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Remuer Ciel et Terre – Crack the Sky

Wayne Baerwaldt | Remuer Ciel Et Terre – Crack the Sky: La Biennale De Montréal 2007. Exhibition catalogue. Montréal: Centre International d'art Contemporain de Montréal, 2007, 35, 43, 102-103.

And tell of time, what gifts for thee he bears.
What griefs and laughter through the wandering years.

The 2007 Biennale de Montréal—Crack the Sky presents new and recent work from more than fifty artists and artist groups from across Canada and abroad.

From the beginning, the idea of curatorial collaboration seemed essential to the spirit of my investigation. Crack the Sky thus promotes the curatorial visions of several other contributors such as curators Louise Déry at the Galerie de l'UQAM (who was, when contacted about the Biennale, already curating an exceptional show of recent and new work by David Altmejd); Ray Cronin at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia whose exhibition of recent intermedia sculpture by Graeme Patterson is a delight; Heather Smith at the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery who had curated Dana Claxton's Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux; Sylvie Gilbert whose expansive exhibition, Comic Craze, was produced for the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre for the Arts and then scheduled for the Liane and Danny Taran Gallery at the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts, under the expert guidance of Director/Curator, Renee Baert; Meredith Carruthers of the Liane and Danny Taran Gallery at the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts, who curated Montreal: Comic City; Alexandre Lemieux of High Food and Bruno Ricciardi-Rigault of Laïka who co-curated with us the performance events with Peaches, Lesbians on Ecstasy, Carole Pope, Les Georges Leningrad, Pil and Galia Kollectiv, Julie Doucet and Dominique Pétrin's L'animalerie Ju-Do project, Paper Rad at SAT and the presentation of Daft Punk's Electroma at Cinémathèque québécoise; visiting Central Asian scholar at the Université de Montréal, Boris Chukhovich, who contributes a selection of recent video work from Central Asia entitled Return of the Metaphor; and 2boys.tv, comprised of Montreal-based Aaron Pollard and Stephen Lawson, whose curatorial investigation originates a new, more modular and transitive form of cabaret performance developed outside conventional theatre spaces.

Crack the Sky also invited the editorial support of PUBLIC. The York University-based cultural journal has published thematic issues for more than twenty years and brought a reading public to the Canadian art world. Curatorial themes taken up in Crack the Sky can be found in the editorial directions of PUBLIC over the years.

Unlike the one-genre dominance in artmaking, such as history painting's role in defining nineteenth-century painting, new genre concerns in the twenty-first century are as fractured and interdependent as they are prevalent across Canada and beyond. In many cases, the leading themes for this Biennale chart the course of new art in its various guises as visual languaging will act across genres and contradictions, like a bellwether, establishing benchmarks for artistic trends that are continuously spreading, adapting to local conditions and morphing into the contemporary.

The 2007 Biennale de Montréal—Crack the Sky aims to challenge and provoke viewers with a range of inconsistencies and contradictions, driven by the ideas of mostly Canadian cultural producers and shaped by new media and the adoption of new and provisional materials. The stylistic range of artwork should not be so surprising in a pluralist, highly mobile sub-society of artists. The presentations are predictably diverse and may, at least on their initial viewing, seem thematically incompatible when juxtaposed. But the majority of the artworks are generally interrelated, linked as they are by an overarching genre hybridity and their elliptical return to shifting border concepts. Many of the works can seem "local" and "foreign" simultaneously. Familiar and distant. Ultimately, it is the border concept realities that are inevitably becoming fluid and impenetrable, volatile and highly politicized, or incomprehensible, stale and broken. Physical, political and conceptual borders are anything but set in stone. They can change.

The cultural production presented in Crack the Sky is formidable as an abstract cross-section of contemporary art, from emerging and established names and conceptual positions, artist collectives, each somehow straddling one or more thematic heading, each highly mobile and flexible in their creative processes. Artists and collectives such as Stephen Andrews, BGL, Lynne Cohen, Brian Jungen and My Barbarian are well known for their engagement in the fragmenting state of cultural identity politics that have superseded any identifiable, current movement. Others, such as Scoli Acosta, Janice Kerbel, Will Kwan and NUMA are emerging in very different critical arenas, equally divested of participation in any particular style or art movement. It should also be noted that a growing number of works are the result of collaborations among two or more artists: Julie Doucet and Dominique Pétrin, Noam Gonick and Luis Jacob, Lesbians on Ecstasy, Les Georges Leningrad, My Barbarian, Maxime Boronilov and Roman Maskalev, Muratbek Djumaliev and Guinara Kasmalieva, Paper Rad, Peaches, Piland Galia Kollectiv and 2boys.tv. Such collectives engage in artistic sharing and openness around creative production that facilitates a crossover activity between disciplines such as art, music, theatre, architecture, and the social and natural sciences. What is fascinating and reassuring is that the majority of the artists in Crack the Sky are—as AA Bronson has remarked of the professional life of itinerant Canadian artists constantly leaving and returning to Canada in the process of artmaking. Artmaking is an endless cycle of movement and investigation that brings an informed focus amidst a broad base of interrelated subjects, materials, human contact and exchange, and the resulting, often transitional, artmaking strategies. Artist travel seems to be a constant that naturally facilitates the germination of evolving artistic contacts, the exchange of ideas on artmaking and new materials and the means for gaining perspective on a living culture in Canada that constantly relates to a sense of an outside, greater world exchange. In an increasingly globalized artworld this comes as no surprise. The bonds of local art production for local consumption have been largely upset for a broader playing field.

