January 13, 2020 § Leave a comment
Still in the early planning stages, the $8 million standalone gallery will be located steps from the York University subway station
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER JANUARY 12, 2020
The Art Gallery of York University (agYU) wants to make North York a destination for art lovers.
Thanks to a $5-million donation from patrons Joan and Martin Goldfarb, York University is planning to build a standalone new home for its contemporary art gallery.
Still in early planning stages – the search for an architect has yet to begin – the new agYU location will be adjacent to the current gallery in York’s East Accolade building, just steps away from the York University subway stop.
“The new gallery gives the agYU an opportunity to expand its art collection,” explains agYU director Jenifer Papararo, adding the school is pitching in $3 million toward the building. “The current collection is limited mostly due to limits in storage.”
Papararo, a Torontonian who recently returned to the city to lead the agYU after stints running galleries in Vancouver and Winnipeg, will head up the project. She hopes the new building will be open in two years.
It’s not confirmed yet whether agYU will continue to occupy the current gallery after the new one opens, she says. Details around the new location also have to be worked out.
“Decisions have not been made yet about how the building sits in this location,” says Papararo.
“The gallery’s location on the subway [line] is huge,” says Toronto-based museum planner and consultant Gail Lord. “And the accessibility of North York to the rest of the province is very important.”
Lord sees the initiative as contributing to an ongoing democratization of the arts across the city. Recent developments include the city’s new public art strategy, which will get a big push in 2021, and annual art event Nuit Blanche’s forays into Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York.
She notes the new gallery will join the Ontario Science Centre, the Aga Khan Museum and the Meridian Arts Centre as North York venues with an arts focus.
“The data tells us the more art presented, the bigger the arts audiences,” she adds.
Before the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension opened in 2017, getting to York University was an arduous journey for students and gallery goers reliant on public transit.
The new subway stop meant the commons space situated just beyond the entrance has become more animated. An art gallery would only make it more of a destination.
“The new building could break out into this space,” Papararo says. “It has the potential to be a focal point of the campus.”
How might the new gallery fit in with the York’s large, brutalist concrete structures, which were built in the 1960s?
Newer buildings tend to stand out as experiments in new architectural styles, a sometimes risky gamble. The Bergeron Centre, home of the Lassonde School of Engineering, is one such example on the York campus, with its modish curves and showy glass facade. When asked if there’s an opportunity for the school to build an iconic architecture, Papararo’s response was measured.
“The architect’s vision shouldn’t fight the use,” she says.
It’s a consideration that has special relevance to an art gallery. The building should not overwhelm visitors’ ability to experience artwork. “It’s important to picture the body in front of the artwork,” Papararo says, “and the building should also be situating the viewer within the experience.”
Getting bodies in front of artwork is a challenge all galleries face.
Papararo’s predecessor was writer/curator Philip Monk, who helmed the agYU for 14 years. Along with senior curator Emelie Chhangur, he made community outreach an integral part of programming – not just token gestures toward inclusivity.
Under Chhangur, the agYU commissioned a short film by artists Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca and Scarborough collective R.I.S.E. that was shot in the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension. It screened at the Toronto Biennial of Art last fall and is currently exhibiting at the Jumex Collection in Mexico City.
The agYU’s current programming includes a collaboration with R.I.S.E. Edutainment, which kicked off with a series of arts-based workshops for youth at the Malvern public library. They will take place through June.
The agYU opened in 1988 and moved into its current 3,000-square-foot space in 2006. The gallery served as commissioner for Rodney Graham’s celebrated 1997 Venice Biennial and has had a strong publishing program. Especially under Monk, the agYU has focused on exhibitions that document the history of the Toronto art scene. Major shows have included The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, Will Munro: History, Glamour, Magic, and DONKY@NINJA@WITCH by FASTWÜÜRMS.
The university’s Keele campus is also home to a Centre For Fine Arts, established through a donation from the Goldfarbs in 2001.
January 3, 2020 § Leave a comment
Look out for shows by Laurie Anderson, Michael Snow, Wendy Coburn, Tau Lewis and Nuit Blanche’s move into Etobicoke and North York
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER JANUARY 2, 2020
It’s fitting that a Michael Snow survey exhibition kicks off Toronto’s 2020 art season. The influential Toronto-born multimedia artist’s practice has been a baseline for contemporary art in the city for an incredible 70 years. A marvel of productivity – and longevity – Snow deserves much of the credit for the sheer eclecticism of formats and styles that comprise contemporary art today.
