The best Toronto art shows in fall 2019

Including the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art, Hito Steyerl at the AGO, Hajra Waheed at the Power Plant, Nuit Blanche and more


An Embassy of Imagination and PA System’s Sinaaqpagiaqtuut/The Long-Cut procession began in Cape Dorset, Nunavut and continues at the Toronto Biennial of Art. Photo: Alexa Hatanaka

The upcoming art season is packed with interesting shows, but the biggest hype is around the newly hatched Toronto Biennial of Art, launching at multiple locations on September 21.

A staple in cities internationally (there are over 300 biennials globally), Toronto is a latecomer to the format of a large-scale international art show presented every other year. The curatorial team is led by Candice Hopkins, who was one of the curators for the Canadian effort at this year’s Venice Biennial, the granddaddy of the format (founded in 1895).

Complementing the Biennial is the 14th edition of Nuit Blanche. The always popular all-night event encompasses City Hall, Don Mills and Scarborough’s Civic and Town Centres (added last year), while offering an expanded program at Fort York that extends to the edge of Liberty Village.

Crowds who frequent Nuit Blanche will know what to do at the Biennial: venture out into the city to see it anew as it gets reframed and repurposed by artists’ works. Here is a list of our most-anticipated exhibitions for further art-going in the coming months.

Deanna Bowen, God Of Gods: A Canadian Play
At Art Museum at the University of Toronto (7 Hart House)
September 4-November 30

Black Canadian artist Bowen is renowned for using archival research to tell stories left out of official histories. For Hart House’s centennial celebrations, she reimagines Carroll Aikins’s play, originally staged there in 1922, which used Indigenous motifs to look at the horrors of war. Bowen has created a film that examines Aikins’s work through dialogue with Indigenous writers and artists.

Jay Isaac, Midnight Repairs / Ron Giii, Geometry Street
At Paul Petro Contemporary Art (980 Queen West)
September 6-October 5

These simultaneous shows of painting and drawing are by a mid-career and senior artist respectively. Isaac presents a suite of witty black-and-white paintings with urban themes. Much loved artist Giii is self-taught and known for drawings featuring a solitary figure on the page. Recently he surprised fans by branching out with the sparse geometric works presented in this show.

Lois Andison
Olga Korper Gallery (17 Morrow)
September 7-October 5

Over the course of 30-odd years, Toronto artist Andison has refined her practice, which focuses on kinetic sculpture and installation. Whereas earlier work has an outright figurative emphasis, Andison more recently is making smart, minimalistic kinetic works that have no less relevance to the body as it is changed by an encounter with artworks.

Joani Tremblay
Zalucky Contemporary (3044 Dundas West)
September 13-October 12

Based in Montreal, Tremblay has built up a thriving international painting career by making effortlessly cool-looking still life abstractions. For her second show with gallerist Juliana Zalucky, the artist is showing a series of works based on her visit to Arcosanti, an experimental eco-architectural community in Arizona.

Undomesticated, Mary Anne Barkhouse, Sandra Brewster, Erika DeFreitas, Lucy Howe, Nicolas Fleming and others
Koffler Gallery (180 Shaw)
September 18-November 17

This sprawling group show sheds light on how domestic lives are in an uneasy relationship with the natural world. Lucy Howe’s melting couches and other deformed furniture sculptures are typical of the ways artists are adept at making everyday things look unfamiliar. Nicolas Fleming adds an extra dimension of strange to this show through a rough-hewn immersive environment that frames the overall exhibition.

Toronto Biennial of Art, Maria Thereza Alves, Judy Chicago, Dana Claxton, Shezad Dawood, Naufus Ramírez Figueroa, Kapwani Kiwanga, and Curtis Talwst Santiago and others
259 Lake Shore East and other locations
September 21-December 1

This milestone art event for the city features a stellar international lineup of artists and an extensive slate of public programs. All events are free, spanning numerous venues – including Riverdale Park and a film program presented at the Cinesphere – along with the show’s massive main venue on Lake Shore East. How we live “in relation” (and also out of sync) is the show’s overarching theme. On view is a procession featuring visiting youth artists from Cape Dorset, Nunavut as well as their banners, costumes and sculptures.