I am not presenting an idealized portrait of the globetrotting artist-the reverse is the case. The journey out into the world at large and back again, in search of supportive colleagues, collectors and public/private cultural institutions is daunting especially in the face of Canadian federal government cutbacks that question the needs and goals of artists interfacing with the rest of the world. Most of the artists participating in Crack the Sky have experienced youthful setbacks, the indifferences of local and national curators, critics, collectors or arts councils and foundations, doubts that are legion in length and scope. They encounter career challenges as frankly and dispassionately as their current and future triumphs.

Nearly all of the artists are wanderers that bring something of their Canadian backgrounds to bodies of work developed both locally and on foreign ground. Although trans-national in vision, their work is invariably informed in subtle and unintelligible ways by local Canadian experiences, customs and beliefs. For example, Montréal, New York and London-based artist David Altmejd has discussed his intimate rapport with nature as a boy near his father's cabin in the Eastern Townships. His youthful experiences in nature were quintessentially Canadian amidst forest birds, pine cones, crystals and rock formations and reflective water surfaces on rivers and lakes. One might argue these effects to be a core feature of his sculptural installations. Susan Turcot also has spent her summers in eastern Quebec, intrigued by nature and the built environment of a unique and established Anglo-Conservative part of the country. Her current activist-artistic concerns for the depletion of the boreal forest north of Quebec City can only stem from her close relationship to the landscape and social dynamic of her French-English cultural background. Turcot, like Altmejd, travels incessantly around the world and currently spends the majority of her time outside the country, like so many other artists contributing to the themes in Crack the Sky.

Crack the Sky has been an ambitious undertaking. Artworks should inspire viewers beyond the exhibition site, as if to say the best art travels in the mind. This idea of conceptual resonance is not hard to imagine given the number of sites and culturally specific works. Some of the most challenging work to impact on viewers was made in response to a local and regional context that is uniquely Montréal and Quebec. We cannot miss the material allusions that Scoli Acosta makes to Montréal in his installation loosely based on various elements he was introduced to or found while on his first visit to Montréal in 2006. The references range from a found vintage print referencing Maxfield Parrish's Daybreak to aspects of the book Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen and the traditional igloo shelter of the Inuit (does Acosta's upside down igloo relate to his talks in Montréal with Cape Dorset artist Annie Pootoogook?). 2boys.tv bring a visual and aural mélange of the performative, cabaret-as-laboratory body inflected with a romantic notion of Montréal as film-noir backdrop for their projections. My Barbarian presents part two of their selective investigation of Canada's norms and mores in Gods of Canada II. Julie Doucet applies cut-and-paste letters to form a neo-French concrete poetry specific to Montréal slang but beyond its recognizable linguistic borders with a DIY pop esthetic synonymous with the new music community as well. So, in brief, there are numerous examples of shared, resonant artworks whose conceptual base is somehow inextricably tied to Montreal and Quebec, and cerebral reflection from afar.

However, selected works in Crack the Sky are clearly beyond the defining scope of city, province, region and youthful experiences. As a curator it has always been for me a question of following artists and listening for the other values and meanings that inform their work. Some are no longer concerned with the permanent form of a work but are instead focusing on the immaterial and the invisible, an evolving and generative context and spirituality that lie behind the subject. Therefore, in many ways, each participating artist in Crack the Sky has a unique interpretation of the constructed realities of daily life. From very different cultural perspectives, they track subjects and develop idiosyncratic systems of representation that are wide-ranging in expressive form. They vary from the spatially complex sculptures and photographs of Evan Penny and Michael Awad to the perspectival drawings of Annie Pootoogook and Will Kwan's highly structured analytical research on the Chinese diaspora. Geoffrey Farmer adapts and reinvents his Puppet Kit Personality Workshop concept from the detritus found in and adjacent to his exhibition space. The undertaking includes the performative and rebellious visual poetry of Peaches and Julie Doucet, the elegant paintings of Paul P. alongside the raw stencilled forms on canvas by Paulo Whitaker, the collective actions and recordings of Lesbians on Ecstasy and My Barbarian, and the ambiguous artworld associations of Carole Pope and Les Georges Leningrad. The sources for their respective artistic investigations are as murky as the applied theology, sociology, anthropology and history used by social scientists to reinterpret realities at home and abroad.

