Toronto’s first Biennial of Art demonstrated a tight, passionate focus with a subject reflective of the city’s past.
Toronto is a city which, at least in recent history, does not forget. The territory of Toronto and the other provincial cities of Ontario have a long history for settlement. First Nation settlers living in the territory of Toronto are thought to have been occupying the area for thousands of years. As a valuable source of drinking water, it is likely the lake, among other factors, that drew these settlers to occupy this region. When colonial Europeans arrived on the shores of Lake Ontario, the major settlers of the Toronto territory were the Haudenosaunee peoples.
Lake Ontario would see a major shift in its landscape and composition following the arrival of the colonial Europeans. Over the following decades and centuries, a proto-Toronto would rise out of the landscape once owned by the Haudenosaunee people.
As Toronto rose, it has been described to have ‘turned its back’ on Lake Ontario and rather faced inward, focusing on its own internal developments. This is something that still appears etched into the fabric of the architecture and planning of the city. Although it is changing, the lakefront is still occupied by freeways and either functioning or abandoned industrial buildings. These both seem like features demonstrating little regard for the lake. The Biennial arrives at a point in Toronto’s history where the current settlers of the territory are once again turning their gaze back onto the lake. Condos now cast shadows on the lakeside freeways, and orient themselves towards the lake itself, and there seems to be a renewed interest in the body of water.
Toronto’s first Biennial of Art addresses its connection with Lake Ontario. It investigates what the team behind the Biennial have dubbed ‘the shoreline dilemma.’ The Biennial’s programme reads that the shoreline dilemma “implies the breakdown of scientific conventions in the face of nature’s complexities.” The lake is an ever-shifting and moving being and changes its perimeters and boundaries incessantly. Due to developments increasingly appearing on the lakefront, this complexity is further challenged and made more complex by manmade interactions with the shoreline. Considering the complexities of the topography of Lake Ontario, as well as its rich history, the inaugural Biennial of Art fixes its focus on these themes. The pieces curated for the various exhibitions demonstrated a response to this theme or embrace—like the shoreline—“the unquantifiable, fugitive, and unknowable.”
The festival was an impressive feat of organisation and planning. Spread across the expanse of the city of Toronto in varying districts, as well as the local city of Mississauga, various institutions were occupied to exhibit installations and works of art. From former munitions plants to train stations, Toronto’s Biennial of Art used a diverse variety of venues, allowing their reach to be felt across the city and not just isolated to particular districts or areas.
Of the sites themselves, three truly stood out to me: the Mississauga based Small Arms Inspection Building, a former chemical plant at 259 Lake Shore Blvd E, and The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. All three demonstrated either a diverse range of responses to the shoreline dilemma, or at least provided novel individual pieces.
Among the other installations and pieces showcased at the Small Arms Inspection Building, Jumana Manna’s sculptures occupied a corner of the main floor and aroused the most intrigue. Drawing influence from khabyas—rural Levantine seed vessels—Manna had her sculptures displayed in careful arrangements. The positioning of the sculptures carved out an environment that felt entirely separate from the remainder of the floor. The traditional vessels that Manna has created are used as a means of investigating how the sustenance and subsistence has developed from more traditional survival methods, to the industrialised, capital based distributions of modern society.
Although the sculptures Manna created were not commissioned pieces for the Biennial of Art, Manna has gone to lengths to reconfigure and rehouse the sculptures. Susannah Rosenstock, deputy director and director of exhibitions, explained to me that this was achieved in order to respond to the specific building, the specific region, and the theme of the festival itself. As Manna was not physically present, Skype was used to arrange the pieces, and Rosenstock had local Mississauga metal workers modify display cages for the sculptures. Abstractly, and in its new context, it felt to me the pieces relate themselves to the more traditional subsistence practices of the previous Lake Ontario settlers, highlighting the contrast with that of the metropolitan city that now sits on that land.
The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery resides on the shoreline of Lake Ontario within the city of Toronto. Another demonstration of Toronto’s repurposing of its buildings, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, was—as you may have guessed—a power plant. Originally a coal-fired plant, the building, along with large portions of the lakefront, were acquired by the Canadian federal government in 1972 and converted into art and cultural spaces.
The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery participated in Toronto’s Biennial of Art and held ‘Hold Everything Dear,’ an exhibition by Hajra Waheed. Cast against interior of the power plant, Waheed’s choice of mediums made a suitable fit. Alongside more typical mediums, Waheed uses mined and earthy materials such as tin. There is clashing quality of the industrial and the artisanal to her works; utilitarian usage of archival tape is contrasted with photo collages and the sterile material of porcelain is used to create lumpy, ladder-like sculptures. Waheed’s pieces are organised in a fashion that leads up to a screening of a short film, which appeared as a kind of finale of her works for ‘Hold Everything Dear.’
Describing the totality of her works for ‘Hold Everything Dear,’ an idea of ‘the spiral’ is used. Waheed’s intention is to demonstrate either ascent or descent of a spiral, reflecting growth and decay. This growth and decay can be interpreted in various ways, but in the context of the Biennial it felt like a response to the shoreline and the manmade developments becoming built upon it.
This notion is perhaps most evident in her untitled short film. The film is composed of nighttime shots of canopies of palm leaves and foliage. The shots themselves move in large arches and draw the subject into a spiral. Over the shots, a voice utters short lines. “Change rarely moves in a straight forward line,” it tells us. With Lake Ontario moments away and being sat in a building so drastically repurposed, that sentiment resonated with me.
Travelling east we reached 259 Lake Shore Blvd E. Originally a chemical plant, Lake Shore Blvd E was a car show room before finally being converted into an art space. Tucked away in a corner of the gallery lies Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s installation ‘Reveries of an Underground Forest,’ a piece commissioned for the Biennial. The Turkish national’s contribution won her the ‘Emerging Artist Prize.’
The installation is comprised of beige carpets rolled up and positioned upright, giving the impression of a forest or trees. Upon the carpets Büyüktaşçıyan has carved out fragmented patterns and shapes. These patterns appear as aerial shots of waterways, land masses or perhaps symbols of a forgotten language. It is among the most transparent contributions and references the changing settlements and history of Toronto’s shorelines most directly. The etchings on the carpets, and their fragmented appearance, speaks to an idea of lost narratives or, as the Biennial describes, “the notion of invisible foundations of lost spaces.”
Although many pieces displayed at Toronto’s first Biennial seem to speak to this idea of ‘invisible foundations lost in space’ and the forgotten, misinterpreted, or commodified relics of First Nation settlers, the contributors, curators and organisers have brought to light these forgotten elements in a tangible light. Using Waheed’s figure of the spiral, all three of the responses I have covered relate to this idea.
They all effectively demonstrate the motions of change that the site of Lake Ontario has undergone. There’s no attempt to dredge the literal past of the territory, as that would invite misunderstanding and an attempt to articulate cultures through the boundaries of our own contemporary culture. Rather, curators, contributors and organisers present that negatively or positively, for growth or decay, for right or wrong, change happens. Our politics and culture is in a constant state of flux not dissimilar to the ever shifting and changing motions of Lake Ontario.