Group shows have until recently often functioned as critical exercises, a gathering of works to illustrate a text. But exhibitions such as Jan Hoet’s “Chambres d’amis” or Kaspar König’s “Skulptur Projekte in Münster” have shifted the premises away from thesis-oriented criticism to a more open-ended structuring. These shows operate under casual guidelines, while text-based exhibitions are left to deal with the fact that contemporary criticism and art are operating in a booming, pluralist, noncritical art scene. This is a context in which implicit promises of authority don’t travel far.

Montreal-based freelance curator Renée Baert’s “Enchantment/Disturbance” exhibition is caught up in these prevailing circumstances. Despite assembling an engaging collection of artists—Europeans Marina Abramović and Ulay, Rebecca Horn, Marcel Odenbach; American Louise Bourgeois; and Canadians John Scott, Geneviève Cadieux, Jana Sterbak, Toby MacLennan, Martha Townsend, Barbara Steinman—her thesis explains little that can be demonstrated as comprehensive. The framework is to present a “critical practice overlooked in a postmodern discourse of appropriation, rupture and deconstruction,” and to shift attention away from antiesthetics to a marriage between esthetics and criticality. The argument, nice on paper, is too general a proposition to feel integrated with the actual art. The exhibition title is more an incantation than a description of a thriving body of work. It may summarize a structural approach to Horn’s work (she seems to be the meditative spur of the exhibition), but it homogenizes the other art into something not far from the sleek, romantic architecture of French theory.

Baert’s title could well have defined the difference between the Canadian and the international work in the exhibition. It is a legitimate comparison—the actual qualitative differences between the cool photographic silhouettes of Abramović and Ulay and the brute poetics of Toby MacLennan’s work. In the former’s hieroglyphic Saturday, 1987, and the latter’s Mouth of the Sky, 1988, silence, or the representation of silence, is a powerful common factor. But MacLennan’s piece is like a broadly staged silent movie poised to enter the age of sound; her earth mother giving swamp-birth in the lap of an aggressive male deity fuses feminist and ecological concerns into a brash statement about wanting to speak. It is the inverse of Abramovic and Ulay’s quietism. This difference is not a shared common international post-Modernism, but the shadow of an unacknowledged generational difference in esthetic terms between Old Europe and the New World. Other observations and generalities could be made—discriminating the Canadian art by its literariness, its conceptual breadth, its documentary strength—but this is fodder in search of another thesis. There is a pressure on Canadian curators to fuse national and international art production in the interests of cultural promotion, but the question is begged as to whether or not any curatorial idea can speak on such a large and integrative scale anymore. Evidence is all in favor of a smaller, more modest approach.

In the absence of a clear idea of contemporary history, even large exhibitions such as Documenta and the biennials only deliver occasional associative surprises. This situation illustrates the loss of curatorial power, but it needn’t be bemoaned. For instance, Baert puts Horn’s Pendulum with Egg, 1987, in the same room as Barbara Steinman’s Borrowed Scenery, 1987, and manages, regardless of thesis, to empower both works. It is all in the contrast between Horn’s piece, which imperils a touchingly large egg with a swinging spear, and Steinman’s schematic representation of the S.S. St. Louis. Horn’s work joins male and female forms to ideas of destruction and birth in a metaphoric image describing the horror of 20th-century history. Steinman lets the blunt installation of wall photos and TV monitors recall how a passenger ship of Jewish refugees set sail from Germany in 1939 and was offered no safe harbor in countries such as Canada. Specifically the piece relates to controversial immigration legislation that the current Canadian government has recently enacted, penalizing refugees and refugee sponsorship groups. Thick with topicality and immediacy (as opposed to poetic distancing), these two works share little common esthetic ground, yet they without question enrich each other.

Richard C. Rhodes