One of the most compelling and thought-provoking essays on borders was published in PUBLIC 17 in 1996. Scott MacKenzie's piece, "A Line in the Snow: Visualizing Borders Imaginary and Real"—reflecting on the shifting contexts for borders and their related meanings and values—has impacted on many artists in Crack the Sky. Each artist and group in the show has navigated the demarcated lines of authority that determine the material and psychological integrity of a culturally defined entity (Quebec or other entity) to acknowledge issues of inside and outside, legal and illegal, fact and fiction. For example, the digital photographs of Scott McFarland over the last eight years feature a long and intense investigation of cultured and sensuously constructed Canadian and American west coast gardens. McFarland's best known garden images are large scale, composited documents that highlight a natural landscape transformed by greenery and flower-beds highly subdued and made dynamic through the organization of their ornamental foliage. McFarland's photographs, like Empire Panorama, can isolate, magnify and make benign the cultured landscape's dark impulses. They can highlight the tension between human constructions and hidden natural processes. David Hoffos likewise inhabits and remolds a world of hybridity—in his case the real, physical surroundings of home and family in the small modernist Alberta city and those of another, highly pastiched genre-film shifting world he designs in luminous scale models. It is the latter that one must pay attention to as it slips between defining borders, from film noir to horror, from mystery/drama to poetic love story. One senses a gap opening up, a dialogue with denial and revelation for the viewer. It is as if the sense of immediacy and intimate knowledge of Hoffos is laid open and he mutters, "As if." The quietly magnificent works of Hoffos have an allegorical quality that upend and showcase the most understated, dream-like experiences in human existence, a brief journey between voids and borders, between the raw moments of doubt and crushing defeat found in all things sensual.

Iran Do Espirito Santo's site-specific installations explore the seemingly uncontested spaces between the concrete and the abstract in which he places intrusions, obstacles or new materials, transformal elements. He seeks ways to critically engage or unhinge high modernist ideals associated with "progressive" architecture and design. In this middle space or gap Santo combines wit and paradox to present the formally non-specific without being wholly abstract. For example, his rendition of a Philippe Starck table lamp tooled from solid stainless steel and highly polished almost disappears in its lack of functionality, in its high artificiality, simultaneously reflecting and absorbing light.

Sensual borders between spaces and their material constructions are equally misleading in the work of artist trio BGL, known for their situational esthetics and site-specific installations. BG L draws up cultural and linguistic borders as a constant in their work. Their finely balanced taxidermied form, Le Chevreuil, is monstrous, dark and obvious as the ubiquitous and inter-active roe deer sculpture it appears to mimick. The sculpture seems to kinetically oscillate between meanings however. Its title may playfully reference chevillure (the third branch of a deer's head) and chevilleur (one who pegs together objects, such as books). The reading of Le Chevreuil becomes a compilation of references, anything but precise, delineated and easily measured.

Christine Davis' haunting installation, entitled Not I, projects in slide dissolves two interspliced texts onto an elaborate hanging scrim of embroidered antique buttons. One text is taken from Beckett's Not I and the other from Simone Weil's Self-Effacement. The Beckett text serves to cut up the Weil into speech fragments . Each slide has one Beckett phrase (or stutter as it is performed) and corresponding number of words from the Weil text. In English, the Beckett appears on top and the Weil upside down underneath, as if mirrored. In French, it is the opposite. As the French and English versions of Beckett are not of the same length and there is a quote in the Weil text that appears differently, the way the words are cut up within each language make each slide frame totally different between French and English. So although the originating texts are the same, they do not deliver the same meaning in each language.

What can be said of borders and the "untranslatable"? There is a slippage not only between French and English, but between speech and language as the spoken text is used to render the written text non-sensical. Across the most subtle but real borders of language and speech, Davis examines a kind of double negative subject position that is due to the (outmoded?) analogue projection apparatus that inverts the projected image.

Artists in Crack the Sky are adept at shifting arbitrary borders, determining the conceptual flexibility of ideas that recognize borders in one context and ignore them in others. The following is an excerpt from MacKenzie's essay on borders and identity that is acutely relevant to the physical location of Crack the Sky in Montréal, Quebec. I urge you to read and place within the context of Quebec in 2007 the entire text to be found at .

