Art

What does it mean to be in relation?

05 November 2019Swapnaa Tamhane
What does it mean to be in relation?
What does it mean to be in relation?
What does it mean to be in relation?
What does it mean to be in relation?

In 1968, the American architect, and inventor Buckminster Fuller was invited to propose a development plan for the Toronto harbour area with a vision to connect the city directly to the lake. This would be by means of a 900 metre-long glass-windowed galleria with boutiques, cinemas, art galleries, and a trading centre, all set in a 20-story crystal pyramid. A pedestrian bridge would link to a complex of apartment buildings built on several man-made islands, with swimming ports for an activity that is impossible directly on the waterfront today.


Kapwani Kiwanga, Soft Measures, 2018-19, printed fabric, steel. On view at Small Arms Inspection Building as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2019). Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Toronto Biennial of Art.

The shoreline area – reclaimed land from the bottom of Lake Ontario – was piled over with abandoned wharfs and industrial refuse. Today, condominiums and bike paths dominate the landscape, and much further development is planned to fully revitalise the area. The inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art is in fact titled The Shoreline Dilemma, curated by Candice Hopkins and former Alserkal Avenue Programming Director Tairone Bastien who have mapped it as a way to think about the city in its relation to its future and its past of 12,000 years of Indigenous history.

 

Kapwani Kiwanga, Soft Measures, 2018-19, printed fabric, steel. On view at Small Arms Inspection Building as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2019). Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Toronto Biennial of Art.
 

The opening pages of the guidebook for the biennial acknowledge the land, the skies, and root systems. While the city expands, and draws new inhabitants, it is still difficult to completely bond together given the expanse of off-shoot cities like Mississauga, Scarborough, or North York. The biennial makes great effort to understand these larger extensions, and to reflect what Toronto is known for: a true practice of diversity and a multi-cultural population. That population, however, begins with the Indigenous initial inhabitants – the Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabe, as well as the Mississaugas of the Credit who lost their land through colonial trickery.

 

The larger thematic intent of the biennial  is to understand the dilemma of the shoreline, taking into account climate change and colonisation. Key locations for the biennial are dotted along this shoreline, with eight sites for its extensive programme, which includes partnerships with key institutions throughout the city (ie, AGYU, AGO, and Ryerson Image Centre).

Susan Schuppli, Learning From Ice (Part I: Ice Cores & Interviews with Ice Core Scientists), 2019, HD Video, colour with stereo sound, 64 mins. Commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art. On view at 259 Lake Shore Blvd E as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2019). Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy Toronto Biennial of Art.  

At 259 Lakeshore East, artworks are installed on the pre-existing walls in what was both a warehouse and more recently, a Volvo showroom. There is an overarching feeling of the negotiation and track of the Anthropocene with the works of the tounge-in-cheek self-declared least productive mining company in the world, New Mineral Collective. Providing geo-trauma healing therapies through their video, Pleasure Prospects, which is a video piece that includes puncturing land with pins that then become healing tools as acupuncture needles, commenting on the conditions of contemporary resource extraction. Nearby, Susan Schuppli’s documentary film shows us how ice acts as a material witness to global warming.

Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh & Hesam Rahmanian, Lo’bat, 2017-2019, embroidery on parachute with electrical motors, print on fabric, cameras, artificial flowers, locks of hair. On view at 259 Lake Shore Blvd E as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2019). Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Toronto Biennial of Art.

 

Sea creatures like a jellyfish becomes both tent and parachute in Lo’bat, the work of Dubai-based artists Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, and Hesam Rahmanian. Their work is rooted in collaboration, and Lo’bat is emblematic of exchange. People are at the heart of the work in the approach taken by the artists, who provided fabric to Goharaneh Institution, an organisation in Tehran working with Afghan migrant women who rely on embroidery as a source of income. The installation comprises text, locks of hair, and a jellyfish-like robot that expands and contracts as it senses the presence of people; it is made with a puppeteer. Women volunteered stories of fear that are expressed through embroidered images; as the jellyfish lifts, these images come alive and then are hidden from view when the jellyfish creates an embrace as it closes. The title is taken from the 11th Century mathematician, Omar Khayyam, who uses the word “lo’bat” (or puppet) in a poem.

 

Small Arms Inspection Building, photo courtesy of Gillian Harris (Toronto Biennial)

The Small Arms Inspection Building – along the same shoreline but on the West side of the city – has a gorgeous interior with glass windows and a highly polished floor. Only its name gives a sense of its history: a munitions plant from 1940 where rifles were produced for Canadian forces during World War II. The building and its surrounding site had radioactive soil, combustible gases, and volatile compounds, which have been removed and rehabilitated. The artworks installed in this building are situated in relation to one another, and to this history of resource extraction, contamination (see Judy Chicago’s pyrotechnic feminisation of a landscape), or site studies and tracking (seen in the drawings by Hajra Waheed, who has a major solo exhibition at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery).

Abbas Akhavan, Study for a Garden, 2017, bronze. On view at Small Arms Inspection Building as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2019).
Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy Toronto Biennial of Art.

In wanting to keep the openness of the building, there was a decision to avoid walls. Therefore, we encounter the sculptures of Jumana Manna, Kapwani Kiwanga, Abbas Akhavan, and Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, and ISUMA (with a film set in 1961 on a seal hunt in Baffin Island) all together in one sightline. This is an exciting grouping of artists and content, and indeed truly “in relation” to thinking about Canada, about Toronto, and about how its history is reflected in these artists who are part of immigrant and refugee communities who make art that is poignant, critical, and incredibly evocative.

Jumana Manna, Cache (Insurance Policy), 2018-19, 8 works with ceramic and tadelakt (concrete, lime, pigments), steel grids, plinths. On view at Small Arms Inspection Building as part of the Toronto Biennial of Art (2019). Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy Toronto Biennial of Art.

Manna, a Palestinian artist, presents Cache (Insurance Policy), a series of sculptures that are ceramic and tadelakt (made from concrete, lime, pigments). These forms are drawn from seed storage vessels – khabyas – belonging to rural architecture, juxtaposed to steel structure storage systems. Used to store grains, they were literally insurance to have a reserve of food. This installation is somehow protected by Akhavan’s Study for a Garden, comprised of individually casted bronze sticks that look like a collection of tree branches. As one looks closer, each stick has been sharpened to a point – transposing each one into a weapon.

Through The Shoreline Dilemma, Hopkins and Bastien posit the ever-changing Toronto coastline as a metaphor for systems that may collapse or slowly breakdown, leading to knowledge systems that emerge whether old or new. This biennial engages the Indigenous past and present, almost as a metaphor for the shoreline which itself will continue to be affected by industry, pollution, commerce, and condominium-culture – a direct mirror of the Anthropocene.

The Toronto Biennial of Art opened runs until 1 December, 2019, with a series of collateral events and exhibitions, and is free to the public.

 

About Swapnaa Tamhane:

Swapnaa Tamhane is an artist, curator, and writer, based in Montreal, Canada.