As artists like Snow made increasingly experimental and challenging work, the venues where art is shown also expanded. All-night art event Nuit Blanche, which will take place in North York and Etobicoke for the first time this year, is possible because artists have an ability to consider any venue as suitable for showing work. The annual event is part of a wider push to grow art audiences in the city, which includes a major emphasis on public art in 2021. In the meantime, Torontonians have plenty of mind-expanding options in the coming year. Here are our most-anticipated shows.
Laurie Anderson: To The Moon
Royal Ontario Museum, January 11-25
Like Snow, American avant-garde artist and composer Anderson is another influential name with a long track record of experimentation, to great success, across a range of art forms. This winter, she’s exhibiting a VR artwork made in collaboration with Taiwan’s Hsin-Chien Huang. The 15-minute experience is an immersive trip into outer space, and through the DNA of dinosaurs. Anderson is also performing a sold-out show at Koerner Hall, giving a lecture and screening her film Heart Of A Dog at Hot Docs Cinema during her visit to Toronto.
Listening To Snow: Works By Michael Snow
Art Museum, University of Toronto, January 18-March 21
The sheer scope of 91-year-old Snow’s practice allows galleries to experiment with the presentation of his work like this exhibition, which focuses on the artist’s use of sound. Sound installations, two recordings and a film will create a sonic experience within the space of the gallery. U of T’s Innis Hall will also screen three of Snow’s most celebrated films, including his landmark 1967 short, Wavelength. Snow will also give a solo piano performance in the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery on March 21.
Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa: Asymmetries
The Power Plant, January 25-May 10
Absurdist and mordant humour, often about the civil war his family fled when he was a child, infuses the work of this Guatemalan-Canadian artist. Something of a superstar internationally, this is his first major exhibition in Toronto. It will mostly include works from the past decade, as well as a newly commissioned work based on the cacaxte, a ladder-like tool used in Latin America for carrying objects on one’s back.
Oakville Galleries, January 26-March 22
Currently on a tear through the international art world, Toronto-based Lewis is a self-taught prodigy. With a focus on “telling stories about Black identity,” Lewis creates gallery installations in which multiple figures and their accompanying landscapes and backdrops are sculpted from found textiles and other materials.
Fatma Bucak and Krista Belle Stewart
Museum of Contemporary Art, May 1-June 2
Part of Contact Photo Fest, this show presents the two artists’ work in dialogue. Kurdish-Turkish artist Bucak shows photos from an ongoing series, still lifes of found objects taken from border landscapes (including Syria-Turkey and U.S.-Mexico). Stewart, a member of the Syilx First Nation and now based in Berlin, presents work about the artist’s investigation into “Indianers” – the notorious German hobbyists who enact a fantasy of Indigeneity each summer.
Fable For Tomorrow: A Survey Of Works By Wendy Coburn
OCAD Onsite Gallery, May 13-October 3
This is a posthumous exhibition of work by the much-loved influential artist and OCAD University professor, who died in 2015. For those introduced to her work through the mind-blowing investigative video Slut Nation: Anatomy Of A Protest – documenting the world’s first SlutWalk protest in 2011 – this survey will provide an excellent chance for Toronto audiences to better understand Coburn’s wide-ranging art practice and activism.
InterAccess and other venues, July 16-19
This festival, which showcases art about digital technology, takes place online and at venues across the city. For the eighth edition, the festival asks what happens after the gamification of everyday life – how do artists respond to tech’s ability to engineer our behaviour? The deadline for art and curatorial proposals responding to this theme is February 1.
Various venues, October 3
The annual all-night art event keeps getting bigger. Judging by the crowd sizes, its expansion to Scarborough (starting in 2018) has been a huge success. Next up: moves into North York and Etobicoke. The event has also appointed Dr. Julie Nagam as artistic director for the next two years. Nagam is planning a city-wide exhibition focused on Toronto’s ravines and waterways. By connecting exhibits via the city’s historical trade routes, visitors will enjoy an entirely different experience of the city.
Kristiina Lahde: Follow A Curved Line To Completion And You Make A Circle
MKG127, November 21-December 19
A coolly inventive artist, Toronto’s Lahde makes delicate, geometric artworks using everyday items like wooden rulers, envelopes or paper clips. Her upcoming exhibition promises more of her precise minimalistic abstractions, with a focus on circular sculptural works, including circles discovered in found items and the “zeros clipped from advertising flyers.”