Hajra Waheed, Hold Everything Dear
The Power Plant (231 Queens Quay West)
September 21-January 5

The widely shown multidisciplinary Montreal artist (who is also part of the Biennial) has created an installation that includes 100 small works on paper. Through the intimacy of handmade details, Waheed investigates complex themes like geopolitics and surveillance. These preoccupations, derived in part from a childhood spent in a gated compound in Saudi Arabia, speak to how the complexity of the contemporary world gets filtered through personal experience.

Nuit Blanche, Daniel Arsham, Esmaa Mohamoud, Ghost Atelier, Javid Jah, Simin Keramati, Kent Monkman, Sophia Oppel, Ebony G. Patterson and others
Nathan Phillips Square, Scarborough Civic Centre and other locations
October 5

Given the massive crowd that enjoyed the Raptors’ victory parade, it’s fitting that the spirit of that event continues at Nuit Blanche. Artists Bryan Espiritu and Esmaa Mohamoud unveil their sculpture commemorating the team’s 25th anniversary. Other highlights include Daniel Arsham’s luminous monochrome Zen Garden at City Hall, and Drake collaborator Director X, who offers a sequel to his landmark work about environmental destruction from Nuit Blanche in 2016. Presented at the Ontario Science Centre, the installation is on view until January 5.

Hito Steyerl’s three-channel video installation HellYeahWeFuckDie (2016) goes on display at the AGO on October 24.

Hito Steyerl, This Is The Future
Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West)
October 24-February 23

The AGO hosts celebrated German artist, filmmaker and writer’s first solo show in Canada. Steyerl is known for looking at the production and circulation of images as a way to tell a story about wider issues of global politics, technology and economics. Three of her large-scale works are featured, including HellYeahWeFuckDie (2016), a standout at the Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017. Steyerl chats with critic Brian Droitcour on October 23.

Maryse Larivière, Under the Cave of Winds
Gallery 44 (401 Richmond #120)
November 1-December 14

The always inventive Larivière has a multi-faceted practice that includes sculpture, collage, performance and writing. For this exhibition, she presents a black-and-white 16mm film featuring a female protagonist held captive at a remote island location. A follow-up to a novel she wrote with the same theme, Larivière sees such scenarios as an analogy for her role as an artist.


Ryan Trecartin Makes Art Cool Again

Ryan Trecartin, K-Corea INC.K (section a), 2009.

By Rosemary Heather


The third time I visited Ryan Trecartin’s show of video installations,  Any Ever in Toronto, it was near the end of the exhibition. People moved from room to room, notebooks in hand, recording their thoughts. Like few other art events I can think of, the show contained within it the seeds of a conversation. See Ryan Trecartin’s work and you want to talk about it.

Trecartin opens up a space that is innate to video’s technological capabilities; yet, before him, no one had quite dared to go there. And treading where others fear to tread can produce fear itself. Fear and a reluctance to engage is one response his work tends to get. Fear because a goal of sensory perception overload would seem to be one of the first principles from which Trecartin operates.

Ramping up the confusion, he leaves no aspect of the world within the frame unaltered. His performers, some of them former aspiring Disney child stars, wear a hybrid of clubbing gear and campy almost-drag. Spaces are filled-up with bodies and things; in one video, a gaggle of boys and girls in blonde wigs simper and scream while crowded onto a bus. Competing with the actors are layers of motion graphics, of the kind you might see on an infomercial – that is, the graphics normally relegated to a netherworld of bad video aesthetics – which are overlaid or inset, or spin and scroll across the screen.

Trecartin himself, ubiquitous throughout his work, sports bitchy attitude and mastectomy scars. Faces are adorned with self-tan, white lipstick or day-glo swatches of colour; this is make-up applied to bring the work’s human element into alignment with its tawdry mise-en-scene. The scenarios play out among the accoutrements of a cheap Florida vacation; Trecartin produced the videos in the nine rooms of a rented house in Miami. His use of disposable IKEA dreck makes sense, considering the casual destruction the performers wreck on the place.

People break things and smash Blackberries against the floor. Posters of things like fluffy white dogs on the walls further help to fragment the screen space, and everything is accompanied by the drone of cheesy synthesizer music. When the actors speak, their voices are sped-up, an especial irritant for some viewers. People talk into cell phones, or mimic this by holding thumb and pinkie up to their face, all the while mugging for the camera.

