The Palazzo Loredan, on Venice’s well-trammeled Campo San Stefano, is an understated, non-palatial palace in a city where gaudy overstatement tends to be the rule. So it’s fitting place to find Imago Mundi, Canadian edition, housed here. Amid the clamour and excess of this year’s Venice Art Biennale, dwindling now into its final days, Imago Mundi is a self-consciously democratic affair: works by more than 700 artists snap neatly into uniform grids, each one confined to a 10 cm by 12 cm plinth.
The very famous — Michael Snow, Edward Burtynsky, Margaret Atwood, Robert Houle — shoulder up against the very not, none given more priority than the next. It’s a microcosm version of Imago Mundi’s macro egalitarian concern: starting in 2013, Luciano Benetton, through his charitable foundation, set out to commission same-scaled exhibitions for every country on earth.
In keeping with his long-standing commitment to broad-stroke, slightly nutty altruism — projects like his Colors magazine, co-created by the iconic designer Tibor Kalman and Olvieri Toscani, have always been charged with an iconoclastic political idealism — Benetton imagined it as a way to foster peace and understanding across the planet’s growing ideological schisms.
A lovely idea, to be sure, and while you can question its impact, given the current state of things, you can’t help but admire the spirit. Nor can you the logistics: To date, Imago Mundi has commissioned nearly 30,000 of the little pieces from 120 countries including such disparate states as Burkina Faso, Switzerland, Gabon, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Myanmar, Latvia, Norway and Uruguay, to name only a few.
As a design problem, it’s been left to Benetton’s long-time architect, Tobia Scarpa to solve, which he’s done ably. His democratic display is poetic and pragmatic: there’s a certain satisfaction to be gleaned from nominal stars bumping up against upstarts and the design is intensely practical — the grids fold up into each other, like large suitcases, making each exhibition portable, packable and storeable with almost absurd ease.
The Canadian version, called Great and North, is as uneven an affair as you might expect. Cleaved in three portions (with a fourth, focused on Indigenous North American artists), there’s an unfortunate separation to even the moderately schooled Canadian eye.
The Western Canadian portion is largely an array of folksy landscape painters, leaving out the towering artists of the Vancouver School (Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas), not to mention latter-day superstars like Brian Jungen and Geoffrey Farmer, whose deconstruction of the Canadian pavilion in the Giardini Pubblici is likely the most captivating official entry this country has ever seen.
Another portion, on Inuit art, is a little more accurate — with tiny soapstone carvings arrayed inventively in their little wooden frames and drawings by such big-name artists as Shuvinai Ashoona and the late Tim Pitseolak representing contemporary northern aesthetic.
But it’s in the central and northern parts of the country where Great and North becomes something with real purpose. Imago Mundi, for all its benevolence, relies on the same from the artists it displays: none are paid to produce a piece, and they don’t get them back. East of the Ontario-Manitoba border, the show delivers.
Criss-crossing between art, literature (along with Atwood, Barry Callaghan offered a piece), architecture (Jack Diamond and Moshe Safdie gamely submitted), music (Eve Egoyan) and design, lovely little moments and material ingenuity abound.
Industrial designer Andrew Jones rounded the frame of his own little plinth into a conversation pit, complete with little people. Ursula Johnson, an Indigenous artist from New Brunswick and a finalist this year for the Sobey Prize, punctured her small canvas with porcupine quills — overt barbs for a Canadiana exhibition that she called “On Native Land” (below).
Quebec-based Indigenous artist Nadia Myre abandoned her usual motif of abstract beadwork for a dark image of a canoe. Iris Häussler, whose elaborate deceptions have consumed entire buildings, offered a tiny wax surface of pale pink, with flower petals snared within; An Te Liu, whose recent bronze castings of packing material have made him a global phenomenon, made of his patch a mechanical looking ceramic cube. The Pratts — a famous family, all four, Christopher, Barbara, Ned and Mary (below) — offered paintings and a photo-collage. Jerry Ropson challenged Scarpa’s fold-and-pack scheme, with a volcanic husk of pure black protruding from its frame, while Mathieu Latulippe built a diorama. The list goes on.
So, will Imago Mundi change the world? Likely not. Though at its current rate, it will surely encircle it. With any luck, it will leave a legacy of tiny fascinations, combining to provide a window into the vagaries of nationhood in this moment, where such things are perhaps at their most strident. Imago Mundi has 30,000 such windows to show for. And counting.
Imago Mundi: Great and North continues at the Palazzo Loredan, Campo San Stefano, Venice, until Oct. 29.