December 17, 2019 § Leave a comment
German artist Stephan Balkenhol’s polarizing public art work bears the heavy weight of Toronto’s globalized reality on its sturdy shoulders
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 17, 2019
It was always going to be controversial. A 25-foot-tall sculpture of a man cradling a condo, standing on multi-coloured cubes. Commissioned by the developer Camrost Felcorp and made by celebrated German artist Stephan Balkenhol, Toronto Man (2019) is one of the city’s newest public artworks. It got a mixed reception when it was unveiled in August.
Balkenhol spends his time living between Meisenthal, France and Karlsruhe, Germany, where he teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts. He’s been a commanding presence on the European art stage for decades, and the work is the sculptor’s first commission in North America.
NOW spoke with Balkenhol by email over a number of weeks this fall. His comments made clear why he thinks his work has sparked dialogue: The sculpture is just a pretext for a conversation Toronto needs to have with itself about rapid development in the city.
Where to find it
Located at 101 St. Clair West and facing the street, the work is part of a three-condo development complex on the site of the former Imperial Oil building. It has provoked consternation ever since it went on display: here is the invasion of the city by developers made literal. Is the artist mocking us? Toronto Man inspired a social media debate, with one Twitter user noting that it represents “a certain class dominance over the society that is supposed to be diverse and multicultural.” It’s a fair summation of the ambivalence the work has prompted.
Why it stands out
Toronto Man is big. At 25 feet in height, it’s not at human scale. When asked how he decided on the size of the work, Balkenhol called the sculpture “big, but not too big.
“The location on the street in front of the high buildings demands a certain height of the sculpture,” he said. “It was meant to be a kind of landmark and should be perceived [by] the people driving on the road as well for those who walk by.”
The rough-hewn surface of Toronto Man is characteristic of Balkenhol’s practice. Using a carving style that dates back to the Middle Ages, he hacks and chisels his figures out of single blocks of wood. Casting the figure in bronze and adding a coat of paint is the artist’s contemporary update on this tradition. At the same time, the rustic look conveys a message about the technique’s medieval origins.
The figure of a standing man wearing slacks and an open collared shirt often recurs in Balkenhol’s work. A Twitter comment noted that Toronto Man has “a Soviet messianic look in his eye.” Is the figure some kind of new New Soviet Man? Or, more likely, John Galt, the libertarian architect hero of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged? In the book, Rand conflates architecture with a maverick world-building that cares not for the destruction it leaves in its wake. Torontonians could be forgiven for feeling that developers are equally disruptive, given the impact of condo development on city life.
But this reading falls short of seeing the sculpture as a whole. The cubes at the Man’s feet are as important as the building he is holding.
Who exactly is Toronto Man? “This guy in Toronto is a nobody in an everybody – he could be you,” says Balkenhol. “This sculpture invites you to take his place and hold the tower [while] standing on the coloured cubes.”
The cubes are a decisive detail. On a traditional sculpture, the pedestal separates the viewer from the figure it represents. The base of Balkenhol’s work suggests a more playful invitation.
That said, Balkenhol makes clear that seeing the man as a developer is not a misreading.
“I don’t want to illustrate stories but invite people to invent some by looking at my sculptures,” he says. “I do make proposals but don’t tell a story myself up to the end.”
Vice writer Mack Lamoureux couldn’t decide if the work was intended as a celebration of developers’ hold on the city or as an indictment of it. Is the “sculptor shitting on the developers for gentrifying cities by putting up some ‘luxury condos,’” he asks, while conceding “there’s also the real possibility that the developers are in on the joke.”
Balkenhol said in a 2014 interview: “It is the viewer who fills it with meaning. Astonishingly enough, many beholders can hardly bear this ‘openness.’”
The bigger picture
In the last decade, Toronto has been utterly changed by condo development. The skyline is more glossy, the population is bigger and rental prices keep going up. All of this is rolled up into one big, 21st-century package of globalization.
The Yonge + St. Clair BIA is also pushing to raise the profile of the neighbourhood and make it more of a destination. Public art is a big part of the strategy. Other recent projects include an eight-storey mural by Sheffield, UK street artist Phlegm and the pop-up Tunnel of Glam, an 80-foot long tunnel of sequins running to January 6.
