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Toronto Biennial of Art

It’s been a long couple of years for all of us, including artists and their supporters — with galleries shuttered, festivals cancelled and shows on hold, the world of visual art has largely been at a standstill. Thankfully, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and, the 2022 Toronto Biennial of Art (TBA) might just be the perfect outlet for easing back into gathering around art.

Attending the latest edition of the Toronto Biennial of Art was my first gallery experience in over two years, and many of the visitors I spoke to were in the same boat. This year’s Biennial was originally scheduled for 2021 — it was then postponed by six months in response to the pandemic, which impacted every aspect of its planning: “Shipping was a nightmare and artists had difficulty sourcing materials for their work,” explains Katie Lawson, one of the show’s co-curators. But ultimately, the timing was perfect. With the lifting of pandemic restrictions in Ontario, the Biennial was able to welcome artists and visitors to attend the event in person — for many, for the first time in years. “It’s a bit on the nose,” says Lawson. “but we’re glad this happened when it did.”

Toronto Biennial of Art
Camille Turner, Nave, on view at the Small Arms Inspection Building. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Unlike other art biennials around the world, whose organizers and curators often focus on commissioning works by big names, Toronto’s version of the event is more low-key. Foregoing the bells and whistles has meant a lower profile for the exhibition — but that doesn’t mean it lacks impact. According to official reports, nearly 300,000 visitors attended the 2019 edition of the show, which took place across fifteen venues, and the 2022 iteration plans to attract just as many art-goers. The city-wide exhibit will be free and accessible to the public for its whole 72-day run.

The title of this year’s edition, What Water Knows, The Land Remembers, foreshadows a centring of geography throughout the show. In fact, the sites that house the biennial themselves follow the trajectories of Etobicoke Creek, the Laurentian Channel, Garrison Creek and Taddle Creek — a combination of still-visible and long-buried waterways. As Lawson writes in the show’s curatorial statement, “The earth neither gains nor relinquishes the water it harbours, and the water that composes and sustains human and more-than-human bodies and environments carries with it at least 3.9 billion years of history.”

Jeffrey Gibson, I AM YOUR RELATIVE, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Toni Hafkenschied.

In the context of Toronto, this meant paying close attention to the land’s colonial history. The biennial brought on Ange Loft, a multi-disciplinary artist from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, to advise on the Indigenous context of the exhibition. Her research and knowledge — and the contentious nature of the land that the TBA operates on — underpinned each decision, and this is apparent in the programming, which features several Indigenous artists. Loft’s own video art, DISH DANCE is also exhibited at Fort York — the curators recommend visiting at night for the best viewing experience.

Brian Jungen, Plague Mask 3 (fever dream). On view at 5 Lower Jarvis. Photo: Rachel Topham Photography. Image courtesy of Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver.

Brian Jungen might be a familiar name to some Torontonians. His exhibit Brian Jungen Friendship Centre at the Art Gallery of Ontario made waves back in 2019, showcasing sculptures made from repurposed sneakers. For the biennial, Jungen drew on his past work and current events to create Plague Mask, a series of replicas of masks used in the 17th century, made entirely of deconstructed Air Jordans.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel, on view at Mercer Union. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

At Mercer Union, I was particularly struck by Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s 45th Parallel, a 15-minute film about the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, a municipal building in Stanstead, a town that straddles the Canada-US border. The site of the library offers an entry point to discuss the arbitrary nature of national borders and their consequences — narrowing in on the 2010 murder of an unarmed 15-year-old Mexican national by a US Border Patrol agent and the judicial case that ensued.

Syrus Marcus Ware, MBL: Freedom, on view at the Small Arms Inspection Building. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

The biennial team also sought to increase points of access by offering both in-person and online events, as well as multiple sites throughout the city — and beyond. The Small Arms Inspection Building in Mississauga is the first (and only) venue located outside of Toronto proper, but it’s worth the trek — as they say, art knows no bounds.

In the old 1940s hall, a plethora of works come together in one sunlit room.  One of these is Marcus Syrus Ware’s MBL: Freedom, a multi-disciplinary project that combines video and installation to illustrate a world in which Antarctica is the only liveable place on Earth.

Jeffrey Gibson, SPEAK TO ME IN YOUR WAY SO I CAN HEAR YOU, on view at 72 Perth. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Across the room is New York-based artist Jeffrey Gibson’s work — undoubtedly one of the biennial’s heavyweights. Exhibiting several works across multiple venues, his presence is hard to forget: with I AM YOUR RELATIVE, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Gibson gives us literal structures to build on — visitors are free to place handed-out stickers anywhere on the 15 moveable stages in the lobby or on the walls surrounding them. His other works are more sculptural: SPEAK TO ME IN YOUR WAY SO I CAN HEAR YOU, which is on view at 72 Perth, features a range of found objects colliding with Indigenous embellishment to create an animalistic form.

Nadia Belerique, HOLDINGS, on view at 72 Perth. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

With so many strong works on display in such disparate places around the city, it can be hard to narrow down the list of venues to visit — we only have so many hours in a day. “I don’t have a favourite child”, says Lawson, “but I love Nadia Belerique’s work.” It’s easy to see why: on view at 72 Perth, Belerique’s HOLDINGS illustrates a poignant portrait of immigrant communities through rows of cargo barrels, much like those used to ship food and gifts by her family in Portugal.   

Derya Akay, Queer Dowry, on view at the Small Arms Inspection Building. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

To cap the 10-week-long event, a pyrotechnics demonstration by artist Judy Chicago — of The Dinner Party fame — will colour the sky above Lake Ontario on June 4. Aptly named A Tribute to Toronto, the artwork — part of Chicago’s Smoke Sculptures — will release white, yellow, green, blue and purple pigments from a floating barge into the air: a celebration of what’s to come and what has been in the place many of us call “home”.

The Toronto Biennial of Art Spotlights Land-Based Knowledge

This year’s event showcases the work of over 37 artists from around the world — in historic Tkaronto locations.

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