Borders are as much virtual as material. To create a border, one needs not merely a concrete geographical space, but an imaginary one as well. In the absence of both these conditions being met, the symbolic efficacy of the border dissolves. One would be hard pressed to find a more telling manifestation of this fact than the current situation in Quebec.

Artists interested in ongoing debates of identity issues have adopted innovative strategies of reportage to examine socio-political phenomena and body politic is sues, using multiple forms of mapping including, but not limited to, notions of revolution, sustained rebellion, dissent and resistance.

A range of artists in Crack the Sky engage subject matter to suggest positions of dissent or resistance to the homogenizing effect of globalism and its attendent mainstream values. They engage contentious subjects existing on a grand scale-from feminist claims for equality to environmental issues. The revived feminist debates in the twenty-first century, at least in the artworld, recontextualize and attempt to re-integrate the most radical pronouncements and slogans of the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Equal pay for equal work, again. Lesbians as part of the feminist solutions, not outlawed. War needs a feminist resolution. There is much that is current about these sentiments today. Environmental issues also stand out among artists whose concerns are intertwined with rising tides of sectarian violence, the collapse of time and space, shifting borders, language, justice, diasporas and more.

As a form of protest and challenge to authority, many artists in Crack the Sky embrace a stylized approach to rebellion and revolution, highly conscious of the limitations of their address but yet intent on pushing the idealism supporting their beliefs. Each artist in their respective media represents a stylistic shift to hybrid figurative-abstract forms set amid dystopic fields of vision that are eerily familiar and yet increasingly alien. Each creates a reality that is otherworldly, a fabricated irreality whose sources are diverse and interconnected.

Artists have long been associated with forms of social and political change whose intense acceleration spawns rebellion and revolution. Often an artist's declaration of being is meant to incite, engage and even confound to the point of paradigm shift. Rebellious, revolutionary and seditious behaviour is largely paralleled in the modus operandi of high capitalism. It is the winning system of oppression and opportunity that now incorporates and niche-markets all forms of rebellion and revolt. But something is missing from the picture in 2007. The barricades, mass protests and manifestos have largely disappeared. The punk-rock aesthetic associated with the most visual forms attached to "revolution'" has disappeared. The protestors of globalization are seemingly scattered. The links to late-1970s punk rock rebellion and fervour may be, however, largely intact, perhaps subsumed and blunted with humor and the seductive wry smiles of terrorists.

Although the process of economic and cultural globalization could ideally bring a plethora of competing ideologies face to face, the effective engagement of a political agenda in artmaking may be nearly impossible—even incomprehensible—in the present era of late capitalism. But the dismantling and enervation of a political sensibility is exactly what many artists intend to investigate, in the most introverted manner without discourse with political parties, or confrontations with authorities but offering an ongoing exploration as a sliver of hope for radical change by the performative artist in the twenty-first century.

Revolution may only exist as a diluted "attitude" toward change but the impulse for resistance and social and moral change is acute and widely felt. With their geodesic dome installation, Noam Gonick and Luis Jacob imagine an alternative form of resistance whose strength is found in appropriated imagery from the 1960s counter culture and the homoerotic youth culture of ancient Greece. Gonick and Jacob place their young, commune-minded male subjects outside a tumultuous urban setting and into a lakeside nature with results that may register a mild déjà vu. Is it a "back to the land" déjà vu? Perhaps, but the sources of this imagistic echo are more accurately located among iconic photo reproductions clipped from male physique magazines and books of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The groundbreaking 1950s male physique photo journals of Montréal-based Alan Stone are a distant inspiration, as are Paul Cadmus' veiled homoerotic portraits of slumbering beachside men from the 1930s to the 1960s. Gonick and Jacob, like Paul P., borrow carefully chosen fragments of photographs, drawings and moving images, then further manipulate and reassemble their materials on the flat surfaces of paper, photo paper or celluloid. Their archival materials of an evolving homoerotic revolution are visually charged. They offer representations pregnant with unresolved socio-political struggle, revolutionary gestures so disarming, useless and anti-commercial (no branding!) that they may be ironically deemed delinquent.

Many of the artworks in Crack the Sky offer familiarity while the subject matter ultimately remains highly oblique. Scott Treleaven's tentative young post-punk subjects embody a noble, independent character. The tattooed arms and chests, the pierced body parts, the defiant posing of his models and the charm of the cherry blossoms purposely eclipse or stretch moments of viewer comprehension. The repeated insertions of graffiti-like images and visually restrictive, densely layered collages appear to waiver between pathos and utter enchantment. What lingers long after one comprehends the familiar erotica in Treleaven's work is the inexplicable visual and emotional impact of an often violated landscape (of a forested Canada and other global lands) and shredded built environment. His moving and still images are filled with the tension implicit in mass media's incessant digital spectre of violence and fear.