More broadly, the city has a policy that requires a percentage of large-scale development projects go toward public art. Until Toronto Man, no public work has been funded through that program while overtly commenting on the city-building phenomenon that made it possible. Toronto Man bears the heavy weight of Toronto’s new lived reality on its sturdy, capable shoulders.
Look Closer is a column in which a writer visits public art or an art exhibition and explores why a specific work jumped out at them. Read more here.
December 16, 2019 § Leave a comment
Our picks for the year’s top exhibition, performance, film program, new art spaces and more
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 10, 2019
This year, Torontonians saw a new vision of the city thanks to the Toronto Biennial of Art. The inaugural, 72-day event was a thoughtful if low-key blockbuster that spanned several sites along Lake Ontario. Curators Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien, brought an outsider’s perspective on the waterfront as a site of rich thematic potential. They commissioned a video by New Mineral Collective, a group of artists based in Tromsø, Norway, that revealed the innate strangeness of Ontario Place, a view local curators may have missed.
Homegrown artists are typically under-represented in the international art world, but current and former Toronto residents are changing that. Brendan Fernandes was the star of this year’s Whitney Biennial in New York; Berlin-based Stephanie Comilang won the Sobey Art Award; and the prolific sculptor Tau Lewis exhibited in Miami, Los Angeles and Yorkshire.
Meanwhile, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s new pricing scheme – free admission for visitors 25 and under and a $35 annual pass – is here to stay, making one of the city’s biggest museums a bit more accessible. The city is following suit, firming up plans to expand Nuit Blanche to North York and Etobicoke, part of a commitment to ensure public art works are installed across the city, and not just downtown.
Here is our list of the best Toronto’s art scene had to offer in 2019.
Best Art Performance
Althea Thauberger & Kite, Call To Arms at Toronto Biennial of Art
Vancouver-based Thauberger and Montreal composer Kite collaborated with the brass and reed band of the HMCS York, a reserve division of the Royal Canadian Navy located at the foot of Bathurst, on this remarkable performance.
Call To Arms (which was also presented as an installation work) saw conch shells used as instruments to play a musical score based on the Fibonacci sequence (each number is the sum of the two previous numbers). The score echoed the conch’s nautilus shape, which the musicians further echoed while walking in a slow procession to the centre of a spiral. The coordination of two groups of people that rarely work together (artists and the military) was the point and executed to sublime effect.
Best Film Program
Drowned World at Cinesphere, curated by Charles Stankievech for Toronto Biennial of Art
Artist Stankievech made resplendent use of the Cinesphere’s giant IMAX screen with a five-hour film odyssey during the Biennial that included works about the deep sea, water, and islands. The result was a truly immersive experience.
Casting the Cinesphere as a monument that embodies both ambition and decline, the artist’s accomplishment is also notable for envisioning such a resonant use of the Cinesphere – turning the theatre into a holistic space for visual and sound installation in a way we haven’t quite seen before. A highlight was the audio work For Ann (Rising), from the 1969 composition by James Tenney. Based on the auditory phenomenon known as the Shepard tone (the illusion of a sound that is continually rising), this new version in multichannel sound proved how perfectly suited the Cinesphere is for immersive art, not just retro blockbusters.
Moyra Davey’s Subway Writers (2011/2014), a chromogenic-print photograph with tape, postage and ink, was on display at Ryerson Image Centre as part of a survey show. Photo: Courtesy the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; greengrassi, London
Best Art Exhibition
Scotiabank Photography Award: Moyra Davey at Ryerson Image Centre
There was an off-the-cuff virtuosity to the work New York-based Canadian photographer Davey presented in this expansive survey show. Her colour-saturated photo-mail-artworks were the most stunning. Davey took intimate snapshots of people on the subway, or ultra close-up images of pennies, folded them up and mailed them to people in her life. The resulting works were presented with fluorescent tape she used to fold and pack the photos, making for a compelling visual puzzle. Once decoded as mailing remnants, the works cannily vacillated in meaning between their past lives in the postal system and newfound status as art on the wall.
What Do We Mean When We Say “Content Moderation”? at Art Museum, University of Toronto
Organized by designer/curator Pegah Vaezi as part of her Master of Visual Studies degree at the University of Toronto, this symposium asked essential questions about how art and activism are affected by the web.
