At sunset on a late spring day, a purple-blue cloud obscured the water. The crowd cheered. Hundreds had gathered, huddled together on the ground or standing along the promenade. Some children even climbed trees for a better view. An unexpected gust of wind blew plumes from the barge anchored in Lake Ontario, engulfing the excited viewers. Judy Chicago’s site-specific A Tribute to Toronto (2022), her first “atmosphere” or “smoke sculpture” orchestrated on water, was one of the closing events of this year’s Toronto Biennial of Art (TBA). Oscillating between a delicate ephemeral work—that quite literally slips through one’s fingers—and a public spectacle, Chicago’s homage left a fleeting mark on the city.
Conceived as a two-chapter biennial, the TBA’s second iteration, titled What Water Knows, The Land Remembers, aimed to encompass the histories with which the landscapes of Toronto are soaked. This iteration built on the inaugural one, The Shoreline Dilemma (2019), focused on the elusive nature of Toronto’s natural boundaries and the repercussions of the ongoing transformations of its waterfront; artists were invited to consider what it means to exist in relation to such plural and ever-changing conditions. Although both iterations are ostensibly anchored in the realities of Toronto, a city undergoing unprecedented redevelopment, the TBA presented international artists who engaged with many other places and issues, which transcended local specificity.
This year’s iteration was spread across nine venues in Toronto and in Mississauga to the west, all positioned, according to the TBA’s curatorial team, near tributaries that feed into Lake Ontario. Paradoxically, there was no water in sight at any of these locations. But maybe that was the point: industrialization and urbanization have so altered Toronto’s terrain that there is no longer a connection to the natural environment. Given the centrality of water as the overarching theme, however, the chosen venues seemed like a missed opportunity. One could not help but wish that some of the sites and interventions had been positioned at nodes where water might be visible or audible—perhaps even experienced physically—to stress, and possibly counter, the cruel mutations that this landscape has had to endure.
There were other missed opportunities. Most of the contributions were theme-adjacent, touching upon ideas of kin and relation—which translated into fairly broad responses that drifted away from Toronto and, for that matter, the question of water. Visitors should temper their expectations of any biennial, steering away from the hope that all works will adhere to the central theme. But how should visitors assess this iteration, as opposed to previous or future ones, aside from the manner in which it advances our familiarity with or knowledge about the specific subject its curators choose to tackle? What distinguishes a whimsical grouping of works from a conceptually strong biennial? Given the ambitious curatorial premise and the calibre of artists participating in the TBA, one expects the latter.
Some of us also expect more rigour, because we cannot afford to think about water in purely metaphorical terms. I was a teenager when we heard the devastating news that my cousin’s family had drowned as they escaped war-torn Iraq. The image of water, which in Muslim tradition is the source of all life, was forever changed in my imagination. Although I can appreciate how others might cherish its beauty and recreational potential, for me water also became a source of grief and fear. Aside from the frequent refugee deaths in the Mediterranean, to which we have collectively become alarmingly apathetic, water shortages in Southwest Asia (or the “Middle East”), are predicted to be the source of more wars in years to come. Moreover, water triggers anxiety worldwide: communities everywhere are concerned about pollution, from rivers to groundwater, and rising sea levels threaten to submerge coastal cities, like Toronto, in the not-too-distant future. Humanity is already in deep water.
And although the reference to water might be tenuous, given Avarzamani’s use of blue in previous works, the installation recalls the littering of oceans and our bodies with petroleum products, of which most of us are aware, and yet to which we often helplessly turn our backs.
But there were a few standout works that touched upon the TBA’s theme. Ghazaleh Avarzamani’s Forced Afloat (2022), one of the rare site-specific installations, was a round outdoor pond filled with pieces of teal-colored salvaged rubber. Despite the emphasis on the notion of play, central to the artist’s practice—here, possibly a commentary on how humanity recklessly considers the world its playground—this might be the only artwork, that I noticed, that resisted customary forms of production, opting to use a recycled material, thereby underlining how art is often complicit in the environmental degradation that it vigorously denounces at times. And although the reference to water might be tenuous, given Avarzamani’s use of blue in previous works, the installation recalls the littering of oceans and our bodies with petroleum products, of which most of us are aware, and yet to which we often helplessly turn our backs.
