Edward Burtynsky’s aerial photograph of a red-hot Icelandic landscape. Bill Vazan’s huge, engraved granite boulders. Wanda Koop’s monumental painting of the St. Lawrence Seaway. These are just some of the ambitious works on view at the National Gallery of Canada, showcasing the 2016 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts (GGAVMAs).
The GGAVMAs recognize Canadians for distinguished careers in the fine or applied arts, film, video, audio, new media and fine craft. Each year, the National Gallery partners with the Canada Council for the Arts to present an exhibition of works by the laureates. Joining Burtynsky, Vazan and Koop in this year’s illustrious group are artists Phil Hoffman, Jane Kidd, Suzy Lake and Mark Lewis, and curator Marnie Fleming.
In her sixth year as curator of the GGAVMA exhibition, Rhiannon Vogl, the Gallery’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, has once again assembled a cohesive group of works by the laureates, from photographs and videos to paintings, sculptures, tapestries and publications. Also on display are eight “video portraits” of the winners, commissioned by the Canada Council. The videos, each made by a different independent filmmaker, are highly engaging works of art in and of themselves, offering insight into their subjects’ impulses, preoccupations and working processes.
In an interview with NGC Magazine, Vogl said it was exciting to build an exhibition devoted to such an influential, prolific and active group of Canadians. “The calibre of these artists is just so high. It’s really a testament to the kind of art that’s being made in Canada today. These artists have each had a major impact.”
The following is a brief overview of the laureates and the works in the exhibition.
Edward Burtynsky, Stepwell #4, Sagar Kund Baori, Bundi, Rajasthan, India (2010), chromogenic print, 152.4 x 202.7 cm; image: 152.4 x 202.7 cm. NGC. Photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
Edward Burtynsky’s extraordinary, large-scale colour photographs of industrial landscapes have gained him international recognition in art, cinema and environmental circles alike. Born in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, and now based in Toronto, Burtynsky was drawn early in his career to the Canadian landscape and its resource industries, venturing out into quarries, mines and scrapyards to make large-scale colour photographs. His images, many made while leaning out of an airplane, are striking for their abstract patterning and mosaic-like colours, often recalling paintings by Dubuffet, Picasso and other modernists — or, in the case of his China series, resembling traditional shan shui painting.
Burtynsky’s first major retrospective exhibition, Manufactured Landscapes, was held in 2003 at the National Gallery of Canada, which now has more than 120 of his works. For the GGAVMA exhibition, Vogl has selected three of the large-scale colour photographs from Burtynsky’s Water series, acquired in 2014 and exhibited here for the first time. Stepwell #4, Sagar Kund Baori, Bundi, Rajasthan, India (2010), for example, depicts a centuries-old structure used for collecting water during the monsoon, which is now littered with garbage.
Burtynsky’s work invites a layered interpretation. As he says in the accompanying video portrait, it can be seen as depicting environmental disaster or human progress. Or, “one can look at it from the point of view of artistic merit, and whether it captures the imagination and a sense of wonder. I think, if you look at the whole body of work, there is a story of the tilting of the balance. We’ve now become almost too successful. We’ve got our boot on the neck of nature and we’re not letting up.”
Photo: Daniel McIntyre
Over her twenty-year tenure as Curator of Contemporary Art at Oakville Galleries, Marnie Fleming earned a stellar reputation for transforming a small, somewhat fractured suburban institution into one of the country’s most important art museums. With a keen eye for emerging artists, a deft collecting approach, and edgy programming, she produced an impressive list of exhibitions and publications. “She has had such an influential career at Oakville Galleries,” says Vogl. “She spearheaded a change in the way a regional museum should be run.”
Among Fleming’s many prescient acts was the commissioning of an early audio walk by Janet Cardiff that helped launch the artist’s international career. During her time in Oakville, Fleming made acquisitions and organized exhibitions of works by many artists who themselves would go on to win the Governor General’s Award, including Kim Adams, Robert Fones, Angela Grauerholz, Mark Lewis, Micah Lexier, Liz Magor, David Rokeby, Lisa Steele, Kim Tomczak and Colette Whiten. A number of exhibition catalogues, archival materials and publications related to these artists are on view.
Philip Hoffman, ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film), 1986, 16mm transferred to digital video. Courtesy of the artist
Based in Mount Forest, Ontario, experimental filmmaker Philip Hoffman has been making films since the 1980s, exploring personal experiences, history and memory in a diaristic style. His films often combine found and original footage, both analog and digital. “To collect, to archive, to have something that I can go back to, is an important part of my filmmaking process,” Hoffman says in the accompanying video portrait. “I have tubs underneath the house, filled with film. I started using family snapshots to understand how the past lives in the present.”
Three of his films are shown here. ?O,Zoo! (The Making of a Fiction Film) was produced in 1985, when Hoffman was apprenticing with British filmmaker Peter Greenaway on the set of A Zed & Two Noughts. It combines reflections on that experience with found footage shot by Hoffman’s grandfather, a newsreel cameraman. AGED (2014) is a poignant portrait of his father’s final years, while By The Time We Got To Expo (2015), made in collaboration with Eva Kolcze, revisits Expo ‘67. Hoffman has also been an influential teacher, and is co-founder of the Film Farm, or Independent Imaging Retreat, an annual filmmaking workshop.
