It is What It Is... and what politics isn't
In today's paper, I have a story on whether federal politics is becoming terribly uninteresting. Yesterday, thanks to an organizing effort by Macleans' Paul Wells, I took a tour of the National Gallery's new, biennial exhibit: It is What It is. There may or may not be a connection between these two things.
First of all, we were lucky enough to have Marc Mayer, the gallery's charming director, as our guide. His enthusiasm for all these works -- Canadian contemporary art, purchased by the gallery -- was a bracing antidote for the November gloom that seems to have settled on our political world. We couldn't believe how lucky we were to see these works through his eyes: to hear the stories and insights behind the creations.
What struck me was how many times the art made me smile or laugh outright (in a good way.) If you're looking for sombre, earnest Canadiana, you may be well advised to steer right past the gallery and head directly to that majestic stone pile on Parliament Hill. More on that in a bit.
Things I learned: The big creative hubs right now for art in Canada are in the usual spots -- Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, but also in Winnipeg (!) and the North. One whole room in It is What it Is features works from Winnipeg artists. Mayer isn't sure he can explain what it is about Winnipeg that's made it such a creative capital in Canada.
I was delighted to hear that the PopLife exhibit, which I wrote about in a political context earlier this year, attracted healthy numbers this summer and more significantly, a lot of first-time gallery-goers and a staggering amount (counting for nearly half the attendance) of young people. Mayer says that "dead Europeans" are still the big crowd-catchers -- and to that end, you can look forward to a Van Gogh exhibit in 2012 -- but it's heartening to know that young people and new art are an emergent force at the gallery.
Things I liked (in no particular order, and with no offence intended to pieces/artists I don't mention.)
- Chris Millar's "Bejewelled Double Festooned Plus Skull for Girls" -- an elaborate, hand-crafted contraption that sort of resembles a dollhouse or that old Mousetrap game. You could spend an hour looking at the tiny components of this work and keep finding reasons to grin or giggle.
- Rodney Graham's "The Gifted Amateur" triptych, depicting an artist at work in his PJs (cigarette hanging out of his mouth) in his suburban home, circa 1970. In its acute detail, it's totally true to its era, right down to the dates and stories on the newspapers lying on the floor, and the artifacts in the living room.
- Shary Boyle's "The Clearances" and "Skirmish at Bloody Point." Stay in the room for the lights to go out. It's like standing in the middle of a fairy tale, in the Grimm sense of things.
- James Carl's "jalousie" sculptures, created out of Venetian blinds. Mayer says these are among his favourites too and he had a hand himself in acquiring them for the gallery, even before he officially started as director in February, 2009.
- Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay's video, showing the artist performing a song through snippets of a surveillance video. One of our little group said: "Is that a Madonna song." Yes it is.
In the notes introducing the exhibit, we're warned not to look for an overall narrative in this exhibit. It is What it Is. "Narrative," as you may know, is what everyone in politics wants to have these days. When you walk around this show, however, you may idly wonder if good things such as spontaneity, originality and creativity and yes, humour, are being stifled in this political effort to stuff everything into some poll-tested, please-everybody narrative. And if the gallery is doing a better job than politics in attracting young people and new interest, perhaps it could teach the politicians a thing or two.
At any rate, if you're able, you should go see the exhibit. It's new, it's Canadian, it belongs to us -- and it's not earnest or gloomy or mean, as much of politics is these days.