have an unprecedented amount of control over our world, and yet — to judge by the artists in the Biennale — we’ve never felt so vulnerable.
One of the recurring themes is the threat of climate change. Photos by Isabelle Hayeur show the natural and economic destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Hito Steyerl’s video installation, Liquidity Inc. (2014) links natural disasters like tsunamis to economic catastrophe.
The most in-your-face installation is Krysztof Wodiczko’s large-scale, outdoor projection of homeless people onto the high-culture buildings of the Place des Arts. In this context, it’s a powerful statement on economic inequality and displacement. So is Preuzmimo Benčić, a video by Althea Thauberger that shows Croatian children living for five weeks in an abandoned industrial complex-turned-art space.
My favorite piece (so far) in the Biennale is Simone Jones and Lance Winn’s End of Empire, a video of the Empire State building that references Andy Warhol’s 8-hour movie Empire, but is much more disturbing. The video slowly scrolls down the building, but when it scrolls back up, the building is gone. It’s both a symbolic statement about the end of the American empire, as well as a gut-punching reminder of the vanished Twin Towers on 9/11.
Krzysztof Wodiczko, Homeless Projection: Place des Arts (2014), video projection with sound on Théâtre Maisonneuve, 20 minutes, French and English, courtesy of the artist; presented by BNLMTL 2014, L'avenir (looking forward); co-produced by the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal (MAC), the Partenariat du Quartier des spectacles and the Phi Centre, in collaboration with St. Michael's Mission. Collection of the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal
Amidst so much global turmoil at the Biennale, Emmanuelle Léonard’s photographs and video of elderly nuns seem, at first glance, to be a calm respite. But even they are ultimately about impending death.
Perhaps the most fitting epitaph on the Biennale is Eternity (2014), by Nicolas Baier. This mirrored wall installation spells out the word “eternity,” but it is almost literally a hall of mirrors – it’s impossible to really know if what you’re seeing is the real “future.”
Clearly, we are a long way from Disney’s upbeat Tomorrowland or Expo 67, where visitors envisioned brighter world with flying cars. This is a biennial that can give you nightmares. The art here is that powerful.
So for the artists at least, the future looks bright.
The Montreal Biennale 2014, L'avenir (looking forward), is on view at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art and venues throughout Montreal until January 4, 2015. The National Gallery’s Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial 2014 features some of the same artists, including Hayeur, Thauberger and Baier. Presenting over 80 works by 26 artists from across the country, the NGC Biennial takes the pulse of contemporary art production in Canada, and is on view until March 8, 2015.
Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.
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