An Ambitious & Messy Homage to Life: Alberta’s Biennial of Contemporary Art

by Maja Staka

Looking up at the cream-colored blanket which hangs from a few simple threads, you can’t help but  notice the light flickering through the diamond-shaped holes which decorate the woven fabric. For reasons beyond your comprehension, you get lost in its shape: a kind of hypnotic sacred symmetry that just resonates with power. Called “Akohp: A Blanket”, the art piece designed by Tamara Lee-Anne Cardinal, an Oskâpêwis storyteller, multi-media artist, and activist, is certainly breathtaking.

When taking a look at the artist’s explanation of her work, it’s clear that the installation is meant to invite viewers into the world of Indigenous Canadians, who traditionally used star-blankets to signal celebration, achievement, and power. Each direction of the star highlights seven sacred indigenous teachings and attempts to steer away from colonial ways of thinking, including the way westerners perceive the boundaries between mysticism and beauty. After all, Canada didn’t arise from thin air 150 years ago, and neither did its art.

Understandably, not every viewer will arrive at the same conclusions, but the emotional implications of “For the time being”, the 2017 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art are instantly evident when walking around the different pieces that adorn the gallery. Large and small, all reflect community discourses in Alberta that are often left untouched because of their messy and undesirable subject matter. A collaboration between the AGA and the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity’s Walter Phillips Gallery, this particular Biennial is also important because it allowed the featured artists to work together in a series of workshops that helped facilitate dialogue about the impact of their artwork on Alberta’s cultural landscape.

Personally, it took me two visits to delve into the art, but this is typical of artwork that demands the full mental attention of its viewers. One piece that truly spoke to me was Kristopher Karklin’s, “Home” (featured above), an exploration of the discrepancy between the idealized white-picket-fence fantasy and the reality of what home represents to Albertans in today’s economy: smaller apartments, shared spaces, and for many, a street or rusty dumpster. The full-scale image displays a naked couple holding hands in front of a typical suburban home. The effect is staggering, as the house seems to engulf the entire space and create an almost crushing feeling of anxiety. I couldn’t help but wonder if the people in the image had given up everything they once possessed – including the clothing off their back, for the socially constructed feeling of security which accompanies home ownership in Alberta.

It only gets stranger, with artists asking viewers to address their relationships with the world in brutal and starling ways. Standouts include Nicole Kelly Westman’s, “If you weren’t there”, in which the gel-encased phrase oscillates between red, blue and orange in almost accusing flashes of color. It’s uncomfortable on an almost celestial scale. But the largest lineup is at Megan Green’s, “What exactly were we supposed to learn from the fire?” , which features a deer leg barely hanging from a frayed rope connected to the gallery wall, a scene that instantly makes you uncomfortable and juxtaposes the intemporality of human dwellings in wild regions of Alberta, where wildlife has been pushed to the outskirts, perhaps inciting backlash from mother nature in the form of wildfires. What exactly are viewers supposed to learn from it? I’m not sure. However, I imagine the message has something to do with respecting – instead of encroaching upon nature.

The exhibit, although a no-touch zone, invites AGA-goers to be as involved with the art as possible. There are 3D tie-dye splotches connected to the wall, mix-media clay installations which question postcolonial ideas surrounding nature and even a video game that invites viewers to complete a personality quiz. Instead of sending you the results via email, your “true self” is posted to Instagram and shows up on the screen in front of you, personified by a floating brain showing your tendency towards analysis and intuition, emotion and realism. If you talk to other participants, you get the sense that you’re part of some strange alien experiment trying to get a sense of humanity and our unique obsession with social media and constant reassurance.

Odd as they may sound, these discourses of digital obsession, cultural echo, environmental awareness, and distribution of wealth repeat throughout the exhibit and ask us what it means to live, both in Alberta and otherwise. This year’s biennial exhibit asks us to question our humanity, our most deeply-set values and how we can better approach our relationships with others. The exhibit isn’t overly intellectual or nuanced, but it’s the type of art that can change perspectives, and perhaps – if we’re ambitious – the world. In that sense, “For the time being” couldn’t be a more perfect title for the overall experience. All of what we see, physical and virtual, will only be there for a short period – so we may as well learn as much as possible from it.

Banner art by Kristopher Karklin.

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