A subject that fuels the vision of artists in Crack the Sky is the ability to expand the style of a chosen medium and its substance into artmaking's present moment. This process of expansion becomes a structural support within which to revisit the perceived immediacy of recognition in both history and, for example, contemporary painting. Eleanor Bond, Chris Cran, Ryan Sluggett and Paulo Whitaker confront a complex and often contradictory relationship to dominant paradigms for seeing and the artist's resulting vocabulary for painting. It is an inherited and shared investigation for painters in both North and South America. Since the late eighteenth century, social and political transformations were epitomized by two forms of "revolution" that continue to characterize the modern and post-modern epochs—"political revolution" and "industrial/technical revolution." Many envisaged the arrival of a new age in which major conflicts and cleavages in human society would be finally eliminated. Such a vision appears in the works of Saint-Simon and Comte; in their most influential form, in those of Hegel and Marx; and in the writings of a host of minor figures in nineteenth-century thought. The disasters of two world wars have helped to make twenty-first-century thinkers less sanguine about the future than those of any previous era. But the current interpretations of the trends of development in advanced societies continue to raise such possibilities, in a much lower key, and in the guise of sociological analysis.

Conceptions of the "end of ideology" and most versions of technocratic theory express the view that in contemporary society the deep-rooted social conflicts of the past have been left behind in favour of a general "consensus of ends." More specifically, of course, it holds that the class struggles that punctuated nineteenth-century European history, the centre piece for Marx's theoretical scheme and practical project for the revolutionary reorganization of capitalism, have today dissolved. We are left with the plaintive voice of Kazakhstan in full page ads in the Economist magazine—an ideologue's dreamscape: "Kazakhstan: Formula of peace and progress. Kazakhstan represents an island of stability and prosperity in the stormy and contradictory modern world." Guest curator Boris Chukhovich has written extensively about the proliferation of underground and politically sensitive video art as a form of representation from this otherwise lost part of the artworld. His program for Crack the Sky, entitled Return of the Metaphor, addresses notions of post-nationalism and reportage, both in the wake of a failed revolution and the making of a new, nationalist revolution that is seeking and building identity. His selection of video works by Vyacheslav Akhunov and Sergey Tichina, Saïd Atabekov, Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, Roman Maskalev and Maxim Boronilov, Alexander Nikolaev, reflects on aspects of the political and artistic minefield that is Central Asia.

The formulation of a critical theory of contemporary society may assume "the end of ideology" in a period of much vaunted globalization. In the face of this tendency to suggest a disappearance of the fundamental conflicts that have set individuals and groups against one another in the past, artists such as Stephen Andrews, Dana Claxton, Jeff Funnell, Ignacio Iturria, Brian Jungen, Will Kwan, Kent Monkman, Annie Pootoogook and Susan Turcot, remind viewers of the ubiquity of social conflict. For them it is the irremediable fact of the human condition. However, they are the first to note that the nature and sources of present day conflicts have changed significantly and require innovative forms of representation and notation.

Violence inflicted on nature and the rumbling sound of threats to the social order are implicit reminders of the tenuous social bonds. Susan Turcot's dedicated front line reportage, in the form of drawings , describes a narrowing strip of Boreal forest north of Quebec City. Her drawings of the massive, ongoing clear-cutting of fragile eco-systems are remarkable. Her mark-making on paper and short digital animation crackle with an unexpected intensity. Dana Claxton proposes another form of reportage that reinterprets the maligned history of her Sioux ancestors after the late nineteenth-century Wounded Knee massacre. She casts a wary and mournful eye to a litany of injustices in her video installation, Sitting Bull and the Moose Jaw Sioux. It is a haunting eulogy to her Sioux ancestors that extends its lament to the attempted genocide of all indigenous peoples in the Americas. Turcot and Claxton reflect on the lack of corporate responsibility and the slow burn of injustice. Both reveal what the dominant resource exploitation companies in the Americas are best known for: violence, the creative violence with which they tear down and emasculate the good for what is deemed to be better; the cruel violence with which authorities have treated people of colour; the intoxicating violence of music and art; the often absurd violence of our musicians and comics (Peaches, Lesbian on Ecstasy, Comic Craze); the organized violence of athletic and corporate games; the coarse violence of speech and jokes that Peaches (Merrill Nisker) emulates in her performances. Ryan Sluggett's paintings and animation seek to illustrate the primitive within ourselves and bemoan the failure of affluence to civilize. A cubist nightmare reigns below the surface of Sluggett's subjects, the kind of hybridized, stylistically cannibalized figures that will face one another in Theo Sims' The Candahar, a bar where the young will verbally deplore the violence of elders and are tempted, after so many pints, to use violence against them. It is the same bar of traditional social bonding where one will hear the old deplore the ferocity of the young who fight against globalization and are tempted to use violence to suppress them.