Trecartin’s extreme emphasis on artifice helps to reinforce the feeling that you and the performers in his work exist in separate worlds.  The focal point of a single camera lens means you peer into the frame, and they peer out at you. Trecartin’s actors seem stuck in a box; one in which they are always compelled to perform for the camera. Of course, such an existential state of affairs would only seem like hell to a portion of Trecartin’s audience. The actors he works with are adept at suggesting this is their native habitat. It’s a naturalism of sorts, if of a world organized along the lines of a hilarious late night trip to the 711, where fluorescent lighting, a riot of purchasable items and the drugs you took are responsible for your disorientating experience of the place. It’s a world as seen through the frame of TV, but with no discernible narrative – Sit-com or otherwise – to give it coherence.

Keeping the operatic pitch of Trecartin’s vision in check, ensuring that, finally, there is order in this world, is the absolute brilliance of the artist’s language and editing technique. As with every other aspect of the work, the lines delivered by the performers are fragmented and nonsensical – but what poetry! “Don’t worry, my death was really sexy and ultra tan!” Or in the opening moments of the video, K-Corea INC.K (section a) (2009) “I really need a case of atmosphere. Are you finding Position? It’s such a hunt.” He achieves the imagined ideal of an invented language that remains comprehensible. The same could be said for his work as a whole.

In response, people I’ve talked to have called Trecartin’s work “empty.” “Visually stunning but vapid” opined a friend; another disparaged it rather grandly as “outtakes from the world’s worst reality show.” In contrast to this opprobrium, the most intriguing comment I heard is that Trecartin’s work gives us “a new way to look at the world.” Let’s shorten that to “new”, as in “what kind of news does this artist bring us”? My guess: Trecartin answers the question about exactly where contemporary art fits into the cultural landscape. As with the response to his work, the news is both good and bad.

In his excellent book, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010), John Lanchester observes that a postmodern era in finance led to the 2008 meltdown: “value, in the realm of finance capital, parallels the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism.”  The financial world of course runs parallel to the artworld; at many points, the two intersect. As recent events have shown, both realms are adept at conjuring value out of practically nothing. Compared to the art profession, the financial world is a relative latecomer to this game, one who found itself seduced by the question: how far can you abstract monetary value away from its origin in real things before it collapses?  It is still digging out from the wreckage of the answer it got. By comparison, the art system proves its resilience. It produces value around consensus that, however specious sometimes, is far from reckless. Art offers a model for the management of risk that is finely calibrated, and though it may conspire to elicit the occasional bad bet, it probably won’t ever collapse.

Trecartin’s work confirms something about this truth of the art world as purveyor of bankable assets. But he does this by showing us how the artwork as a value unto itself survives in spite of that. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, while the art business might be a centre of value production, it for the most part isn’t a centre of cultural energy today. It’s easy enough to find this energy elsewhere; I hardly need to name the culprit: suffice to say, if you are reading this, you are looking it. Trecartin smuggles some of this energy into the art gallery and its inhabitants, who are used to more calculated outrages, are amazed.  Even the Guggenheim, while acknowledging YouTube’s power with its Play Biennial, balked at going the full distance in their efforts. Almost all of the 25 shortlisted videos are slick graphic animations. This isn’t what people care about on YouTube, which is at its best as a hybrid vernacular entertainment medium and communications tool. I took note when I heard my friend say Trecartin gives us a “new way to look at the world”, partly because it’s such a big claim, but more important, because it begs the question why is Trecartin accorded this honour and not Facebook and YouTube? Isn’t the Internet the new way we look at the world, so obvious we can’t see it staring us in the face? Why is it we need art to tell us what we are seeing is New, confirming the truth of what we already intuitively understood?

Trecartin relates to this new internet-defined field of play first of all as an unselfconscious participant. As a performer, image-maker and manipulator, he is one among the thousands who upload material everyday to the web. Second, Trecartin acts out his affinity with web aesthetics in his use of what Hito Steyerl has termed the ‘ poor image’. While not making degraded images per se, the sheer busyness of Trecartin’s videos places his work within the visual field of the degraded image produced by illicit copies, cellphones, handheld video cameras, and webcams. Widespread access to video technology means the image proliferates, and on the whole, its legion of producers isn’t too concerned about quality. The degree of visual noise Trecartin crams into his videos, places his work on the low end of what Steyerl identifies as the contemporary hierarchy of images, with “sharpness…and high resolution” being at the top; as Steyerl points out, this competition between image qualities is a form of class struggle. In Any Ever co-curator  Jon Davies’ characterisation, Trecartin “transforms the space of the screen into that of the computer desktop with hundreds of windows open.”  He degrades the video image by overloading it with information and indulging in its worst aesthetic tendencies.

