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Raucous symphony and ambiguous space

A retrospective of the first annual Quebec Triennial at the Musée d’Art Contemporain

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Stepping into the main gallery of the Musée d’Art Contemporain (MAC), I wasn’t greeted by the usual hushed whispers and footsteps heard in most museums and galleries, but by a veritable raucous symphony: Gwenael Belanger’s Tournis, a looped video of glass breaking.

The placement of Tournis as one of the first pieces in the show is contentious, because there is nothing to mute the intermittent bursts of noise. It is obviously an intentional choice, and this speaks poignantly to the theme of the exhibit: Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed. The video’s repetitive loops repair the broken glass, and this sound transforms into a sometimes exasperating, sometimes nerve-grating background noise in other rooms of the exhibit.

The MAC’s first Triennial provides a general perspective on contemporary Quebecois art, though I couldn’t identify a particular trend – I think that might’ve been the point. Since my knowledge of Quebecois art was nonexistent to begin with, I was pleased with the overarching theme of the show. It had a more definitive cohesion than was immediately apparent, though the choice of artists was not contingent on the theme.

One of the biggest challenges facing a show of contemporary art – especially something as expansive as a triennial – is to convey the essence of the art without compromising the overall intent of the exhibit. And to a large extent the Triennial succeeds. Throughout the show one of the things that I liked most was the way that each piece and each artist was given their own distinctly defined space.

This works to the advantage of the exhibit because it directs you toward each artist in turn, without obstructing the message – visual or otherwise – that the artist is seeking to convey. In order for this to work, however, the pieces need to both be exceptional and express a sense of continuity with the rest of the show.

Unfortunately, pieces like Jon Knowles’ The Robert Smithson Record Collection 2004-2008 felt contrived – it seemed overly aware of the museum space’s capacity for detached expression, even as the show moved away from this. And Cynthia Gerard’s paintings, such as Libellule et Balloons, were vivid, but uninteresting in relation to other pieces and the exhibition as a whole. On the other hand, for an artist like David Altmejd, who sculpts colossal figures, space is a necessity, not only to accommodate the work, but to allow the viewer to access it in its entirety.

One of my favourite pieces of the show, Le Dentiste by Altmejd, absolutely demands space. It is a colossus composed of mirrors, fractured and faceted, along with small quail’s eggs encased in transparent glass. The piece enables – and even expects – the viewer to walk around it and engage with it as an ever-changing work; from each angle and from every perspective, a different view appears.

Another work I enjoyed was the sculpture by Michel de Broin, Black Whole Conference, which is an inverted sphere made of chairs whose lack of a center discloses an ambiguous space, obscuring – but not fully hiding – emptiness, and at the same time revealing a sort of transparency. This is how I would describe the Triennial: an inverted whole, displaying a certain cohesion – the theme – a vague homogeneity (because all the artists are Quebecois), and a remarkably ingenuous attitude towards structure. The show presents a collection of works that offer a unique, specific – but not overt or overbearing – survey of contemporary art.