by Vatsala SethiSep 08, 2022
The second edition of the Toronto Biennial of Art - What Water Knows, The Land Remembers - revisited the history of Toronto to underscore the importance of remembrance. The title What Water Knows, The Land Remembers is a continuation of what began with the first edition, The Shoreline Dilemma, but this time it expanded the horizon to view the city as a living personification of the natural world, indigenous wisdom and colonial history. The geography of Toronto served as a crucial centrepoint to explore the nuances of land and water. To offer a visual translation of this intricate tapestry of knowledge, close to 24 pieces of art were commissioned for the biennale by the art curators Candice Hopkins, Katie Lawson and Tairone Bastien. The exhibitions were spread to many tributaries of Lake Ontario with the works of the artists from the places including Argentina, Canada, England, Germany, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Lithuania, Norway, Pakistan, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, United States, and Zimbabwe. The biennale gave an equal emphasis on the art produced by the indigenous communities hailing from Canada, Colombia, Aotearoa, New Zealand, Norway, and the United States.
The biennale offered a carefully designed set of programmes including workshops and performances to further lend a critical perspective on the wide display of art. The programme team worked in conjunction with the curators of the exhibition in an effort to develop a lexicon of terms to help inform the larger approach to public programs and initiatives. “Terms of particular resonance (bolded) include: coming together as part of a shared ethos at a given moment in time (collectivity); “breathing together” (the etymological roots of conspiring, further complicated by the current pandemic); experimenting with new points of focus to better hear each other (listening); and embracing narratives that impact and, in some cases, uncomfortably upend prior learnings as a guiding principle to look inward as we move outward together (unlearning),” as mentioned in the press release of the Toronto Biennale of Art.
In an interview with STIR, the Toronto Biennial of Art curator, Katie Lawson, explains how the recently concluded edition aimed to diversify its scope and scale since the previous biennale, “The Toronto Biennial of Art has the same curatorial team at the helm for its second edition, allowing some artists they have worked with to create projects over four years instead of just two. The first edition, in 2019, explored the hidden, buried, and intentionally erased histories of the Greater Toronto Area, in particular those of Indigenous and Black communities. While the 2019 edition focused on exploring the histories of the lake’s waterfront and shoreline, 2022 explores locations near above-ground and hidden tributaries that channel water into Lake Ontario, as well as the ravines that shape the city’s geography.”
Lawson gives an explicit account of selected artists whose practice focuses on the environment, “Dana Prieto examines our intimate and collective entanglements with colonial institutions and power structures, calling for careful attention to ways of relating, thinking, making and consuming in the Anthropocene; Tsema Igharas and Eric Siddall considers the photographic representation of the un-representable through invisible environmental hazards, hidden histories and traumatic events; Jumana Manna focuses on the ecological veil of conservation and preservation laws in Israel/Palestine in relation to wild foraging. Politics, food and the environment meet in her work; Susan Schuppli investigates the politics of the ‘cold’ and explores how knowledge practices from ice-core science and glaciology to intergenerational wisdom and local observations, climate activism to environmental policy and law, engage with the situated material conditions of ice.”
The tenet of the biennale was to reveal the entangled narratives and ecologies across time and space. Abel Rodríguez best showcased this with the paintings. The artist is from the Nonuya Indigenous community of the Cahuinarí River in the Colombian Amazon, currently living in Bogotá. Rodríguez has extensive ancestral knowledge of regional plants and ecosystems, transmitted to him through generations in Columbia. The artist populates the work with lush green plants to talk about his community, where it serves the ritualistic purposes as well as related to healing. The paintings with the botanical elements created from his memory relook at the long history of traditional knowledge systems where the ties across the land and sea were nourished to secure a healthy life.
The art installation Forced Afloat by Toronto-based artist Ghazaleh Avarzamani in the parking lot outside 72 Perth is made out of 7,000 square feet of blue rubber mulch – the material often used to prepare mats for the children in the public parks. The rubber, even if it appears safe for the children, consists of synthetic chemicals harmful to the environment. The installation at the open space is a comment on the commonplace assumption about what is safe. The myopic vision of social law defeats the purpose of sustaining a healthy environment. Judy Chicago has a long history of being a passionate advocate for the environment, which she celebrated with her Smoke Sculpture performance on June 4, 2022. The performance by the renowned feminist artist rightly set the stage for A Tribute to Toronto. Chicago has known to create these ‘smoke sculptures’ for many years now. The riot of colours enveloping the sky above Lake Ontario was her first time performing in Canada.
Toronto as a part of the Great Lakes watershed has buried vital tributaries. Despite the fact that the reengagement with the waterfront has been on consistent rise, it also shines a light on the severity of human relationship with the environment. The city-wide biennial opened an opportunity for the visitors, “to think about their entanglement with all of the human and more-than-human forces that make Toronto what it is, and to approach it with a sense of curiosity,” gathers Lawson.
The Toronto Biennial of Art (2022) was on view across Toronto until June 5, 2022.