A wildly accomplished practitioner of his craft, Trecartin is widely lauded but his work does tend to inspire a certain amount of aversion. I suspect this is because he single-handedly revives the dynamic between high and low art; something a largely ossified artworld had forgotten about. However, even though Trecartin’s work might expose other visual art conceits to be hopelessly dated, the significance of the work he makes goes beyond that. Trecartin is important because he reaffirms the value of art beyond its monetary worth. He shows us the role artworks can play in reducing the world to its purely visual dimension. His work helps us extract what is New from the morass of everyday experience so that we can see it as historically specific, of today and therefore quite alien to any idea we might have of the past. It’s the Shock of the New all over again; how surprising to discover again that artworks have to the power to deliver it.

This text orginally published on (now defunct), December, 2010.

Hito Steyerl talks to Rosemary Heather


Hito Steyerl Interview

Your work is very complex, combining an art practice with theoretical writing. And you’ve produced a lot. In my mind, it exists as an entity – a very dense one. You could even say it has exceptional spatial characteristics. There is a particular conceptual reason for this: the web. When deciding how to approach a discussion with you, I realized the answer is obvious. We are doing this interview on the occasion of a number of exhibitions you are having in the UK and Germany; however, our immediate context is the site where this interview appears. So let’s talk about that – or at least focus our discussion in a way that will allow us to incorporate links, images and videos on this website.


One of the forms of your practice is the representation of data; or more specifically, its characteristic of being in motion, and so to a certain extent being beyond representation. I love that you take this on; it is so very defining of our contemporary existence and yet rather an elusive idea to conceptualize. It occurs to me that your work also represents this idea as it is manifest in the contemporary condition of the dispersal of attention, which is something I know I struggle with. As if to prove my point, while writing this question, I checked my Twitter feed and clicked on this link, a rather tongue in cheek screed about the Evils of Saving. So with this web-induced diversion of my attention, I find an analogy for the subject at hand: Capital too wants to be in motion. So that’s my question. In so far as your work engages with form in its most contemporary manifestation, is that your true subject: Capital?


HS: Lets step back a little and consider the relation of Capital and movement. Whilst Capital, for sure, is moving, this doesn’t necessarily mean that every movement is fully captured by Capital. There is an asymmetrical relation between both. Movement – as for example in the case of diverted attention online – can also constitute a flight from labour or other capital-based relations (of course these evasions are immediately recaptured, but again not fully). Capital is not able to fully come to terms with evasion, resistance, distraction, irritation, sleepiness.


I am fascinated, though, with the ways Capital registers digitally, how it becomes visible, how it matters, so to speak. One might like to think that it is purely abstract and invisible, but it leaves stains and traces as it moves.


One example: In one of my most recent works, I subtracted the copyright marks from WWII photographs sold on eBay. The pictures were made by German soldiers on the Eastern front and show all sorts of war scenes.  The more violent, the more expensive the photos are. eBay vendors add copyright signs to affirm their property rights, and also to cover representations of war crimes, swastikas and other illegal content. In my work, I’ve subtracted the photographic images and left the copyright marks as they were. They represent the original photographic picture seen from the angle of their existence as digital commodities. This is their contemporary form of circulation and movement. Yet, in a negative and subtractive way they retain the traces of the resistance of the persons originally shown in the pictures, mostly captured female Soviet soldiers, who were fighting against the Nazi invasion. Those women constituted one of the groups who were to be immediately killed after their capture; they had no chance of survival. So in some cases, a very abstract form of their negative imprint is preserved.

web art criticism
Hito Steyerl, Bilder, News, Infos aus dem Web


These are their portraits in 2010, under the condition of digital capitalism, and I’d argue that these are documentary images, because they show the reality of the contemporary movement and dispersion of the original photographs.