The implied violence and resistance in Crack the Sky plays off the seeming vulnerability and transcendent qualities of the many depictions of human figures. The figurative works of Stephen Andrews, Chris Cran, Ignacio Iturria, and Jeff Funnell's court room drama scenes, offer up human forms for examination. Figures appear to linger as survivors in Funnell's drawings documenting the judicial investigation of the death of Manitoba aboriginal chief J. J. Harper. The various courtroom ghosts pay tribute to the long-time "losers" on the margins of society that inevitably grow to be sentinels. Stephen Andrews' graphic vision in hundreds of drawings and an animation is of some incomprehensible account of violence in parks, test automobiles, foreign countries seeking conditional freedoms, front yards, and, in the work of lturria, among the archetypal city's modernist office and apartment buildings located anywhere between Montevideo and Toronto's St. James Town. From the theatre of the absurd and metaphoric, Chris Cran's "performer" is a rotating globe of the world hung upside down (so as to appear the right way up in a projection). The cartoon face of the globe itself is in-focus at the centre but fades to out-of-focus at the edges. Observed on the screen is a spinning globe with a stationary cartoon face, surrounded by darkness and accompanied by cartoon music composed by Carl Stalling for Looney Tunes. This music is played in reverse on a hidden stereo system.

The artworks in Crack the Sky also evoke the continuous presence of misbehaviour, obstruction, obscenity and the occasional violent acts of bands of provocateurs led, imaginatively by, for example, Carole Pope. I imagine them amidst vast and concentrated crowds of dissenters who frequently express their own unrestrained and indiscriminate violence in thought, word and deed. Could this visage also become the essential perception of the young Canadian troops in Afghanistan? Time will tell.

Given the anxiety of modem cities like Montreal, with its charismatic leaders, its uninvited visitors on fractious political stages, its disenfranchised and, again, its demonstrators like artists, both bitter and idealistic, the currency of images in Crack the Sky is not unfamiliar. The most abstract curtain by Virgil Marti, composed of strings of translucent replicas of human bones, the emotionally vacuous institutional interior depicted in a Lynne Cohen photograph, the inverted igloo of Scoli Acosta, the rhetoric of painting by Eleanor Bond, NUMA and Paulo Whitaker are common currency, informed by their mass-media reality. But as always with great art, the same images and experiential installations operate as vaguely evocative representations of an indeterminate ambiance that one is hard-pressed to fully comprehend. As artworks they appear to overflow with a benign sense of the purposeful. Most are laden with dissent, situated somewhere between the established world of political conformity and the vision of an underworld of violent revolution, freedom fighting and disobedience. Mute, anonymous figures parade their grievances against flag, country, party and all established doctrines of order and decorum, and defy the efforts to contain or disperse them.

This complex investigation of fear and violence employs an expansive archive of ephemera and original sets, and the process of archiving is different for each artist. What is more violent and bent on eliciting change than capitalism? Will Kwan's investigation of the Chinese diaspora as part of a continuum, a stream of growth for the multinational HSBC is a case in point. In many countries around the world the HSBC represents a fragment of an overall picture that is essential to Kwan's investigation of survival, violence (China after 1949), struggle, and transformation (into a global/neighbourhood bank) through ideological shifts and social revolutions. From his research in the HSBC archives in London, Kwan collages a range of obscure bank-related subjects and forms, iconic in their own right as mass-media references for the public eye, to which the bank repeatedly returns to legitimize its activities. Although filmic in nature, Kwan's work operates as part history painting, part allegory (or anti-allegory), part evocative corporate enigma, ultimately read as an investigation of appearances.

What the artists in Crack the Sky make of revolution and resistance is the problem of perception of forms that prompt new visions. What can we possibly recognize in Ignacio Iturria's curiously kitschy stick men? They are ghost-like white apparitions living in the cement slab high rises throughout Latin America. Does Beth Derbyshire's graphic image of the North Pole and Canada (graphic proposal for a commemorative coin) incite a muted disbelief that she has mapped Canada? No. We are more likely to imagine awe-struck Arctic birds and polar animals watching the haunted cities of the south from tree branches. Stephen Andrews' 700 graphic still frames are the aftermath of a nighttime eruption of violence. In Sarah Anne Johnson's dimly lit dioramic interiors, one can visualize the puking, enigmatic masked man, a costumed monkey or ape mimicking the vacuous look of a stunned human. All of these images prioritize the mysterious and contradictory nature of representation. In the age of late capitalism, it becomes well-known strategy that too literal an interpretation of any subject is not only undesirable but, more important, it kills the picture.

