BGL’s Canadassimo: Abundantly Canadian in Venice

  

BGL, 2008. Photo © Richard-Max Tremblay. Courtesy of BGL

“We made circuits that look like little rollercoasters,” said a voice over the line — either Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère or Nicolas Laverdière; it wasn’t too clear. Just days before heading to Italy, all three members of the artist collective BGL were on the speakerphone in their Quebec City studio, talking animatedly over one another and cracking jokes as they described Canadassimo, their installation for the Venice Biennale. “There are coins that travel along these circuits down to the pavilion. We’re hoping it’ll be captivating.”

The rollercoaster image is apt, as BGL has long had a taste for play. One of their recent works, Canada Fancy, is a carousel made up of steel security fences. And the artists are quick to stress the importance of giving the viewer pleasure. “The main goal is to have fun with something strange.”

Like all their works, however, Canadassimo goes beyond simple interactivity. It is an ambitious, sprawling installation with layers of meaning . . . about North America’s insatiable appetite for stuff and relentless cycles of consume-and-discard; about the art world; and about space itself. BGL’s presentation for this 56th International Art Exhibition demands a willingness on the part of the viewer to participate in an immersive and slightly unsettling experience.

This experience begins in the courtyard of the Canada Pavilion, in the heart of the historic Giardini di Castello. A mass of scaffolding suggests that the brick building might be under renovation, an idea reinforced by the lettering added to the CANADA sign, which now reads CANADASSIMO.

The undaunted visitor enters the pavilion to find a space that has been transformed to look like a typical North American convenience store, or Quebec dépanneur, jam-packed with snack foods, household goods, commercial and handmade signs. The place seems at once shabby and cared-for.

 

BGL, Canadassimo, 2015. Work in progress for the Canada Pavilion for the 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, 2014. Photo © Ivan Binet. Courtesy of BGL, Parisian Laundry, Montreal, and Diaz Contemporary, Toronto

Behind the counter, and through a bamboo curtain, is the fictitious owner's living space: a modern loft with sleek, minimalist furniture. It is a place for quiet contemplation, the artists say — especially contemplation of the aforementioned coins dropping down through a maze of metal studs between the floor-to-ceiling windowpanes. The studs and scaffolding visible through the glass once again send a message that the place is under construction. 

Beside the loft, visitors enter the owner’s workshop or studio, which fairly oozes abundance, accumulation, creative energy, and a compulsion to recycle. Every surface is covered with objects — terra cotta sculptures, religious statuettes, ticking metronomes, and  stacks of colourful paint pots, made from hundreds of used food cans that still bear labels indicating pea soup, baked beans and other typically Canadian staples. Layers of old carpet on the floor are splattered with paint. “It’s sensory overload,” says Jean-François Castonguay, the Gallery’s Chief of Technical Services, who supervised the installation.

A door to the courtyard leads to a staircase built into the scaffolding. Venturing on up, visitors emerge onto a raised patio, partially enclosed by walls made of more bamboo curtains. This is where they can drop coins into the metal studs that run down to the loft below like rollercoasters, or gaze at neighbouring pavilions through openings in the beaded wall.

Canadassimo is clearly not just an installation; it is a complete transformation. Over the phone, the artists said it was during their initial visit to the site in 2014 that they got their inspiration to create a new kind of architectural space. “When we went over there last February, we found the pavilion to be quite small. It was between two rather imposing buildings belonging to Germany and Great Britain. It was like a little cottage. We felt it to be on a domestic scale compared to the other buildings, like a service area. That’s where we got the idea of making some kind of service building, like a convenience store."

 

BGL, Canadassimo, 2015. Work in progress for the Canada Pavilion for the 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, 2014. Photo © Ivan Binet. Courtesy of BGL, Parisian Laundry, Montreal, and Diaz Contemporary, Toronto

With its four transitional spaces, Canadassimo is full of contradictions, ambiguities and blurred boundaries: boundaries between artist and handyman, art and commerce, museum and workspace, private and public, finished and unfinished, new and recycled.

It also blurs the boundaries between national identities, with its Italianized title, view out over the Giardini, and references to Canadian and Quebec culture. Over the phone from her Montreal home, Marie Fraser, Professor of Art History at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and curator of Canadassimo, said, “BGL’s works contain many references to the North American lifestyle and contemporary society. In some ways, Canadassimo uses hyperbole to exaggerate this aspect, within the context of a national representation. The presence of typically québécois and Canadian products; the passion for recycling, and the excesses of hyper-consumption; the fact that the pavilion is enlarged, but still under renovation; the coins dropping . . . It’s with poetry that BGL makes us reflect upon the paradoxes of our lives.”

 

Indeed, Canadassimo overflows with an almost outrageous abundance of materials, which barely fit into three 40-foot shipping containers for the trip to Venice. Marie Fraser sees the same teeming energy throughout BGL’s body of work, and even in their working methods. “The abundance and generosity that characterize them also come, I think, from their way of working as a collective. It’s very dynamic — things and materials are constantly moving. BGL recycles ideas, materials, objects, fragments, even their own works of art. They work with what is around them; they are in tune with their immediate surroundings. Their way of working is very organic; it’s like a collage of ideas, and the three artists feed each other, and go over what each other has done, adding to it, and transforming it.”

The speakerphone trick is evidence of that teamwork, it seems. For twenty years, these fellows have worked incredibly well as a collective, each one bringing essential ingredients to the whole — and clearly they prefer to be known as a whole. If an interviewer can't distinguish them over the phone, if their interrupting voices blend together as one, so much the better.

“At the risk of borrowing a superlative from the title,” Marie Fraser concludes, “Canadassimo is certainly BGL’s strongest work to date.” 

BGL’s exhibition in Venice is made possible by the contribution of many private and public funders. The Canada Pavilion is supported by RBC, Aimia, the National Gallery’s Contemporary Art Circle and Distinguished Patrons, and individual donors and volunteers from across the country.

George Lewis, Group Head of RBC Wealth Management and RBC Insurance, says that the company is thrilled to support the Canada Pavilion. “We strongly believe in the power of the arts to enrich lives and communities. It is an honour to be involved with the National Gallery in this world-class event.”

Canadassimo is on view at the 56th International Art Exhibition — La Biennale di Venezia — until November 22, 2015.

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