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Amy Fung on the first Toronto Biennial of Art

Althea Thauberger and Kite, Call to Arms, 2019. Performance view, Toronto Biennial of Art, 2019. Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship York band. Photo: Triple Threat.

SPANNING FIFTY-SIX MILES AND BORDERING SOUTHERN TORONTO, Lake Ontario hardly registers as a natural site for most Torontonians. The smallest of the five Great Lakes, flowing in from Niagara and out toward the Saint Lawrence River, the body of water feels physically, spiritually, and psychologically distant from the bustling city. Orienting viewers toward the estranged lake, the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art—the latest addition to the globalized exercise in art-world tourism—opens modestly and with a quandary. Curators Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien frame this mega-exhibition as an investigation of “The Shoreline Dilemma.” Rapidly tracing more than twelve thousand years of the lake’s history—from its origins as the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered most of Canada, to its life as a major waterway for trade and ceremony between the Huron-Wendat, Anishinaabe, and Haudenosaunee Nations, to its current assault by heavy industrialization—their curatorial statement describes shorelines as embodied entities resistant to “conventional mapping” and notes that, “in Toronto, this dilemma has been amplified by the radical reshaping of the city’s waterfront, which calls into question the rights of land and water in light of accelerated development.”

Emphasizing the agency of land and water as central to our understanding of humans' relations to nature, the curatorial premise evokes Indigenous law and governance as I understand it, from having read scholars like John Borrows and James Tully. While there is no such thing as pan-Indigenous law, agreements including the Dish With One Spoon and Two Row Wampum Treaty have, for centuries, recognized that sovereignty for all nations is based on mutual need and reciprocity. Only recently has Western law started to understand these principles: In 2017, the Whanganui River in New Zealand became the first body of water in the world to be recognized as holding the same legal rights as a human being. This acknowledgment delivered pushback against the ongoing exploitation of the natural environment, where land and water are treated as possessions rather than relations. While “The Shoreline Dilemma” proposes this multiplicity of claims to freedom, dignity, and sovereignty as an artistic inquiry, it struggles to fully articulate its own role in the ongoing violation of those rights in Toronto. 

Situated on the swindled territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit, Toronto came to prominence as an industrial port. Along the way, it turned the natural shoreline into a glorified landfill. The city’s elites organized away from the murky waters, establishing neighborhoods for the white and wealthy farther north, in Rosedale and Forest Hill. Marginalized and often racialized communities were left to live and work downtown, near the polluted ports. After one hundred years of rapid economic expansion, during which all five surrounding municipalities were annexed into the Six (and still burst at the seams), civic interests slowly circled the prospect of cleaning up and redeveloping the vast tracts of neglected waterfront. Today’s sports arenas, condominiums, and entertainment district may soon be surrounded by further commercial and residential developments. After being approved by the Toronto City Council, the biennial collected significant funds—more than one million dollars—from a private foundation (its “founding signature patron”) built on one of the most successful gold and mining investment businesses in the country, and was additionally bankrolled by a mix of banks, mining corporations, and real estate developers. Many prestigious international biennials rely on dubious private funding, but rarely are examples of curatorial conflict so conspicuous.

With these conflicts in mind, I arrived in Toronto via railway, one trace of the industrial expansion that led Toronto to manufacture its shoreline farther south than Front Street. The driver who picked me up tentatively told me he wasn’t familiar with this area as he mechanically followed the moving blue arrow of his GPS to exit the Gardiner Expressway onto Lower Sherbourne. After being dropped off along the stretch of industrial wasteland just beyond Queens Quay East, I followed the trickle of designer jeans into the formerly abandoned Volvo dealership that now serves as one of two primary venues for the biennial.

On the former site of Lake Ontario's watery depths, nearly thirty artists and collectives temporarily grace the walls and ceilings of the voluminous damp warehouse at 259 Lake Shore Boulevard East that, as the biennial guide notes, was built less than one hundred years ago atop the infills from the Don River and Ashbridge’s Bay. Situated in the round, the exhibition occupies a mix of polished former showrooms filled with natural light and darkened concrete corners. Deep within one such corner is an outstanding highlight, Lisa Reihana’s video installation Tai Whetuki – House of Death Redux, 2016. Building on Māori and Pacific death rituals, the two-channel video depicts a goddess and a warrior as the former leads the latter across land and water, transitioning from the world of the living to the land of the dead. Filmed along the infamous shoreline of Karekare in New Zealand, a site of the massacre of Kawerau iwi by Ngāpuhi invaders, the work hauntingly portrays the dark glimmers of the water and all of the history it contains.

