Balcony Scene

Marcus Civin at the opening of the 9th Biennale de Montréal

Mickey Mahar in Anne Imhof's Angst 3. (Except where noted, all photos: David Kelley)

TAKING A LATE FLIGHT from Baltimore to Canada, I read an English translation of Jean Genet’s 1956 play Le Balcon (The Balcony). I read Carmen recalling one of her clients’ infatuation with the color blue: “I was a Madonna to whom a Spaniard might have prayed and sworn an oath. He hymned me, fusing me with his beloved color, and when he carried me to bed, it was into the blue that he penetrated.”

I read of sex workers and clients performing elaborate fantasies, playing within a play, pretending to be religious and political figures. I read the revolutionary upheaval that interrupted them.

The next morning, after a good night’s sleep, I arrived at Le Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal (MAC), the main venue for the ninth iteration of La Biennale de Montréal, titled “Le Grand Balcon” after Genet’s play. I joined a tour where the biennial’s head curator, Philippe Pirotte, dean at Frankfurt’s Städelschule, argued for an art that is materially invested, that may not speak directly to the conditions of its time, that may even seem strange, mysterious, and out-of-time, resisting literal messages.

Left: La Biennale de Montréal head curator Philippe Pirotte. Right: Performer in Zac Langdon-Pole's My Body… (Brendan Pole). (Photos: Marcus Civin)

Losing my place on the tour, I paged through my folder of printouts to reread Pirotte’s curatorial statement, zeroing in on this: “Le Grand Balcon invites us to rethink both the (im)possibility of an emancipation through pleasure—and its urgency. Asserting a hedonist politics far from the easy rewards of consumption, in an environment of potentially economic or political instrumentalization, the exhibition opposes a via negative of alienation, skepticism, discomfort, and loss.”

Just then, as if to prove that art, to be consequential, need not hammer at economic or ideological conditions, a young performer approached. She asked if she could recite a poem for me. It would be the same poem presented on the wall behind us, part of Zac Langdon-Pole’s My Body… (Brendan Pole), 2015, each letter of the poem a notecard-sized photograph of an ornamented letterform. Before her recitation, the young woman told me that Langdon-Pole’s uncle spoke it on his deathbed before passing away from AIDS-related complications. The first stanza of the short six-stanza poem seems like a refusal to let go: “My body / A clot / Of inscriptions / Flayed by / Sacred hunger / Clinching nothing.” The last accepts fate: “By the light / Of the axe / In my secret life / I am / with him.”

Attending the opening days of “Le Grand Balcon,” I began to feel like I was part of a play. Helpful hands were still replacing drafts of signs and labels with final versions, and, at the off-site venues, tidying up and covering windows for screening rooms. During the preview, Luc Tuymans posed for a picture in front of his sublime paintings of empty blue-walled galleries, and I swear I saw his muscles ripple—or was that his feathers rustling? At the benefit party at MAC, Kerry James Marshall—whose comic-book-inspired light boxes are featured as part of the biennial at Le Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal—moved patiently from gallery to gallery, sitting to watch seemingly every time-based piece in full. Eagerly taking in the new and commissioned work by excellent but lesser-known Canadian artists were dealers like Susanne Vielmetter and curators Polly Staple, Beau Rutland, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and Susanne Pfeffer, the last of whom was clearly enjoying the third and final iteration of the peripatetic “opera” Angst by Anne Imhof, who Pfeffer recently chose to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale.

Artists Nathalie Melikian, Luke Willis Thompson, and Lucy Raven.

In conversations and talks throughout the two days I spent in Montréal, biennial artists including Moyra Davey, Michael Blum, and Janice Kerbel discussed the material and lyrical qualities of their work. On an afternoon panel around the corner from MAC at the Society for Art and Technology (SAT), Luke Willis Thompson described his Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries, 2016, a posthumous addition of two Black men to Andy Warhol's nearly all-white screen tests—both men, the descendants of victims of police brutality in England. Thompson recounted that some gallery-goers have found the silent 16-mm films the closest they’d come to looking in the eyes of a Black man. Thompson realized that a silent viewing room for the films at MAC best reflected his state-of-mind. “In an airless world, where we can't breathe,” he said, “of course there can’t be any sound.”

Kerbel’s opera work, Doug: Nine Songs for Six Voices, 2014, performed that evening at SAT, doled out a good dose of gallows humor. Each song describes in detail a different gruesome death for “Doug,” the unidentified unlucky object of Kerbel's fascinations. The fifth song, BEAR, for example, includes bits like: “Teeth sink into face, arm torn from place / Ribs crumble in crushing embrace.” Meanwhile, the steely angular cartoon heads in Nicole Eisenman’s nearly seven-foot paintings at MAC are cut from the same cloth as Kerbel’s Doug. Shooter 1 and Shooter 2, both 2016, are captivating and evil. One is bright red with a blue baseball cap, the other blue with an emerald green eye. They felt as if they might mutter something in a bizarre cartoon language, then shoot.

Artist Moyra Davey.

To discover the clearest articulation of what the curator promised as “hedonist politics,” I looked to artists David Gheron Tretiakoff and Njideka Akunyili Crosby, both exhibited at MAC, and Camille Norment, exhibited further afield in the warehouse gallery cluster Pied Carré. Tretiakoff’s 2008 video A God Passing documents the slow and deliberate transport of a gigantic statue of Ramses to a new museum in Egypt. The event prompts a crowd to cheer, spontaneously, “We are the greatest civilization of all time.” One man in the crowd has prepared a caveat though; he holds up a sign, and his shouts draw attention to the neglect of Egyptian political prisoners.

In Crosby’s layered work-on-paper the space of cross-cultural connection is thick. In Thread, 2012, a Black woman gently kisses the lower back of a white man. Her body holds rows of portraits, possibly ancestors, cultural heroes, foils, or compatriots. In Norment’s Lull, 2016, a live microphone swings back and forth like a pendulum over a speaker, almost touching it. Like Norment’s microphone and speaker, we are vulnerable. We might maintain calm if we keep things neat, and legislate distance between bodies, and between bodies and souls. If we violate that safe distance, we might screech and bristle. We might sing. We might progress.