Jane Kidd, Curiosities Series Pairing #1 (2013), 66 cm x 56 cm, woven Tapestry mounted on wooden support. Collection of the artist. Photo: John Cameron
Weaver Jane Kidd, from Salt Spring Island, B.C., is the winner of this year’s Saidye Bronfman Award for distinction in fine crafts. Her remarkable wool tapestries incorporate allegorical symbols, graphic images and photographs related to notions of material culture, science, technology and ecology. Among the works on view are two tapestries from her Curiosities series (2013), which makes reference to a traditional cabinet of curiosities. In one, a leaf is spliced with sea coral to create a new hybrid, while the other pairs a shell with a human ribcage. “I see these works as pseudoscientific artifice, an engineered aberration of the natural order,” Kidd has written. “The tapestries are presented like specimens mounted and displayed on shelves, suggesting relationships and/or contradictions between art and science, imagination and knowledge, decoration and display.”
Wanda Koop, My Mother Lives on that Island (2012), acrylic on canvas, 289.5 x 406.4 cm. NGC. © CARCC 2016
Over her forty-year career, Winnipeg’s Wanda Koop has explored how technology affects nature in paintings, videos, photographs and performance works. Visitors to the Gallery may remember the large, graphically powerful paintings presented in her 2011 retrospective, which featured a re-creation of her studio, complete with the drawings, notebooks, and sticky notes that are part of her research-rich creative process. For the GGAVMA exhibition, Vogl has chosen a work from the national collection, My Mother Lives on that Island (2012), a four-metre-long painting from Koop’s SEEWAY series, in which she recorded her impressions of travelling the St. Lawrence Seaway for seven days on an ocean freighter. With layers of intense blue paint and gauzy washes, she conveys a dreamy, memory-laden atmosphere. Koop has said that the painting is a tribute to her mother, a highly creative woman who survived the Russian Revolution and went on to raise six daughters. “It was painted as a gift in her honour, and it is the culmination of everything I know.”
Suzy Lake, Performing Haute Couture #1 (2014), chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto. Photo: Suzy Lake and Miguel Jacob
An influential photographer, videographer and performance artist, Suzy Lake has also been a pioneer in the development of artist-run centres. Born in Detroit and active in the civil rights movement, she left the U.S. in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, settling first in Montreal and later Toronto. From early in her career, Lake has used photography, self-portraiture and a conceptual approach to explore issues of identity, gender, and more recently, beauty and aging.
In Performing Haute Couture #1 and #2 (2014), shown here, a 67-year-old Lake poses for the camera in a classic warrior stance, outfitted in a silky designer pant suit. The muted grey tones and the shifting movements captured using a slow shutter speed help to convey a mixture of steely strength and vulnerability.
Mark Lewis, Above and Below the Minhocão (2014), digital video. Courtesy of the artist and Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto
Based in London, England, Canadian filmmaker Mark Lewis creates rich, precise “portraits,” of urban landscapes and natural environments. Lewis started out as a photographer, and began to experiment with film in the mid-1990s, making mostly silent, single-take short films. Recent works often combine still images, film and multiple takes, and involve professional actors and elaborate production crews.
From Lewis’ vast filmography, Vogl has chosen the 12-minute video, Above and Below the Minocão (2014), which takes a slow, panning view of the raised highway that cuts through São Paulo, Brazil. A symbol of urban sprawl, noise and air pollution, the Minocão is used by an average 80,000 vehicles a day, but Lewis captures it on a Sunday, when it is open only to pedestrians. The absence of cars, and of a soundtrack, lends an uncanny peacefulness to the scene. “I like my films without sound,” says the artist in the accompanying video portrait, “because it abstracts the visual experience and asks us to imagine the missing elements through the visual.”
Bill Vazan, Oval (Sitting Osiris) / Membrane / Valley of the Kings, Theban Mountains, Egypt (December 2000), 58 chromogenic prints (Ektacolor), 36 prints: 34.3 x 50.8 cm each; 22 prints: 50.8 x 34.3 cm each. NGC. Gift of the artist, Montreal. © Bill Vazan
Gallery visitors who have ventured out behind the building to Nepean Point may have come across Bill Vazan’s engraved stones, Black Nest (1989–1991) and Water Planet (2001), standing discreetly within a cluster of shrubs and trees. A leader in the Canadian land art movement for over forty years, Montreal-based Vazan has created films, photographs, drawings, sculptures, and site-specific installations based on the world’s natural, ancient and sacred sites.
On display in the gallery is the massive photo-installation, Oval (Siting Osiris) / Membrane / Valley of the Kings, Theban Mountains, Egypt (2000). A series of images arranged horizontally depicts the bas-relief dedicated to the exploits of Pharaoh Ramses II at the Temple of Abu Simbel. Above and below, a globe-shaped section presents an aerial view of the Valley of the Kings. The work is part of Vazan’s ongoing investigation into how humanity establishes belief systems and relationships with larger cosmological forces, in an attempt to understand its place in the universe. He has said, “I’m fascinated with how people, no matter where, have tried to make this communication with something other than themselves.”
For Rhiannon Vogl, the works in this year’s GGAVMA exhibition are fitting representations of eight outstanding careers. “It’s a monumental show, with key pieces that make very strong statements.”
The 2016 Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts exhibition is on view at the National Gallery from March 24 to September 5, 2016.
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