Identity built on the churning motion of revolution, in all its interpretations and manifestations evoke, as if in a daydream, the incitement of fear, pervasive acts of violence for a creepy scenario set in the limbo of an ossified Disneyland. How each artist transforms each blurred subject, with a deliberate obfuscation of reality into a sharply focused psychological self-portrait is the undeniable triumph of each practice.

Crack the Sky has been divided as a series of mixed-media solo exhibitions and group shows stretching the boundaries of various media and overlapping disciplines from visual art to biology. The latter forms can simulate an updated, more politically correct version of a cabinet of curiosities. The wonders of the world, as experiential, environmental or theatre of the absurd art are dealt a new audience, more worldly and engaged than the largely untraveled and misinformed audiences of previous times. The act of drawing has proven to be a common porthole for investigations into a new cabinet of curiosities. Artists such as Scali Acosta, Stephen Andrews, Chris Cran, Ignacio Iturria, Brian Jungen, Luanne Martineau, Ryan Sluggett and Bill Smith invigorate approaches to traditional drawing techniques and reconsider the act of drawing by incorporating various unconventional media. The idea is to bring new eyes to the process of mark making, working with increasingly diverse materials but limited resources. There is a continual search for a production of economy that permits the artists to proceed with their work. For many it has become essential to simply inscribe a territory or space literally by any means possible with the associated, unpredictable levels of exertion to complete the gesture. The gesture, and in fact, the initial mark or other reference indicating the presence of an idea, may be prolonged or abstracted to attempt to sustain some form of longevity for an idea or problem to be solved.

Acosta, Cran, Iturria and Martineau present a notational and provisional vocabulary, sometimes adopting a highly inflected and subjective voice, using a variety of media simultaneously. It is less a question of one media's primacy over another as the artist's experimentation begins in the generative margins where scale, subject matter and form may be what attracts attention to the activity.

Acosta's grossly engaging installations demand investigation as inter-media and interdisciplinary projects. They are densely layered readings of the artist's self-styled cosmology of disparate facts and phenomena, a work in progress about the world and the making of meaning that is packed with wide-ranging references strung together if one follows the dots from one broken narrative to the next. The narratives may find their form in literary, sculptural, mythic and filmic materials and the dots tend to fold back on themselves, always suggesting a search for clarity and meaning.

Ignacio Iturria applies paint, pen, ink, charcoal and scraps of paper to canvas, cardboard or various found matter. The drawings are critical, conceptual works that lay bare a process by which the artist extends his creative potential contingent on stretching the format for drawing and expectations of the medium. The works may reek as disposable matter but the intent of the work actually lies outside the subject matter (kitsch stick figures, stark monolithic apartment buildings or toy-like objects) that inadvertently highlights something else-an increasingly abstract, visually engaging diversity of processes that are integral to the artist' s ongoing studies through drawing.

Other artists, such as Stephen Andrews and Luanne Martineau, offer novel approaches to drawing that in turn are adapted in new media. Their support surface for drawing may be vellum, paper, digital tape, film or compressed felt. The conceptual parameters for Andrews' drawing begins to extend to a shopping list of materials for sculpture, when the drawing extends itself to number over five hundred, all enlisted to compose an animation. The resulting installation equates the drawings with time, and time is made sculptural and drawing rendered transformational. The shopping list of materials may be extended to representations of human forms and clothing rendered in felt if one reconsiders the soft sculptures of Martineau. Both represent "levels of information" about representation that disorients viewers to make them question the effectiveness of still images in mass media or new forms on the periphery of what we consider identifiable, known and ascribed with definite values as art. Martineau appears to be producing visual mutations through a selective breeding process. Her densely textured pressed forms of simulated eyeglasses, clothing or fingers somehow retain a human dimension and the seductive materials invite viewers to touch. In each case the drawings and investigative process become increasingly difficult to describe and relegate to one medium or another.

Chris Cran's melding of painting, drawing, sculpture and installation is unparalleled in his ability to reposition sly references to Marcel Duchamp and William S. Burroughs, intimate theatres of the absurd and the visual trickery of perspectival drawing combined with the made-simple magic of the camera obscura as sculpture. The two works for Montréal are loaded with ambiguities, caught between powerful simplicity and naïveté. They are left bare and simple as perspectival references, homages swimming in a sea of blank space.

Jesper Just playfully references familiar tropes of cinema and television. His tightly crafted scripts examine the way in which specific film conventions can trigger both intellectual and emotional responses in the spectator. In his filmic pieces, he explores the ways in which an all-pervasive popular culture constructs a limited number of models of identity. Incorporating a series of visual and aural cues, Just seduces and deceives his audience with the most common cinematic devices and establishes a range of characters and unusual filmic sets that can only be considered erotic curiosities.