How to make web-based artworks was not at issue – instead, the discussion focused on what an ethical internet would look like. Panelists included the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian C. York and Jonathon Penney from U of T’s world-renowned cyber-security think tank Citizen Lab. A presentation by Montreal artist Skawennati, cofounder of the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace project, lightened the event’s dystopian vibe with a reminder that the idealistic goals of the early internet are still within reach.
Best Curatorial Initiative
The Black Curators Forum
The goal of this three-day event organized by the AGO and the Power Plant was to bring together Black curators from across the country, strengthen networks, excavate forgotten Black art made in previous eras and provide support to young Black artists in the present.
“While there is Black Art in the U.S. and the UK, it’s only just emerging in Canada,” writer and Canadian Art associate editor Yaniya Lee tells NOW. “Canada as a nation-state still thinks of itself as European. In actuality, Black people have been part of this settler colony for over 400 years.”
She adds that the forum ended up being “very practical. After thinking and theorizing about these issues, what comes next?”
Best Community Art Space
The Jimmy James Evans Friendly Meeting Place and Centre for the Arts
Artist Jeff Bierk is known for his large-scale photo works made in collaboration with friends who live on the streets of Toronto. Run out of Bierk’s studio on Dupont, the Jimmy James Evans Friendly Meeting Place and Centre for the Arts is an extension of his art practice.
Since launching in late 2018, Bierk has made the space available, for free, as a drop-in centre, and for a host of events, including art exhibitions and workshops put on by the mental health non-profit, Regeneration Community Services (which resulted in an exhibition at the independent art space the Loon). The goal is to resist gentrification or, as Bierk says, to assert the value of “lives that are often erased in a profit-driven urban context.”
Best New Art Space
Named for the nearby Redpath Sugar Refinery, this waterfront space launched in the fall. Curators Ala Roushan and Xenia Benivolski initiated the project so they could propose alternative formats for public artworks, which typically take the form of sculpture or mural.
Instead, SUGAR offers themed programs that invite the public to attend an ongoing series of lectures and performances. A three-year experiment partially funded by developer Daniels Waterfront, SUGAR is a way to continue having vibrant and eclectic dialogues about city life that unaffordable rent and housing costs are putting under threat.
December 16, 2019 § Leave a comment
The city is revamping its public art strategy for the first time in 30 years, but Doug Ford’s developer-friendly Bill 108 is causing uncertainty
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 4, 2019
Toronto has declared 2021 “the Year of Public Art,” but new legislation proposed by Doug Ford is already causing uncertainty.
Mayor John Tory announced the city will update its public art strategy for the first time in around 30 years.
“We want to grow Toronto’s reputation as a creative city,” he said during a press conference on November 18, adding that the inspiration for the 10-year strategy – which delivers on one of his 2018 campaign promises – was a 2017 study led by OCAD University president Sara Diamond and University of Toronto associate professor of sociology Daniel Silver.
“This is a rare example of academic recommendations being put into action,” said Diamond, an advisor on the new strategy, at the press conference.
The 2017 study called for an update to the city’s existing public art policy, which was drafted in the 1980s. The program’s costs will be determined through the city’s 2020 budget process, and the proposed strategy will be considered by the city’s Executive Committee on December 11.
Tory noted that since 2017 the city has delivered on its goal of investing $25 per capita in the arts.
The public art strategy took the OCAD study as its starting point and added to that an extensive process of city-led consultation with the arts community, stakeholder groups and an advisory committee.
According to the proposed strategy, the city will coordinate an overall vision for Toronto’s public art offerings and ensure art is evenly spread out across the city. The idea is to create more landmarks, like the dog fountain at Berczy Park, that can foster stronger neighborhood identities and a deeper sense of belonging.
Another recommendation is better integration between public art and city planning, including coordination of how pieces might work together in dialogue with one another. The study also advises the city to broaden its definition of public art to include temporary works – basically, public art pop-ups that might include performances or screen-based works.
At the press conference, the mayor talked about Toronto Man, the controversial sculpture on St. Clair West by German artist Stephan Balkenhol. “I felt joy to see the debate that this work has inspired,” he said.
He added that art plays a role in branding a city’s identity. “I visited Austin,” he said, “to try and understand how that city got its reputation as a creative hub.”
Fostering Toronto’s reputation as a similar hub is a goal that lies behind the new strategy.
