An influx of Canadian ideas

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An influx of Canadian ideas

Wayne Baerwaldt is a director of Power Plant, Canada’s leading contemporary art gallery based in Toronto. This week, Mr. Baerwaldt is bringing to Seoul the work of 18 contemporary Canadian artists, whose pieces reflect everything from Canadian culture to international movements in artistic communication. The show, titled “MosaiCanada: Sign and Sound,” opens at the Seoul Metropolitan Gallery on Tuesday. Co-organized by the gallery and the Canadian Embassy, it seeks to commemorate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Canada. The JoongAng Daily recently interviewed Mr. Baerwaldt via e-mail.

How would you describe the exhibition?
The exhibition announces a somber occasion for reflection and points to the difficult relations that persist after the Korean War. It is also a commemorative exhibition for the 40th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Canada, one that is filled with the optimism and critical awareness of the role of Canadian cultural producers on the world stage. The works of our participating Canadian artists suggest contemplation on, among other things, the meaning of “foreignness,” the outsider versus the insider and how concepts of exterior and interior space are negotiated.

Could you talk little bit about the participating artists’ selection process?
“MosaiCanada: Sign and Sound” includes a wide range of work by contemporary Canadian artists addressing subjects and events related to foreignness in the harsh reality of our current world stage. Artists act as ambassadors to the outside world. It is often suggested that artists act as bridges between societies, sharing values and beliefs, acknowledging differences, acting as moral rudders for their respective societies. Ideally, they have the potential to overcome political and economic disparity. It is a great deal of responsibility for any artist to bear.
The artists in this exhibition are, in many ways, the perfect, free-radical models for such bridge building. They each contribute as individuals in very different ways. Yet each artist, and in fact each artwork, resists integration under a thematic banner. This is to be expected as the participating artists, like artists everywhere, make things which resist categorization and thematic allegiances. Participating artists try to get at the meaning of foreignness. They engage systems in various disciplines and subject areas, including architecture (Eleanor Bond, An Te Liu), photography and film (Stan Douglas, Guy Maddin, Zacharias Kunuk, Cardiff-Miller, Genevieve Cadieux, Stephen Andrews), the poetics of deep space and expansive surfaces (Christine Davis, Nestor Kruger, Germaine Koh), idealistic nature (Bill Burns, Alison Norlen), the perverse and enchanting drama of puppetry (Geoffrey Farmer), chance (Paul Butler), racial identity (Jin Me Yoon) and modernity (Brian Jungen).

Canada for many is a stage for multiculturalism and migrant politics. Has this influenced the Canadian mainstream art world, as compared to the art scene in the United States, for example?
One takes it for granted that concepts of foreignness have changed in the past 50 years as the global marketplace and political winds reassert capitalist interests after the Cold War. Canada has been less an American-style melting pot for immigrants but, rather, a great and proven experiment in maintaining identity through government-driven policies of multiculturalism. Artists constantly act as a barometer for such changes.
The works in this exhibition may be read, in some cases (such as the artist Brian Jungen), as critiques of current multidisciplinary debates around the quickly changing concept of “foreignness.” In each case the artist critically investigates the limits of memory and the relative limits of understanding subjects and objects deemed “foreign.”
But each artist addresses these objects in his or her own unique manner ― be it mass media sources linked to Hollywood films, an allegiance to ethnic diversity, invasion by a foreign culture or conceptual imperialism ― the list is long and varied. What the artists in this exhibition share is a common starting point, specifically photography and the moving image, widely recognized as the most influential media of the last century. Deconstructing “foreign” identity is essential to this project.

Are there recurring subjects or ideas that show up in the works of contemporary artists in Canada, or within the art presented at the Power Plant in the past five years?
The Power Plant over the past 15 years has produced a remarkable program that includes exhibitions and events by artists such as Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Liam Gillick, Joao Penalva, Rodney Graham, Bruce Mau, Liz Magor, Douglas Gordon and many others. The Canadian artists presented at the Power Plant invariably become known for their expert use of bridging structures of information with new technologies.
Most Canadian artists investigate the application of knowledge about the fractured “other,” representing it in one medium or another.

What are some of the misconceptions about Canadian art by outsiders?
That our living culture is driven by a particular mode of representation such as the Group of Seven painters or historical figures such as Krieghof, or popular misconceptions about lifestyles in Canada (like we continue to live in igloos on a snowbound landscape).
Another misconception that is largely disappearing is that Canadian art is the same as or somehow less important than American contemporary art. Critical and market forces have dispelled this misrepresentation. American museums have critically embraced and celebrated the work of Ken Lum, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, Roy Arden, Jeff Wall and other Canadian artists.

You talked about the construction of “foreign” identity, that it has changed over the last 50 years. Can you elaborate on this a little bit?
I think multiculturalism is unique and entrenched and is woven into the fabric of life in Canada. One is routinely and systematically working with and making friends with people of vastly different cultural backgrounds in Canada. Toronto is a barometer of positive changes. Up until the 1980s it was a city dominated by an Anglo-Saxon population base. Currently less than 40 percent of Toronto’s roughly 3 million inhabitants trace their origins to the British Commonwealth.
For an example of how that transfers into the art world, in the last 50 years, Inuit art, by and large, has been a representation of life on the tundra. This was dictated by marketers and galleries in the south. The dancing bear, the Inuit in the sealskin-covered kayak, the spirit dancers, these iconic forms are most prevalent. If an artist produced a soapstone bust of Elvis Presley it was likely to end up on the scrap heap, because marketers are intent on controlling forms of representation and subject matter.
The increased contact between Inuit artists and the international media, artists, curators and so on opened up the scope of representation and helped to establish new values for works that don’t fall into the previous, neat categories of “Inuit art.” The new Inuit art, increasingly recognized as “underground” art, is less likely to be ghetto-ized and a new generation is less likely to be bound to specific imagery. Inuit artists working in new media and gaining control over their representation and art distribution systems mark a turning point in their ability to redefine how they are presented as exotic, foreign, modern, etc., to Canadians as well as to the international world.

Some of the works in the exhibition are very culturally specific, for example “The Group of Sixty-seven” by Jin-me Yoon. How do you expect the context of such works would shift when they arrive in Seoul? How do you intend the Korean public to approach the show?
I just assume the context of each work changes definitively for a Korean audience and I tend not to anticipate the levels of interpretation by each new audience in a media-saturated world. I think in terms of international audiences and how there is now a sliver of understanding of anything considered new information. Informed international audiences are more adept at integrating new art. The electronic media provide a new confluence of shared and altered and traditional values brought to the arts, particularly the visual arts.
I hope the Korean audience embraces the Korean-language “Journey Into Fear” of Stan Douglas as easily as they embrace Guy Maddin’s richly rendered black-and-white autobiographical film installation or Christine Davis’ elegant projection installation. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are represented by a short piece, “House Burning,” that includes moving images and surround sound and places any audience in a familiar position, that of the voyeur.
I believe there is room for the audience to speculate on both the richness of each of the artworks as well as their blankness, to construe a nothingness in the midst of an assumed sea of possibilities. What the audience hopefully yields from looking at the works are the tools for further speculation on the unarticulated field of the imagination.

by Park Soo-mee

“MosaiCanada: Sign and Sound” runs through Oct. 5 at the Seoul Metropolitan Gallery. For more information, call 2124-8941.
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