RH Aside from being documents of our contemporary digital reality, the compositions of your EBay works are unmistakably reminiscent of abstract paintings. This brings up all kinds of issues. For one, I am tempted to say the works have the effect of re-contextualizing abstract painting, as seen in its 1950s heyday, as being a kind of blunt instrument of forgetting – something I hadn’t thought about before. This idea makes sense, I suppose, if you consider the postwar ascendency of American culture as being somehow amnesic in intent. Your EBay works also evoke ideas about the dematerialization of the artwork. Conceptual art prefigures the regime of the virtual we now live in. Abstract painting also fits within this narrative: abstraction prefiguring abstraction. In your essay In Defense of the Poor Image (2009) you note that “dematerialized images…[are] a legacy of conceptual art.” You write very persuasively about the importance of the degraded image; and of its capacity to enact a form of “resistance against the fetish value of visibility”. Given that relevant precedents for these works are abstract painting and conceptualism, I am curious to know, what form do they take when presented in an art gallery?


HS I hope that, in a gallery, this work might inspire people to think about the form what is considered sublime takes: purely formal and self-referential art. Because this installation may look every bit as fetishist as if it were Art with a capital A; but it is not – it is found material from the junkyards of the web, powered by a dubious digital scopophilia. It is actually copyrighted military porn; if not worse. So what is the relation of this type of mobile image to abstract art?


In his book The Century (2005) Alain Badiou writes about the “passion for the real”, which according to him, dominates the 20th century. This passion is characterised by a desire to tear away the veils of mere appearance and deception and to uncover the real essence of the thing under investigation. Politically, this unleashes a huge amount of paranoia against people who are not deemed pure enough or traitors of a cause. The passion for the real is not only a motor behind many of the massive purges and maybe also ethnic cleansings of the 20th century (there are other motors as well), but as Badiou argues further, it can also be detected in abstract art works (his example is Malevich). These works evacuate the frame of everything deemed superfluous, they literally purge color and form. It is quite interesting to think about this link between the genocides of the 20th century and abstract art, both aiming for an essence, a purity to be achieved on the one hand by elimination on the other by subtraction (obviously, and Badiou insists on this: by completely different means).


In the case of the eBay work, both somehow collide: what looks like a sublime and completely self-referential minimal artwork is actually a coincidental trace of war crimes, its price tag, if you will.



RH Could you speak a bit more about the relationship of your practice to the concept of the poor image and the image in motion?


HS I have been interested for a long time in traveling images, in the ways in which their meaning and appearance changes. These, for example, are samples of pirated Chinese DVD covers on which a new peculiar language emerges.  This language is called Spamsoc, as you can see.

art web criticism

Hito Steyerl, Spamsoc


Spamsoc is generated by online translators, automatic scanner recognition tools, and travels on the back of pirated DVD’s. It exists in many countries and knows many local dialects.


Probably it emerges late at night on the desktops of digital shockworkers, who compress, rip, and transfer audiovisual data and create covers and blurbs on the side. It is a language that is created within multiple conflicts, most of all conflicts over copyright. This is also why it is a broken language. I see it mainly as a great improvement on the English language and proof of how backwards we are, because we are not able to fully decipher this language from the future. Spamsoc’s multiple neologisms express disagreement over the ownership of audiovisual content, the domestication of translation and other aspects of digital shockwork. I love the automated “Freudian” slips (which are no longer Freudian of course), which lay bare the digital unconscious of the period. Take for example this genius term “the pubic performance”, in the jpeg below.


art web criticism
Hito Steyerl, Pubic Performance

In one decisive blow, it expresses the decline of the public sphere; the demise of traditional cinema and its replacement by private home cinema; the transformation of an always illusionary public defined by rational deliberation into a pubic sphere that thrives on spectacle, shock and scandal; as well as the performative character of these elements of the private running amok in public…

The pubic performance is the production of self on countless webcams, endless chatter on social media, confessions about trauma on Youtube, post-oedipal drama on morning TV.



RH I love the precision with which you have been able to pinpoint these one details, Spamsoc, the pubic sphere, which are fantastically emblematic of Globalism. I have read your explanation, understand it, and yet I still do not know what Spamsoc is. As you say, we don’t understand it because we are not from the future. It’s also like a spot on the far horizon, the arc of the future, the jet plane of Globalism flying over our heads to a place we will never visit. I am interested to know how Spamsoc figures in your work? It’s a file you made from a scan of a pirated DVD that you sent to me by email. As such, it embodies your interest in what you call “travelling images”. This brings up a question for me: if images travel do they ever come to rest, and if so in what form? In turn, this opens up onto the bigger issue of how a digital file relates to what we traditionally think of as an artwork? I realize this may not be the right question to ask, because I can see your work exists as a kind of matrix of text-plus-image-plus-gallery shows. Still I would like to focus on this problem because it touches on much bigger questions. It is hard to credit a digital file as a “real thing,” which points to what I see as the epoch-defining cultural confusion about what is “real”; or maybe more specifically: what is truth and what is fiction? The examples of this are legion but can perhaps best be summed up by the fact that “reality” itself has become a genre, one that “everybody knows isn’t real (sort of).” Can you talk about this problem in relation to your work?
HS Very concretely. I’ve written a text and made and interview with Jon Solomon, a translation theorist, who is based in Taiwan. Both deal with the production and circulation of Spamsoc. I also made a file, which documented those DVD covers visually, though I do not consider it art. Generally, I think this question about whether something is art or not is a bit overrated – because essentially the question is mostly about gatekeeping and declaring that certain types of art shall be excluded. Paradoxically the non-art thus becomes essential for defining and sustaining the art with a capital A. But obviously, there are works with more or less formal concerns, or even different formal concerns, which may or may not be challenging enough to create a productive uncertainty (which might be my provisional definition of art: emphasis on productive). It’s about the question of form in information, the relation between both. For me, pure form is just as uninteresting as pure information.


So, can a digital file be art? Why not? Depends. It’s more important though, that there is something challenging, motivating and unpredictable about its relation it poses between form and information.


Is a digital file a “real thing”? That’s another question. It certainly has a reality on the material level – the level of electricity and material support. It is certainly also very much connected to reality through its coding and format. A VOB file on a DVD is pretty real, as it is tied to different networks and markets of raw materials, in this case, for example, metals and plastic, both of which are often recycled; not to mention hard disks, burning devices or other storage media. All these have the same level of reality as the material support of a photograph, or film stock. Thus there is often a history of the object, or objects involved in the storage, production and processing of a file. I made a work recently about recycling of aluminium from former military planes, and how this becomes the material support for DVD’s.

art, web, theory, Hito
Hito Steyerl, In Free Fall

I also have extensive notes for a history of glass in media, of the use of glass fiber cables, glass as a metaphor for transparency and communication. Glass is also one of the sensories of the social. Broken glass refers to destitution or insurrection. On all these levels – and surely, the art gallery with all its institutional codings can be included with these other material supports –  we could perform a material reading of the carrier medium, but also of the social histories of encoding and transmission. Obviously these are also tied to issues of copyright, audiovisual property and the social struggles around it.  This is real enough for me; or perhaps if it isn’t, it’s still interesting enough. The question whether the content of the file relates to reality or not is another question, which is ultimately undecidable.


But yet again, there is always a perspective, which looks at the reality of the fiction, if you like, its infrastructure, so to speak.  That is, in order to get confused about fiction and reality there needs to be a huge apparatus already existing in reality, which consists of hardware, software, institutional frameworks. Like in the movie Inception – in order to create the confusion about dream and reality you need a huge infrastructure in the first place. Cables, medication, game architecture; take this away, and the fiction (or in this case, dream) collapses. Same goes for the cultural industries, or perhaps more precisely the military-entertainment complex. It is the material base for all our confusions about reality, its matrix and it is very real.


So there is always – I think – a substantial degree of material reality to all digital things. But it may not even be so interesting to figure it out – perhaps it’s more interesting to explore the new realities created by fiction, digital or not. There is a constant transfer between reality and fiction, but as I see it, it mainly consists of misunderstanding, faulty imitation and mistranslation. People (like the urban guerilla in my video November (2004)) try to imitate fiction films; they fail, but produce new realities. It was Hannah Arendt, who said, that that ultimate creative force in politics were lies. Who could deny that the lie about the existence of WMD´s in Iraq created massive new realities?

Originally published by Animate Projects July 7, 2011