However, incoming provincial legislation from Doug Ford’s arts-averse conservative government could complicate the strategy.
Late last year, the Tories cut the Ontario Arts Council budget cut by $5 million, and chopped more than $2 million from the Indigenous Culture Fund, effectively eliminating it.
Now the premier’s developer-friendly Bill 108 jeopardizes Toronto’s ability to obtain benefits such as public art from developers.
To date, “developers are responsible for over 300 public art projects getting built,” councillor Gary Crawford, one of the leads on the Year of Public Art’s advisory committee, noted during the press conference.
The city runs three public art programs, including the Percent for Public Art Program, which mandates that one per cent of a new development’s cost is budgeted for public art initiatives. New commissions are funded by developers on a per-project basis and administered by the city.
Bill 108 puts the future of the program in doubt.
The Percent for Public Art Program dates back to the mid 80s, but the last 15 years saw the majority of new projects built thanks to the explosion of condo developments. Though the rate of new condos developments is slowing, the first quarter of 2019 saw 242 condominium projects constructed, an all-time high for the city, according to Urban Toronto.
“The province has replaced development-related revenue and benefit tools with the community benefits charge,” a city spokesperson told NOW. “The impact on the city’s Percent for Public Art Program is unknown.”
However, others see less reliance on developers for public art funding as a good thing.
“If [Bill108] helps to uncouple public art from condo development, this would be a positive effect,” says Rebecca Carbin, a public art consultant who advised on the city’s strategy. “One goal of the strategy was to look at other sources of funding. Currently the city’s dependence on developers creates public art deserts.”
Ensuring that public art is evenly spread out across the city is one of the strategy’s goals. Carbin notes the majority of new major public art commissions are concentrated in the core. The suburbs are home to many street mural projects, but the exact number of these and other works is a question that will be answered by a newly announced public directory of projects.
But public art is more than sculptures and murals. “One-hundred-year monuments and one-night events” are also considered public art, says Carbin.
At the press conference, the mayor made clear his commitment to the latter format, announcing that annual all-night art event Nuit Blanche will expand to Etobicoke and North York in 2020. The previously downtown-centric initiative branched out to Scarborough over the last two years.
The Year of Public Art will also be supported by new funding opportunities for artists, administered through the Toronto Arts Council (TAC). There will be grants of up to $20,000 for Nuit Blanche projects and up to $50,000 for Year of Public Art projects.
Given that Percent for Public Art Program budgets are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the TAC grants will cover only a portion of an ambitious art project. As such, major art institutions like the Toronto Biennial of Art and the Power Plant will partner to help raise funding.
While new money to make art is always welcome, how artists will continue to afford to live in the city was not discussed at the mayor’s press conference.
Giving funds to public art initiatives is an easy concession developers can make. This allows them to expand the terms of a building project in the face of opposition. Working with artists helps to burnish their image, and Toronto condos are increasingly home to some impressively ambitious projects like Balkenhol’s sculpture or Israeli artist Ron Arad’s monumental work at Yonge and Bloor, Safe Hands.
But many people who make art may not be able to afford a unit in these buildings. A November 2019 report says that the average rent in Toronto is now $2,350 for a one-bedroom apartment. As a next step, Mayor Tory could declare 2020 as the Year of Affordable Housing.
September 30, 2019 § Leave a comment
After learning their ancestors were adversaries, AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson explore what it means to personally reconcile Canada’s colonial legacy
A PUBLIC APOLOGY TO SIKSIKA NATION by AA Bronson and IINI SOOKUMAPII: GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? by Adrian Stimson as part of TORONTO BIENNIAL OF ART Photo: Samuel Engelking
The paths of history can make for improbable crossroads in the present.
Take the case of AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson. The artists have a lot in common – both are queer and use performative personas in their practices. But the two discovered they had a deeper connection: the historical antagonism of their ancestors.
Bronson’s great-grandfather, the Reverend John William Tims, was an Anglican missionary from England who worked to colonize Siksika Nation, the territorial home where Stimson lives in Alberta. Bronson felt he could acknowledge this past with an apology. Seeking a connection with the Siksika people led him to Stimson, a meeting that proved serendipitous. In 1886, Tims founded the Old Sun Boarding School for Boys. The residential school was named after Stimson’s great-grandfather, a chief of the Siksika Nation, part of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Western Canada.
