by Erica Osko
Turbulent Landings showcases some of the latest Canadian and international art, born right from some of the world’s most pressing issues. Catherine Crowston, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Art Gallery of Alberta, says that curating contemporary art is all about being part of current conversations. “You’re always trying to keep on top of the newest news. We really think about what works are being made, and what ideas are concerning us, and [try] to create connections between them.”
Crowston co-curated Turbulent Landings at the Art Gallery of Alberta as a companion exhibit to the 2017 Canadian Biennial, a showcase of the most recent artwork acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Although this year marks the fourth Canadian Biennial thus far, Turbulent Landings the first and only satellite exhibition to showcase works outside the National Gallery, demonstrating Edmonton’s worth as a leader when it comes to cultivating and promoting the arts.
This year, the Canadian Biennial also includes works by international artists for the first time. Turbulent Landings in particular explores the themes of the environment, migration, and the effects of globalization and colonialism. With climate change and the global refugee crisis remaining paramount fixtures in global conversations, it is timely for Turbulent Landings to offer compelling contributions to those prevailing conversations, and to include a mixture of Canadian and international voices. Crowston says: “Canadian artists don’t work in a vacuum. They are part of the world, and they are informed by what other artists are doing. I think it’s important to understand how Canadian art fits in a larger global context.” In collaboration with curators from the National Gallery, Crowston chose 12 works for the Edmonton exhibit. About half of them are by Canadian artists, including four Indigenous Canadians, and half are by international artists. The exhibit includes video installations, paintings, drawings, and sculptures.
Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah (the feature image for this article), the initial artwork around which Crowston built Turbulent Landings, is a video installation that brings together breathtaking images of the ocean, the arctic, colonization, and slavery on three screens. Akomfrah focuses on water as simultaneously a life force and a force of death and disaster, something that both drives separation, and brings together people and resources. Akomfrah juxtaposes beautiful natural scenes with scenes of violence against people and nature, using visuals of turbulent seas to bring to mind turbulent relationships between people, land, and resources.
For Crowston, the idea of turbulence in Turbulent Landings was important because it relates to the “troubled times” people often speak of. Further, “landings” evokes questions of territory and land. The title also evokes images of airplanes, and the literal and figurative turbulence of movement across borders. Crowston wanted to explore relationships between migration and globalization, and Canada’s Indigenous cultures, anchored by land and tradition. Fringe, a photograph by Rebecca Belmore, an Anishinaabekwe artist from Northern Ontario, is one of the most striking works in the exhibit. It depicts a woman lying on her side with her back facing the viewer. There is a huge diagonal gash across the woman’s back, which, from far away, appears to be oozing blood. When you look closely, however, the gash is held together by stitches comprised of red-beaded string, reminiscent of First Nations bead art. The fringe of beads, an anchor to her culture and tradition, seem to be both a source of healing and injury, evoking her turbulent relationship with her country through an interplay of beauty, revulsion, and sorrow.
Rebecca Belmore, Fringe, 2008, Cibachrome transparency in fluorescent lightbox, 81.5 x 244.8 x 16.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Photo: NGC.
Though Turbulent Landings is only a bite-sized portion of the Canadian Biennial, a viewer could easily spend significant time at the exhibit. The combined length of the three video installations alone is over three hours, without considering the time it takes to observe paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Delving deeply into the connections between works could require several visits, but if you only have a little time, the works are still easy to appreciate individually. For those without an art background, Crowston says “the easiest way to approach the exhibit is to open your mind and just associate. [Ask yourself] what these objects or images make you think about. For the most part, people really do catch on to what the artist is trying to communicate.” For a 2017 audience, the associations come freely and poignantly. If the world has felt turbulent to you lately, you’ll relate to something in Turbulent Landings.
Turbulent Landings will be open at the Art Gallery of Alberta until January 7th, 2018.
Feature image: John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015, 3 channel high-definition video, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Photo: © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery.