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.


Ron Giii: Hegel’s Salt Man

Ron Giii in performance
Ron Giii
“During the clearance and fixation of the fourth salt man, experts found an iron stagger in the scabbard attached to his waist. Also, two ceramic jugs have been found with a kind of oil inside which, scholars believe, could have been used for a lantern.”
—Abolfazl Ali, head of Chehr-Abad research group

“To open the doors of the Atomic Theatre your eyes have to open up like a vast reservoir of water falling from another planet. Once the mind has turned inside out, the springs of time will emerge as the centre of your cognition. The Atomic Theatre takes its pulse from the antimatter of materials that exist in an unknown dimension called invisibility.”
—Ron Giii, The Atomic Theatre and The Dictator’s Opera

Ron Gillespie
Things change. A banal metaphysical statement worth reflecting on. This is especially true if you have the materials at hand to give substance to the idea. The work Ron Giii has made over the course of thirty-five years provides the perfect vessel for these considerations; in Giii’s oeuvre you can see what changes and what stays the same, much as you can in a biological body over time. This is also to say that art provides an excellent answer to the question, Where are we?

If you ask Giii, the continuities that both defy and define the present are “the antimatter of materials that exist in an unknown dimension called invisibility.” Even in this fragment from the artist’s writings there is so much to discuss, as in his work as a whole: mine deep and you will discover riches.

Ron Giii
Giii’s work presents itself at the place where the invisible meets the visible; another example of this is theatre, which like visual art takes place within a framework, or proscenium arch. As in art, theatre is the forum where antimatter becomes visible, precisely because the primary consideration of art is form. In Giii’s case, artistic form and the forum of its presentation converge in a way that is especially distinctive. Giii’s full sentence: “The Atomic Theatre takes its pulse from the antimatter of materials that exist in an unknown dimension called invisibility.”

This is a quotation from a text written by Giii to accompany a show of his drawings in New York in 1986. A wholly coherent statement about his oeuvre, the text and the show provide a good pivot point on which to consider the stages of his career. What began as performance continues as drawing, all of it taking place within the conceptual framework of theatre. In Giii’s view, theatre formalizes the process of becoming that is all of our lives. Like us, the figure within the frame or on the stage looks outward, seeks a connection with others and beckons to an audience more often than it turns its back to the world. The proscenium, like the page, presents a threshold of possibility just waiting for the moment of its random apprehension.

Uncle Ron
Looking at Giii’s art, one understands that the simple encounter is his fondest hope for it; each work provides this encounter, fulfilling this desire with imperceptible ease. The drawings live and shimmer with unimagined sensitivity. In The Atomic Theatre, Giii speaks about the figures in his drawings as real people, “laughing and hiding from me as if they had their own reality.”

Giii was already active and engaged in the Toronto scene when he was a student at what was then the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD), in the 1970s. It was a cultural moment in which the bohemian sectors of society were alive with dreams and ambitions that are difficult to fully access today. Giii’s early works provide a way in. At the time, “live art” was a fringe pursuit. In 1978, Roselee Goldberg, writing in the first authoritative study of performance, noted that it had only recently been accepted as “a medium of artistic expression in its own right.” Like other practices in the visual arts in that moment, it was a hybrid—theatre or sculpture and dance—newly unbound from traditional constraints. In common with much that happened post Minimalism, performance art found its possibility in the context of art itself.

Jimmy Algebra
Pervading the era in which Giii first started working were the powerful cultural tendencies of political radicalism and lifestyle utopianism, not to mention the commercialism of these trends in the pop-cultural mirror, with its attendant distortion. Artistic disciplines intermingled to electric effect. Along with freedom from medium specificity and craft was an embrace of ordinary things as subject matter for art, including garbage and noise—the incidental art of John Cage and Fluxus—and, above all, people. The Happenings of the 1960s included audiences reimagined as paintings and sculptures, with the gallery as frame. In this context, real human bodies—frequently naked—had an incredible impact.

Ron Giii drawing
Ron Giii (drawing) undated.

The shock produced by a simple encounter with a human body—naked or otherwise—and the things you could do with it, was a basic element in Giii’s art at that time. The experience could result in a psychological and sometimes physical violence. While both were still students, Kimo Eklund and Giii created the performance entity SHITBANDIT. Giii has said,

We used the name to shatter the very conservative milieu surrounding OCA . . . we did Christ on a pair of two-by-fours with microphones placed out in the street, and a used Volkswagen where males and girls got it on and they were surrounded by porn mags.