In a phone interview from his home, not far from the grounds of the now-shuttered school, Stimson agrees the coincidence is uncanny. “The Blackfoot believe in a higher power. It does give you the feeling that larger forces are at work.”
This encounter led to three years of meetings and discussion that is now coming to a head in Toronto. In response to their shared history, the artists have made dual works that debuted at the Toronto Biennial of Art. As part of their work, Bronson also apologized to Stimson in two performances on the exhibition’s opening days (September 20 & 21).
Addressing Stimson, the Siksika Elders and biennial visitors, Bronson gave a relaxed, measured and sometimes emotional performance of his text. Wearing ceremonial dress, Stimson noted in his introductory remarks that all members of the Siksika delegation present were residential school survivors. After thanking Bronson, saying, “We accept your apology,” Stimson went on to personally shake hands with and thank all members of the audience. This open-hearted gesture powerfully underlined the emotional gravity of the moment.
It’s one of the more high-profile projects happening as part of the mega-art event, which organizers hope will eventually develop a larger international pull, similar to the Toronto International Film Festival. There’s a special focus on venues located close to the waterfront, giving substance to the theme “What does it mean to be in relation?,” which encompasses how the city relates to the body of water at its doorstep.
Biennial senior curator Candice Hopkins, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in the Yukon, originally introduced the men in 2016. “AA is moving into difficult territory in a way I haven’t quite seen before,” she says. “[The project] is not about the past, but setting a relationship for the future.”
By working together, she adds, the artists “bring a personal dimension to ideas of reconciliation.”
Adrian Stimson’s installation Iini Sookumpaii: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Photo: Samuel Engelking
To date, conversations around reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have primarily focused on government and institutional culpability. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015 and this year’s final report by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls make clear the devastating and ongoing impacts of colonization on Indigenous people.
During a trip to Winnipeg in 2010, Hopkins had the opportunity to attend the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings. “I was struck at the time by how much emotional labour was put onto the backs of those who testified,” she recalls.
With A Public Apology To Siksika Nation, Bronson and Stimson are creating the conditions for a cultural reckoning: reconciliation in Canada is a shared responsibility.
Stimson expresses a similar idea about what the possible outcome of his work with Bronson could be. “To make change is to recognize that history. It’s a first step,” he says.
The two men first met in person under the glare of TV cameras while filming the CBC Arts documentary show In The Making. In an episode profiling Stimson’s work, the artists had dinner at his home with friends and elders from the Siksika reserve, some of whom are residential school survivors. Despite the initial awkwardness, Stimson describes the meeting as a “seamless first step in what would become three years of constant discussion.
“It was a generative process,” he adds. “Artists have their way of doing things.”
In the CBC show, he talks about their working relationship as part of a wider process of “rebuilding our histories together.” It’s not that Indigenous people just want settler Canadians to apologize, Stimson emphasizes. Rather, the simple request is being made that this historical legacy is acknowledged, so that the country as a whole can move forward together. These are the next steps that lie beyond artistic and ceremonial gestures.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a public dimension for the residential schools,” says Hopkins. “The land acknowledgments [that now precede most cultural events] came out of the TRC. But I want to see how this becomes actionable.”
A Governor General’s Award recipient in 2018, Stimson regularly exhibits in Toronto and has often performed as Buffalo Boy, a drag alter ego that takes a camp approach to macho stereotypes. The performance subverts the more threatening parts of masculinity to explore painful aspects of the past, for himself and his people.
Bronson, born in Vancouver and now based in Berlin, is a legendary artist whose career cuts a wide swath through the international art world. Starting out as a founding member of the renowned Toronto artist group General Idea in the 70s and 80s, the 73-year-old is a self-styled art shaman and healer. He founded the New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs, and was executive director of NYC art bookstore Printed Matter, a counterpart to Toronto’s Art Metropole, which General Idea founded in 1974.
General Idea had a kind of camp composite identity, a three-person art group (Bronson is the sole surviving member) known for arch commentary on the workings of their own aspirations for glamour and success.
Neither man’s artistic persona played a role in the apology at the Biennial. For this performance, Bronson knew he had “to strip down to his naked self.
“Making myself exposed for the sake of the apology was much harder to do than it would be if I was simply working in character,” he says. “The General Idea persona was embedded in a narrative.”
