Global Warning: The Life Below
Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal Nov 10 2009 to Fall 2010
POSTED: NOVEMBER 19, 2009
One of the best shows in Canada at the moment lies beneath Sherbrooke Street in the underground corridor that links the Desmarais and Hornstein pavilions of the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. Once a lonely walkway broken by an understated installation of pre-Columbian art, the corridor is now the home for new galleries devoted to contemporary art from the museum’s permanent collection and to a project site for artist-gallery collaborations.
The artist projects begin in 2010 with Pierre Dorion and Denis Gagnon, but it’s the space’s first permanent-collection show, “Global Warning: Scenes from a Planet under Pressure,” slated to run for a year until another thematic selection takes over, that gets things underway with a bang. The museum’s curator of contemporary art, Stéphane Aquin, has shown himself to be a keen keeper of the art of the past decade and has put together a show of recent acquisitions and gifts that would do any contemporary museum proud as a front-line showcase exhibition.
Notably, in his selection of works Aquin has set aside market fevers that shaped the pre–credit crunch art world in favour of art that takes a sterner look at the darkening fate of the planet and its species. His show is a gathering of works alert to the psychic weight of destruction on the post-millennial imagination and its highlights point directly to 9/11 as the definitive date from which to measure the decade. Montreal artist Marc Séguin, in Ground Zero, paints a weirdly celebratory and fragile aftermath site of the World Trade Center collapse. It reads more as dreamscape than as document—a representational alignment that becomes a way into confronting the unredeemed shock of seeing an icon of mastery reduced to rubble. It’s an image of stunned victimization that opens to uneasy acceptance. Carolee Schneemann’s Terminal Velocity, which appropriates press images of Trade Center jumpers, restores the shock of the day with images of looming death, but it’s an approaching death inverted into a kind of survival mechanism that is measured in seconds.
Art’s alertness to a growing gap between natural behaviour and reality is the broad story of Aquin’s show. He presents a collection of artworks that upend expectations into a new, unresolved complexity. Leon Golub’s American brutes in Mercenaries II are on one level a picture of bonhomie and camaraderie, and it’s this level of their unthinking, indulged self-comfort that seems the scariest aspect of the painting—it reaches over and above the Central American political scenario that travels from newspaper headlines of the 1980s. Golub’s art, like his partner Nancy Spero’s (she is represented by a powerful anti-war drawing couched in terms of gender), takes sour, exploitive politics and puts it under our skin for our own ethical ownership. In another inversion, Quebec’s BGL hangs a sugar-coated skidoo from the ceiling that seems more a carcass of technology than a joy machine.
Perhaps the most compelling work in the show is Roy Arden’s Supernatural of 2005, gifted by the artist to the gallery. It is a video recap of the Vancouver hockey riot of June 14, 1994, when 50,000 hockey fans vandalized the downtown core after a seventh-game loss in the Stanley Cup finals. Working with media footage of the night, Arden isolates a series of moments between cops and rioters that build into a grand, conflicted statement. Stupidity blends with heroism into an image of civil unrest that’s based on no redeeming social subtext—the inverse of ’60s idealism. By drawing attention to an event that’s now 15 years past, Arden sets a wider time frame for the distemper of our times and isolates a self-destructive cultural impulse that is now mirrored by an awareness of widespread environmental damage. We not only make the world we live in; we are the world we live in, embodiers of its faults and its conflicts. This point is underscored by Aquin’s inclusion of Herri met de Bles’ small 16th-century landscape The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is an Old Testament story comfortably and thematically at home with the increasingly Old Testament tenor of the 21st century. All contemporary museum collections should be so thoughtfully staged. (1380 rue Sherbrooke O, Montreal QC)