Johnny Pizza
A site for many of Giii’s early performances was the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC) in Toronto, one of Canada’s first artist-run centers and one with a short, explosive history. Ever more and more radical in the theoretical and political platforms it promoted, CEAC eventually lost its government funding. Its many provocations gave birth to a notoriety that is increasingly obscure—and that appears to have little relevance to the activities and self-image of the Toronto arts scene today.

As part of a group of artists associated with CEAC, Giii traveled and performed extensively in Europe and the United States. A 1976 tour, for instance, took the group to Sweden, Germany, Italy and Belgium. Communicating with each other via the postal system, among other methods, rather than the Internet, they were part of the first globalized artists’ network, made possible by the dematerialization of artwork. Dot Tuer comments on the intense schedule of activities carried out by CEAC. She has noted that “during 1976 and 1977, there was literally an event held at CEAC every night of the week.” As with everything, the moment was fleeting; as Giii wrote, “The performances were wild like animals who were going extinct.”

The General
In her fascinating and very thorough scholarly essay on the history of CEAC, Tuer notes the influence of Hermann Nitsch and the Vienna Actionists on the kind of performance work Giii, SHITBANDIT and others did at CEAC.1 Self-exposure, transgression and ritualized actions formed a common thread, the goal being to orchestrate a moment of “raw” experience for audience and performer. Informing it all was the idea that confrontational art stripped away layers of falsity in consciousness and social interactions, and the naked individual in the gallery promised a return to Rousseauian innocence and/or political consciousness or some combination of the two.

While the Vienna Actionists were motivated by the desire to expose the incipient societal guilt stemming from the not-so-distant (Nazi) past, Canadian shock performance tactics had the broader target of exposing the individual’s complicity in a generally corrupt society. Giii: “After reading texts on the destruction of nature we adapted the wild behaviour and hence we entered the world of dominance, force, power and abuse.” This focus in Giii’s work continued into the 1980s in the film Taste, the only surviving example of his work in Super 8. In Taste, which was shot in a garbage-strewn alley for about $100 in 1984, Giii and Darinka, his female accomplice, subject each other and themselves to a series of ad hoc actions. By turns emotionally disturbing and theatrical, even Dadaesque, the performers’ actions have quasi-sado-masochistic overtones, but Giii’s intention in the film was to do more than shock. He makes this clear in the soundtrack, which he narrated spontaneously in a single take after the fact in complement to the film’s continuous improvisational performance. “The artist is a fascist,” Giii intones many times throughout the film, questioning the power dynamics inherent in the artist’s relationship to the audience and to the work of art. Enacting a theatrical sado-masochism in the film, Giii indicts himself, but as with the doctrine of original sin itself, this is only to declare that he is part of humanity.

Hegel’s Salt Man
In his later work, Giii’s investigations into the dynamics of power gave way to openness and vulnerability. The figures in his drawings are always tender and are rendered with the lightest of touches, like a mere breath upon the page. Frequently also present in these works is a proscenium arch; figures float inside a box or within intersecting lines that delineate geometric space. Together, the lines and the figure represent a new naked self, one that grapples with and must survive life’s intractable circumstance and that does so with moments of joy and lucidity. Another quote from Giii: “Each instance of conception is a view of a theatre that has no words nor semblance of a rational world with all its contradictions and confusion.” Combined, the early and later works compose a biographical “before” and “after,” that corresponds to Giii’s experience with bipolar disorder; the drawings belong in the “after,” which continues to this day. More striking, however, is the work’s extraordinary coherence and wholeness, as if all of it were of a piece, antimatter that was once and will be again invisible, that is available as a point of contact in this moment and yet is just passing through.

By Rosemary Heather

Epigraph Ron Giii, from his text produced to accompany the exhibition The Atomic Theatre and The Dictator’s Opera, 1984–86 at 49th Parallel gallery, New York, 1986.

1. Dot Tuer, “‘The CEAC was banned in Canada’: Program Notes for a Tragicomic Opera in Three Acts,” in Mining the Media Archive: Essays on Art, Technology, and Cultural Resistance (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2005), which can be purchased here.

This text was originally published to accompany the exhibition I curated, Ron Giii: Hegel’s Salt Man, presented at the Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto (2007) and Carlton University Art Gallery (2008). The catalogue Ron Giii: Hegel’s Salt Man: writings/works 1975-2007, featuring essays by me and Eli Langer, can be purchased at Art Metropole.

Andrew Patterson wrote a review of Hegel’s Salt Man you can read here.

Deborah Margo wrote another review of the show in Bordercrossings 108, but its not available online.

A version of this text appeared in Hunter and Cook No. 8.

Ron Giii is represented by Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.