Self-mythologizing their lives as artists was a major early focus for General Idea. To make the apology, Bronson opted for what he calls a “declamatory approach.” It’s a different artistic tradition, one reserved for expressions of sincerity, as opposed to the ironic commentary that infused his earliest work.
Bronson’s work on this apology began when he was a child. “I have been hurtling towards this project for the last seven decades,” he writes in the opening sentence of A Public Apology To Siksika Nation, 14,000 copies of which are available as a free booklet at the main Biennial site on Lake Shore East.
In many ways, family legacy has shaped his existence. “I always planned to address this,” he says. In the text of his apology, Bronson writes: “We are a community of the living and the dead.”
“As a child, I felt the presence of spirits,” he explains. This continued into his adult life. “My intense experiences of spirit life were related to people who had died.”
His relatives passed down a story about an uprising against his great-grandfather on the Blackfoot reserve in 1895 that forced his ancestors to flee. On a 2015 visit to the archives in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, Bronson discovered letters he had written to the museum in the 70s to request – unsuccessfully – documents about the uprising. At the time, his plan was to write a biography of Reverend Tims. He couldn’t confirm the uprising – it would remain hidden, mirroring the tendency among Canada’s official histories of settler relations with Indigenous people.
Adrian Stimson’s “response” to Bronson’s apology includes 68 photos of boys who attended the Old Sun residential school, which was named after his great-grandfather. Photo: Samuel Engelking
Stimson’s response (Bronson says their artistic partnership takes the form of a “call and response”) is a multifaceted installation that includes three large sculptures based on Blackfoot pictographs, a dining table set for 10 that features 10 small bronze bison sculpted by the artist. “Nine people were at the dinner where AA and I met,” he says. “I am adding the tenth setting for the ancestors.”
Also included are 68 photos taken from a family collection that feature boys who attended the Old Sun school. Used with permission, Stimson observes that the figures in these photos are “all our fathers from the Nation.”
Making tangible the connection between historical crimes and present political realities is part of the goal. Bronson describes the residential school practice of keeping children from their parents “very Trumpian.”
In his apology, the artist addresses an expansive range of people. Along with those on the Blackfoot Reserve who would have known and ultimately rebelled against Reverend Tims, Bronson addresses the people closest to him and his artistic collaborators. And he makes clear he also speaks to all political refugees, an acknowledgement that the colonial narrative continues in more ways than one: “the dispossessed and the abandoned… those who travelled across oceans but never made it to this safe haven of Canada.”
“When Bronson first reached out to me,” Stimson explains, “he was looking for someone to facilitate a connection with the Siksika Nation.”
Stimson describes himself as a “scout” reporting back to the Elders, and plans to arrange a private ceremony for Bronson to conduct his apology at the reserve.
Beyond merely “performing trauma,” Stimson sees Bronson as well-suited to the task, calling him “an agent of social change” because of the work he has done throughout his career as a representative of queer communities. General Idea is especially renowned for their activism during the AIDS crisis.
Noting that public discussion on Indigenous issues has taken steps forward in recent years, Bronson sees his participation at the Biennial as the beginning of a process. He does not simply want to perform an apology in front of an art audience. Asked about how he felt after the ceremony, Bronson said, “Having gone through it, I feel it is an ongoing process and I doubt I will have the real answer for some years.”
For his part, Stimson said “given the gravity of the apology” it needed to be him, and not his persona, who performed accepting it from Bronson. “The elders say ‘be humble, be generous,’” he says, adding that he is using the occasion to “put Buffalo Boy to bed,” as the logical conclusion of this phase of his work as an artist. “Every now and then Buffalo Boy has some sort of death, and then renewal,” he explains. “Putting him to bed lets us all have a little rest from his antics.”
Through art, the two men find a context that provides a useful – and non-confrontational – platform for people who are connected by past events to work through Canada’s cultural genocide and its continuing effects in the present.
Adrian Stimson’s “response” to Bronson’s apology includes 68 photos of boys who attended the Old Sun residential school, which was named after his great-grandfather. Photo: Samuel Engelking
“The apologies to the First Nations and Inuit peoples [by Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper, respectively] were important to the elders who were present. I can’t diminish that,” Stimson says. “But you need to walk the talk. What we are really looking for is systemic change.”
AA Bronson’s ancestors colonized Siksika Nation and were forced to flee in an uprising in 1895. Photo: Samuel Engelking