Lisa Reihana, Tai Whetuki – House of Death Redux, 2016, two-channel UHD video, color, sound, 16 minutes.

Due to the limitations of the space, which offers square footage over atmosphere, works that require intimacy, like those by Hera Büyüktasçiyan and Susan Schuppli, among others, are often lost to the shadows. Many pieces that occupy prime real estate, notably those by the New Red Order, Luis Jacob, and Adrian Stimson in collaboration with AA Bronson, are—while funny, historically expansive, and moving, respectively—far afield from the central curatorial premise.

Off-site, on a nondescript block in the Port Lands, not far from the stacks of shipping containers and industrial lots resting on top of a former marsh, sits Curtis Talwst Santiago’s J’ouvert Temple, 2019. Designed as a contemporary capriccio, an architectural composition of ancient, fantastical, and recent ruins, this living monument consists of salvaged local creek stones and reclaimed bricks and rocks from various construction sites. Moving between the local and the transnational through the lens of Black optimism, Santiago’s painted and cutout bodies gesture across space and time and span the Atlantic, from present-day Trinidad to medieval Portugal, and from contemporary South Africa to ancient Greece. Seen through an erected fence that camouflages this site from unwitting passersby, these evocative snapshots represent Santiago’s own globe-trotting research into ancestral infinities (which will be elaborated in his first solo exhibition next year, at the Drawing Center in New York) and echo, on a much larger scale, his other installation on display at 259 Lake Shore.

Curtis Talwst Santiago, J’ouvert Temple, 2019, rock, concrete, granite, ceramic tile, mortar, disco ball, plywood, acrylic paint, dimensions variable.

On the other side of town, the Small Arms Inspection Building hosts the other main biennial presentations. The decommissioned munitions plant was scheduled for demolition in 2008, before the city of Mississauga designated the building a heritage site the following year and ultimately bought the building to turn it into a multiuse cultural site. Though it sits on more than fifteen hectares of waterfront, the address hosts projects by only fourteen artists. Light-filled and airy in comparison to the cavernous Lake Shore structure, the setting befits efforts that emphasize the materiality of nature. One such work that continues to linger in my mind is Caroline Monnet’s The Flow Between Hard Places, 2019, which takes precedence among a sea of sculptures, between Jumana Manna’s architecturally affective khabyas and New Mineral Collective’s less convincing columns of geological time. Conjuring the power of a river perpetually in motion as a form of knowledge transference, a large vertical slab of textured ductal concrete stands in as the physical embodiment of the sound waves made when a voice utters “pasapkedjinawong” (Monnet worked from a recording of Anishinaabe elder Rose Wawatie-Beaudoin). Translated in Anishinaabemowin as “the river that passes between the rocks,” this one word powerfully suggests the resilience and animacy of the river as it survives and smooths rough passages and obstacles. Potentially alluding to the river as a guiding principle, Monnet also makes reference to the moment in history when Chief Antoine Pakinawatik and other members of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Nation traveled south through nearly four hundred miles of waterways to request the return of Algonquin territory from officials in Toronto. The ongoing negotiations between Indigenous and settler governments have arguably come to a standstill, and while most of history as we know it is documented through written records, Monnet’s work reminds us of the knowledge that flows within living languages.

Caroline Monnet, The Flow Between Hard Places, 2019, ductal concrete, 96 x 48 x 24".

Another standout poetically tied to the biennial’s themes is Call to Arms, 2019, a commissioned collaboration between Althea Thauberger and Suzanne Kite (who performs under her last name only). The video installation documents their rehearsals with a naval band; during the opening weekend, they performed Kite’s musical scores inside of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship’s headquarters, otherwise known as the “stone ship.” Beginning with a brass score before showcasing an actual conch-shell sextet, the only one of its kind in the country, the live performance featured an experimental arrangement that corresponded to the physical movement of the sextet as the players walked in an inward spiral through the audience. The deep reverb of each conch-shell note filled the confines of the hull as well as the recesses of my chest. The instrument was used to call across the waters of yesteryear; here, it could have been interpreted as a sign of either welcome or war.

The Toronto Biennial of Art is on view through December 1, 2019.

Amy Fung is a writer and organizer and is currently pursuing a PhD at Carleton University. Her first book, Before I Was a Critic, I Was a Human Being, was released by Book*hug Press and Artspeak in 2019.