The title of this year’s Manif d’art, taken from Leonard Cohen’s song “Stories of the Street,” expresses so much so simply: this wonderful Quebec City art event is a beacon that shines in the night—and in the light of day, too.

The forty artists in the biennial, curated by Jonathan Watkins of Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, offer a reconnection to the tangible, physical source and medium of nature. Indigenous non-Western cultures, local geo-specific cultures, and post-colonial urban cultures—all are included in this colourful mix of intercultural global art. Refabrication, reinterpretation, and de-­interpretation are the biomass that the artists use to regenerate and reify life. On display throughout the city, with ten public- art installations, twelve solo exhibitions, and eighteen artists represented in the main exhibition, this year’s biennial is truly ambitious and inclusive.

The Central Exhibition

Eighteen artists are represented in the main exhibition space at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec’s new Pavillon Pierre Lassonde, designed by architect Shohei Shigematsu, a partner at the New York firm OMA. At the entrance to the show, Daniel Corbeil’s Cité laboratoire (2012-2018) is a utopian ecosphere, a prototype of some futuristic city, part green and part designed forum for living. This futuristic tower, with an ever-so-slight Expo’67 feel to it, contains multi-level areas for growing food. Cité laboratoire could be a micro-scale version of a mega-styled survivalist structure—a modular habitat. Wind power and contained areas refer to the greenhouses on the International Space Station and existing experimental “pods for living.”

Meryl McMasterTime’s Gravity (2015)
76.2 x 114.3 cm
Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec
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The next space contains Krištof Kintera’s Systemus Postnaturalis (2016-2017), which extends out from the centre of the floor like an immense hydra or a chaotic central nervous system. Made of recycled materials, it looks like some post-apocalyptic city. A futuristic exoskeleton, Systemus Postnaturalis expresses all the disarray and confusion that the overproduction fantasy we now live in may portend. Copper filaments become poetic flowers and wiring rises up to evoke a post-consumer tree, and there are computer chips and post-urban planning layouts. This is chaos as design!

Jim Holyoak and Matt Shane are a realism-defying duo who produce large-scale, inventive multi-media drawings. The Who’s Haunts (2018) are two fine ambling fables of visuality. The scenes are rough cabin-like structures situated in the woods, overtaken by elements of fairy tales and nature: mushrooms, leaves, and wood. Where is Goldilocks? Entropy and nature’s life systems invade.

Vija Celmins’s mezzotint print Untitled (Large Night Sky) (2016) personifies the sense of being both in a place and out of place, as the scale and hyper-realist style draw us into that in-between space where the ignited imagination heightens our state of being. The theatre here is the cosmos. Seeing nature’s microcosmic details amid the vastness of the universe, we find a link with a greater holistic truth. We absorb energy through Celmins’s expansive yet human-scaled embodiment of a place.

Michael Flomen is a backwoods Brassaï whose large-format photographs are hieroglyphs that emerge out of a Man Ray-like process of fusion with nature. Flomen’s Double Trouble (2001) records the paths of fireflies at night. These drawings of light on paper are photograms that capture the landscape of near-invisible microcosmic events. Photos as causal circumstances reveal a hidden world, and nature’s unseen actions become art.

The works in this edition of Manif d’art awaken ancestral signifiers and situate us where we can see our humble holistic state in eternity. 

Manasie Akpaliapik makes sculptures with caribou antlers, ivory, and whalebone to relate his Inuit experience. Sedna, goddess of the sea and sea animals, is a central part of the cyclical Inuit creation mythology. Souls embark and souls return.

This whole planet is slowly heating up, and our task of drawing down the CO2 is not that simple. Caroline Gagné’s Le bruit des icebergs (2016) is a tactile, sound, and video installation. We hear the sound of ice dripping and melting, and we connect to the physical natural world outside this art space. The sounds redefine place within a place.

Meryl McMaster draws on her Saskat­chewan Cree heritage and ambiguous sources for her series of photographs titled In-Between Worlds (2010-2015). Her stagings are part theatre, part retelling of ancestral stories, but she reinvents cultural variations on identity in a contemporary neo-performative way. The photos themselves are fascinating set-ups: a crow juxtaposed with McMaster reawakens the sleeping giants of Cree history.

Manif d’art in the City

Not far along the fortifications of Old Quebec City, in his sculpture Free Form in Blue (2012-2019), Shayne Dark exploits the tensions between natural cedar and the city environment with a poetic assemblage of tree branches given an “unnatural” blue coating that recalls Yves Klein’s monochromes.

Christiane Baumgartner’s large-scale Stairway to Heaven (2019) woodcuts made for the biennial and on view at Engramme, centre de production en estampe et de diffusion en art actuel, were inspired by the Montmorency Falls near Quebec City. Almost like sounds recording images, the lines follow a varying horizontal trajectory that is as much a physical visual phenomenon as the falls themselves.

Shayne DarkFree Form in Blue (2012-2019)
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Photo: Charles-Frédérick Ouellet

On view at Villa Bagatelle, British artist George Shaw’s paintings were done mainly in and around Tile Hill, the postwar social housing complex where Shaw grew up. His paintings are atypical. They capture what the art world pays no attention to: discarded couches, castaway elements in the woods, and the nondescript buildings of the housing complex. These are persistent places, where memories live on. Juxtaposed against the tiny late-eighteenth-century woodcuts by Thomas Bewick, titled Tale-Pieces, Shaw’s paintings draw on his own twenty-first- century experience.

Standing in the wind-driven snow at the Lieu historique national des Fortifications- de-Québec, one of the most historic sites in the city, is Susan Philipsz’s Lowlands (2010), a sound-art piece that emits a haunting, lyrical beauty in the Parc-de-l’Artillerie. The traditional Scottish song “Lowlands Away,” with its natural rhythm and melancholy, seems to stand outside time as sound expe­rience, awakening distant emotions and feelings at a place where the cannons and armaments were stored in past centuries. This is unquestionably one of the most powerful and successful works in the biennial.

Across the St. Lawrence River, at Regart, centre d’artistes en art actuel in Lévis, Japanese artist Shimabuku’s Swan Goes to the Sea video (2012-2019) is nothing if not sensitive and evocative—a journey of sorts with swan-like pedal boats. The life-size swan boats range around the ferry terminal at Lévis, subtle, surreal, and suggestive, symbo­lically representing a very real fusion of nature and myth that exists in stories and legends of all cultures.

The works in this edition of Manif d’art awaken ancestral signifiers and situate us where we can see our humble holistic state in eternity. Small Between the Stars, Large Against the Sky achieves what its curator intended: to bring integration and intercultural dialogue into the contemporary art forum.