Another form of engagement with the theme could be found in the work of artists who highlight the histories and realities of places defined by a strong relationship with water. Camille Turner’s Nave (2022) was a three-channel video replete with images and sounds of water, investigating Canada’s involvement in the transatlantic trade in enslaved African people, particularly through shipbuilding activities on the east coast. Filming the nave of a wooden church to evoke the hold of a ship, Turner implicates the political and religious establishment in the harrowing histories that continue to haunt communities of African heritage, while hinting at a possible future in which descendants connect with their ancestors through rituals that might bring about what she describes as an awakening. An unexpected response could be seen at another venue, in Shezad Dawood’s Leviathan Cycle, Episode 7: Africana, Ken Bugul & Nemo (2022), a single-channel video depicting the other side of the Atlantic. The visual essay surfs across scenes from Senegal, on the west coast of Africa, interviewing figures reflecting on how post-colonial practices can bring about radical futures that may wash over the violence of the past just like, as one of the on-screen characters muses, water purifies sand on the beach.
I found Great Bear Money Rock (2021-2022), a multi-media installation by Tsēmā Igharas and Erin Siddall, to be one of the most powerful contributions to the TBA. In this challenging yet seductive work, the artists contemplate the possibility of ameliorating colonial extraction, homing in on Port Radium, an abandoned uranium mine in the Northwest Territories of Canada. The work is poetic in its exploration of the properties of water and land, perceiving them as archives relating narratives that transcend human comprehension and control. One treaded carefully around this work, composed of deceptively simple gestures: a water-filled plastic bottle rested precariously on a thin prismatic base, both refracting projected images of the Délįnę mine and Great Bear Lake; a relentless clicking sound was emitted from a vintage projector, amplifying the artifice of the images, and possibly conjuring Geiger counters that detect radiation; fragments of radioactive crystals collected from that geography were contained within deformed, leaded-glass cloches isolating the ore strewn on the floor and emulating the original landscape; images of rocks were printed on fabrics draped on custom plinths. The installation was subtle, sophisticated, and open-ended, resisting easy readings or even documentation. Its eclectic constellation of elements inhabits that ambiguous yet generative zone in which passionate research, the representational efficacy of art, and the agonies of this fragile planet might overlap.
But again, these works were the exception. I wished to see not only more works that interrogated the meanings of water, but also more that took up the immediate environment of Toronto. In both iterations of the TBA, I wondered how artists might illuminate a range of serious issues, such as the disturbing erasure of Indigenous history from Toronto’s vast metropolitan landscape and how the original inhabitants of this territory engaged water; or the prohibitive costs associated with living in this prosperous lake-facing, ravine-striated city, especially for the underprivileged, mostly racialized classes, not to mention the struggling art community. Mooring the TBA in the specificity of Toronto does not necessarily mean relinquishing transnational conversations. This is one of the challenges confronting biennials around the world, which are at times stretched thin between contradictory desires that include featuring some of the most thoughtful art being produced today, regardless of provenance; addressing pressing subjects; placing the biennial’s city on the map of the global art scene; supporting local artistic communities; and invigorating different neighbourhoods. The compromises that a biennial is obliged to make are usually determined by its priorities.
The TBA detonated Judy Chicago’s smoke sculpture at Sugar Beach, a few hundred metres south of Igharas and Siddall’s installation. There was something menacing when that multicoloured cloud descended on the crowd. For a moment, as the smoke enveloped the attendees—who started coughing upon inhaling the chemicals—one could imagine our air saturated with fumes from burning fossil fuels, produced by exploitative and conflict-laced practices. In a public conversation ahead of her performance, Chicago intimated a wish for her work to bring some attention to the environment that we are savagely destroying. Indeed, if the biennial succeeded, even partially, in splashing cold water on a distracted public, foregrounding serious issues that affect Toronto and many other places, then that makes this massive endeavour, and art, worthwhile.
The French translation of this article is also published in the 268 issue of Vie des arts – Autumn 2022 and can be consulted here.
Toronto Biennal of art
Curators: Candice Hopkins, Katie Lawson and Tairone Bastien
March 26–June 5, 2022