Montréal

Kevin Schmidt, A Sign in the Northwest Passage, 2010, digital C-print, 64 1/8 × 49". From La Biennale de Montréal.

Kevin Schmidt, A Sign in the Northwest Passage, 2010, digital C-print, 64 1/8 × 49". From La Biennale de Montréal.

La Biennale de Montréal

La Biennale de Montréal

Kevin Schmidt, A Sign in the Northwest Passage, 2010, digital C-print, 64 1/8 × 49". From La Biennale de Montréal.

The week before “L’avenir (looking forward),” the latest edition of the Biennale de Montréal, opened, a group of experts met at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt to debate whether the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch marked by humanity’s profound impact on the earth, has indeed begun. While the thematic overlap between these two convocations can be chalked up to coincidence, the growing precarity of life has become difficult to deny, and the need to envision alternative possibilities is becoming at once more urgent and perhaps less feasible, as both the Montréal Biennale and the Berlin meeting suggested. As environmental, economic, technological, and geopolitical crises abound—with human actions their direct cause—the future itself seems imperiled.

Borrowed from Jacques Derrida, the avenir of the biennial’s title refers to a conception of the future as speculative and uncertain, one that retains the potential to be reimagined and changed, providing a fertile prompt for artists. The title’s English semitranslation highlights the central role of vision in such acts, but also introduces a sense of levity, and even of eager anticipation. While this biennial, cocurated by Gregory Burke, Peggy Gale, Lesley Johnstone, and Mark Lanctôt, was not the first, nor will it be the last, to address the growing impasse we find ourselves in, it distinguished itself by localizing these issues through artworks anchored in proximal histories and geographies.

The 1960s was a decade of urban rejuvenation and expansion in which Montreal pulsed with radical politics and utopian visions. Drawing on this ethos, the biennial presented a trio of text pieces by Lawrence Weiner—A NATURAL WATER COURSE DIVERTED REDUCED OR REPLACED, AN ABRIDGEMENT OF AN ABUTMENT TO ON NEAR OR ABOUT THE ARCTIC CIRCLE, THE ARCTIC CIRCLE SHATTERED—all conceived in 1969 and realized shortly thereafter, during a trip to the Canadian Arctic accompanied by critic Lucy R. Lippard. With each piece presented at a different venue (the Musée d’Art Contemporain, the Darling Foundry, and the Place Ville Marie mall and office building), Weiner’s work spans the breadth of sites that the biennial occupied: museum, nonprofit, and shopping mall somewhat ironically positioned as public space.

During a curatorial presentation on October 20, Gale pointed out that certain guiding words—liquidity and speculation among them—linked the seemingly disparate discourses covered by the biennial. Hito Steyerl’s video installation Liquidity Inc., 2014—a wavelike half-pipe structure covered with blue martial-arts mats on one side, on which you could sit and watch the projection on the facing screen—beautifully illustrates this knitting of multiple discourses, nimbly jumping between such diverse subjects as the weather, revolutionary politics, mixed martial arts, and finance, here linked via the metaphor of flowing water and the repeating, digitally manipulated image of Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kana-gawa. Many of the biennial’s strongest works addressed the landscape (physical and political) of Canada’s vast north, a previously inaccessible region increasingly exploited for its natural resources, and simultaneously emerging as a front line of global warming, the place where the world’s carbon footprint is, arguably, most keenly felt. A multimedia installation comprising photographs, watercolors, and video, Kevin Schmidt’s A Sign in the Northwest Passage, 2010, begins with the artist placing a large signboard—with ominous bits from the Book of Revelation prophesizing coming catastrophes hand-carved into its wooden planks—on a patch of ice in the far reaches of the Northwest Territories. Though rigged to float, the sign has since been lost, and the project is conceived of as continuing until it is retrieved. The absurdity of posting apocalyptic prognostications as a warning to an uninhabited icescape becomes poignant when the billboard itself falls victim to its own predictions.

Abbas Akhavan’s Fatigues, 2014, featured taxidermied birds and other animals, all species indigenous to Canada’s boreal forest, posed as dead or sleeping rather than in the usual state of suspended animation, and placed unceremoniously in peripheral nooks of the Musée d’Art Contemporain. Our encounters with these creatures were largely unanticipated but felt perfectly natural. It was as if, forced to flee their natural habitat, they found refuge here and simply collapsed from exhaustion. Together these memento mori served as a modest reminder of the accelerating rate of species extinction, perhaps foreshadowing our probable so-called future in the Anthropocene.

Murtaza Vali