Curating the Canadian Biennial

Carleton PhD Student Takes Lead

By Joseph Mathieu
Photos by National Gallery of Canada

Carleton University PhD student Jonathan Shaughnessy has a lot on his plate. As associate curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), he’s the lead curator for the 2017 Canadian Biennial exhibit featuring the work of more than 50 Canadian, Indigenous and international artists.

“The Canadian Biennial is closer to something like the Carnegie International or Whitney Biennial, being that it’s in a museum,” said Shaughnessy, describing how it varies from the Venice Biennale, easily the world’s oldest and most famous art exhibition, which showcases the art of various nations.

“But the really unique character of the NGC’s Biennial is that the dialogue is offered through the national collection. All that features in these shows are recent acquisitions, whether purchases, donations or promised gifts.”

Every two years since 2010, the NGC has been contextualizing its most recent acquisitions of contemporary art through biennial exhibitions aimed at taking the pulse of the art world today, in Canada and abroad.

A highlight from this year’s edition is Quebec City-based artist group BGL’s large-scale installations Canadissimo (Dépanneur) which originally greeted visitors to the 2015 Venice Biennale’s Canada Pavilion. Walking into the life-sized Québécois convenience store is only one of many major – and often large-scale – pieces from the 2017 Canadian Biennial.

Latifa Echakhch Untitled (Black Cloud) IV, 2015 China ink, wood, canvas, acrylic paint and steel wire 100 x 250 x 50 cm (approx.) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Latifa Echakhch Courtesy Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zurich

Pursuing Graduate Studies at Carleton

Shaughnessy grew up in Ottawa and was exposed to art and museums at an early age by his mother, a teacher who studied art history at Carleton. He completed an art history degree himself at Concordia University in Montreal and then decided to pursue a master’s in a different, but related, discipline. That led him back to Ottawa to do an MA in Communications at Carleton.

In 2003, while Shaughnessy was completing his MA and also working as an art historical researcher for a former professor at Concordia, a job opened up in the gallery’s curatorial department. He applied immediately.

“I was very interested in working with art and artists – something that a position within the realm of a department of Contemporary Art certainly allows.”

As a collecting institution, another aspect of a curator’s role at the NGC is to propose works of art for the national collection. To that end, the final selection of artworks in the 2017 Canadian Biennial represent the research, travel and dialogues of curators working in each of the gallery’s departments who are collecting the art of today: Contemporary Art, Indigenous art and the Canadian Institute of Photography. All pieces in the 2017 Canadian Biennial were acquired between April 2014 and June 2017.

Wael Shawky Cabaret Crusades I: The Horror Show File, 2010 high-definition video National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Wael Shawky, courtesy Lisson Gallery

Canadian Biennial Addresses Many Themes

Artworks in the 2017 Canadian Biennial address many subjects and themes, including transnationalism, migration, conflicts and conquest (both past and present), and the stereotypes of personhood and patriotism.

Taryn Simon Gdansk Agreement, Gdansk Shipyards, Gdansk, Poland, August 31, 1980, 2015 ink jet print 211.3 x 159.5 cm (approx.) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Taryn Simon, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery Photo : NGC

“The 2017 Canadian Biennial offers a selection of extremely powerful works that take on the subject of some of the most historically laden divides that continue to influence and structure relations between West and East, North and South,” Shaughnessy wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue.

The exhibition runs from Oct. 19, 2017 until March 18, 2018.

The Spinner, 2015 cotton, wool, polyester, acrylic, viscose, metal and dye 230 x 186.5 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Shannon Bool, courtesy Daniel Faria Gallery Photo: Courtesy Daniel Faria Gallery

Friday, October 20, 2017 in ,
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