Julie Doucet, for years immersed in the drawing of comic cells for narratives, constructs her neo-French language poems from an alphabet she hand-cuts from newspapers and pastes to construct new word associations. Moreover she alters, subverts or conceals particular subjects to literally "draw out" photographic or textual images to create an entirely new, concrete poetry. The resulting collage drawings become both representation and documentation of her reaction to a range of media sources from advertising (catch phrases and images) to lesser-known visual information (such as fonts). It becomes both iconographic and nonsensical. During the collage process Doucet can develop works on autopilot, simply going through the motions, cutting and pasting, trusting her subconscious instincts to edit out anything irrelevant.

The blending of artistic strategies to extend the idea of a museum of curiosities is evident in a subset of artworks that resemble the oddities found in a cabinet of curiosities. Bill Smith's sculptures can simulate environmental dilemmas or suggest biological forms to be deciphered. He is sculpting change itself. The early nineteenth-century British artist John Constable acknowledged a long investigation in cloud formations in a similar manner and wrote, "We see nothing truly 'till we understand it." Smith's drive toward understanding brings together diverse building materials (paper, glue, miniature fans and electrodes) into a delicate, often exceedingly awkward looking balancing act familiar in nature. The handwritten letters that Smith incorporates into his installation are essentially love notes, found behind the wallboards of two abandoned buildings near St. Louis. Each letter has a semblance of being contemporary and relevent even though the first was written in the late nineteenth century and the other in 2005-06. In essence both letters request fidelity of their loved one and communicate heartfelt truths in an attempt to cement a relationship while unknown distances and circumstances separate writer and intended reader. Smith stretches the parameters to re-present found, intimate material for a public, inclusive art experience. In many ways Smith delimits the process of drawing by arranging found texts. This type of gesture introduces and opens up the artist's sculptural investigations in biological and environmental sciences. In the process he shifts a viewer's frame of mind, from one disengaged in wonderment to one intent on understanding.

The recurring themes for Crack the Sky outlined above aim to define aspects of Canadian contemporary art, from the myriad borders that define and restructure personal and societal identities in artmaking to the extended, complex nature of forms of reportage that are also artmaking. They cannot hope to represent but a partial overview of contemporary art. However, it should be noted that Crack the Sky represents in many ways the end of an era. Gone is the radiant innocence and romantic purity associated with works by early twentieth century Canadian artists. The former Director of the National Gallery of Canada, Dr. Shirley L. Thomson, wrote the foreword to the 1988 Canadian Biennial catalogue. In it she gives perspective to the exhibition's undertaking to lend credence to the idea that Canadian artists were, for a second time, entering an era of unparalleled accomplishment on both national and international levels, as was the case between 1926 and 1964:

Those exhibitions [of 1926 and 1964] were a young nation's affirmation of the maturity and vitality of its artists and its readiness to compete in the international artistic arena. They celebrated the winds of change in Canadian art, its creation of a national style and a national subject-the northern landscape, its forays into modernism, and its contributions to an international language of abstraction.

The period covered by those exhibitions saw the flourishing of Canadian art, especially during the fifties and sixties with the creation of new agencies such as the Canada Council. Yet it was still possible for a single juror to travel across the country and look at the work of all the artists who wanted to be considered for such an exhibition. Since then, the sheer growth in the number of practising artists has made it impossible, and perhaps inappropriate, for the National Gallery to claim for itself the role of sole judge of artistic excellence in Canada. To a certain extent, the role the Gallery formerly played, of recognizing professional artistic achievement, has been taken up, nationally, by the Canada Council, its Art Bank, and the system of jury assessment by the artist's peers. During the seventies and early eighties, the Gallery focused on smaller, thematic shows and one-person exhibitions, which looked in depth at the work of outstanding Canadian artists, as well as artists from abroad.

...Perhaps the most original aspect of this project is that it is intended to be a collaboration among several art galleries across the country [editor's note: including the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Musée d'art contemporarain de Montréal]. We are extremely pleased to be able to share with these institutions the task of offering some definitions of the specific nature of contemporary Canadian art through a series of independent exhibitions over the next several years. It is our shared belief that the historical dimension of this project will contribute to the record of an exceptionally vital period in Canadian art.

The stock market crash of 1990 precluded the development of Dr. Thomson's concept of regionally directed Canadian biennials. Almost twenty years later, that era has come to an end. Crack the Sky—representing CIAC's latest, albeit inconclusive profile of a burgeoning Canadian contemporary art scene—moves with much more confidence both within and beyond the imaginary and real borders of Canada and Quebec. It is the beginning of a new era for Canadian contemporary art. It is already less regionally based than before, more fluid and operative across borders, and ultimately, against all odds, one of the most uniquely productive and relevent to a living culture.

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