NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — As Marshall McLuhan once wrote about his homeland, “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity,” which makes “Oh, Canada: Contemporary Art from North North America,” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art here, a challenging kind of survey to undertake. It is,after all, a country that has nurtured numerous international art stars and has plenty of government support for the arts but has not had a coast-to-coast biennial since 1989.
“Composition (Self Portrait)” by Shuvinai Ashoona, whose drawings depict Inuit life.
“Oh, Canada,” a 62-artist affair that sprawls over most of Mass MoCA’s first floor, wants to be that kind of national-scale megashow. But in trying, it becomes something much quirkier. Seesawing between bigness and intimacy, the personal and the communal, it may tell you more about Canada’s identity crisis than it does about Canadian art.
It was organized, with fanatical dedication, by an American curator: Mass MoCA’s Denise Markonish, who visited some 400 studios in a three-year process that served as a makeshift education in Canadian culture. She had a lot to learn; initially, as she admits in her witty and self-deprecating introduction to the show’s catalog, she “thought Don Cherry was an African-American musician.” (He is a commentator on “Hockey Night in Canada,” as any Canadian — and not a few Americans — will tell you.)
“What started out as a quest to find art has turned into an exploration of a whole country,” she writes. “I have tried poutine, Nanaimo bars, caribou, Saskatoon berries and Timbits; I watched the aforementioned hockey, rode a Ski-Doo, came to understand what a ‘dry cold’ is; I drove through Vulcan, Alberta, and Dildo, Newfoundland; I know who Grey Owl, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven are; I know that the motto of Captain Canuck (Canada’s superhero) is ‘peace, order and good government.’ ”
Ms. Markonish also enlisted notable Canadian (and Canadian expatriate) writers like the Montreal-born essayist David Rakoff, who died recently, to contribute to the catalog. In his essay “The Aitch of Innocence,” Mr. Rakoff muses on the ‘h’ in “Oh, Canada”: “that lone deprecatory letter,” to be contrasted with “a Whitmanesque, odic crow (which would be a simple but heroic ‘O.’)”
This kind of nuanced, introspective take is rare among the artworks in “Oh, Canada,” as endearing as many of them are. A duo called the Cedar Tavern Singers asks, in a short music video, “What exactly is contemporary Canadian Art?/Is it an interactive Mountie installation or relational lacrosse?” And the collective BGL turns crowd-control barriers, of the sort found along the border with the United States, into a working carousel.
A sense of place, if not nationhood, does emerge. The vast Canadian landscape is apparent in stark photographs of Newfoundland by Ned Pratt and implied by Kim Morgan’s hanging latex cast of a lighthouse on Prince Edward Island. It’s eeriest in a film by Charles Stankievech, in which purple fog wafts across an Arctic plain and clouds the camera. And it’s cutesiest in a silent movie, by Amalie Atkins of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, that’s projected inside a white felt tent filled with fake snow. Wearing a red hooded parka, Ms. Atkins stars in a kind of prairie fairy tale involving musical wolves and bears with golden teeth.
Her work brings to mind drawings by Winnipeg’s surrealist prodigy, Marcel Dzama, who is one of few artists in the show with recognition in the wider art world. He is represented here by an elegant black-and-white video, “A Game of Chess,” which New Yorkers may remember from his 2011 show at David Zwirner.
Another theme in the show, though one that’s not specific to Canada, concerns laborious craft, or what Ms. Markonish calls “reskilling.” It’s exemplified by Janice Wright Cheney’s “Widow,” a life-size bear made by pinning hand-dyed wool and velvet rosettes to a taxidermy form, and by Graeme Patterson’s sculpture with video “Mountain,” a feat of model making and stop-motion animation.
There’s not much painting, though it’s hard to say whether that’s representative of Canadian art or part of a larger curatorial trend for which we can’t blame Canada. The smattering that’s here, anyway, isn’t bad; it includes moody distorted figures by Janet Werner and blocky computer-graphic landscapes by Douglas Coupland (better known as the writer of “Generation X,” and another of the wry literary voices in the show’s catalog.)
Ms. Markonish was clearly determined to avoid the usual suspects, i.e., established Canadian artists like Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham or Jeff Wall, but their influence can’t be ignored; a survey of this size really ought to accommodate them. And her choices of younger artists can be puzzling. Why make room for Mr. Dzama, but not fellow young stars like Brian Jungen or David Altmejd (whose sculptures, incorporating Northwest Coast masks and taxidermy, are as identifiably Canadian as anything here)?
She does, however, recognize indigenous artists like Annie Pootoogook and Shuvinai Ashoona, whose cartoonlike pencil drawings depict contemporary Inuit life with an eye to both hardships and mundane rituals. (One of Ms. Pootoogook’s works is titled “Crying While Making a Drawing”; another, “Dr. Phil,” shows a woman sprawled out on the rug watching television.)
Whatever one thinks of Ms. Markonish’s selections, her sustained interest in Canada and its artists is commendable. It goes against the trend of “fly-in, fly-out curating” (as the independent curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist put it in a recent article for The Financial Times.) And it suggests that our supposedly global art world has a few gaps. To paraphrase Ms. Markonish, we know more about China than Canada.
“Oh, Canada,” as massive and unwieldy as it is, is just a start. As Mr. Rakoff writes, dropping that “h” and channeling Whitman: “O, we are large. We contain multitudes.”
New York Times, August 31, 2012