Canada's Zany Artist Collective BGL Heading to Venice

 

BGL with three pairs of legs from the work Marche avec moi [Walk with Me] (2006), wood, clothes, newsprint, 60 x 28 x 20 cm each. NGC. The Havana Biennial, Cuba. Photo: Natalie Jean

BGL might just be Canada’s zaniest artist collective. Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère and Nicolas Laverdière, whose initials form the acronym BGL, have a history of creating elaborate, thought-provoking and often hilarious works of art out of found or re-purposed materials. Discarded Christmas trees, wrecked snowmobiles, used refrigerators, and the contents of a neighbour’s blue box are all potential art materials for BGL.

These days, the artists are squirreled away in their Quebec City studios, preparing their most ambitious work to date — Canadassimo — to be installed in the spiral-shaped Canada Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. What exactly the Venice crowds will see at the May 9 opening remains veiled in secrecy. However, if you go by the images that BGL has been releasing like so many tantalizing amuse-bouches, it might well have something to do with cans.

A photograph of Canadassimo “in progress” shows an impressive array of paint cans, layered with rainbow-coloured drips. Look closely and you will see that these paint pots are in fact re-purposed food cans, with labels for soup, baked beans, maple syrup and other quintessentially Canadian grocery items. More drippy cans are featured in Canvas, a whimsical, limited edition 3-D print created by BGL as part of the lead-up to Venice.

 

BGL, Canadassimo (2015). Work in progress, 2014

BGL has a history of turning food cans into art materials. Meatball/Tribute to the Group of Seven (2009) featured aluminum cans set on an oven rack, engulfed by fluorescent plexiglass flames. According to Marie Fraser, Curator of Canadassimo and Professor of Art History at the Université du Québec à Montréal, Meatball addressed both the social aspect of working as a collective and the significance of recycling in BGL’s practice. On the phone from her Montreal home, Fraser explained, “They imagined how the painters, gathered together as the Group of Seven, might have gone out into nature, and in a spirit of conviviality, of sharing, sat down in the woods, made a fire and eaten a meal, re-using the cans to put their paint in afterwards.”  

More than just a method, however, recycling is, for BGL, a state of mind. In an interview with Fraser for the Venice Biennale catalogue, the artists said, “Recycling enables us to find things that already show wear, that have a patina, a colour, a smell, a poetry. We transform what people consider trash into something beautiful — just like our ancestors, who reused everything.” 

Bilodeau, Giguère and Laverdière have been collaborating for almost 20 years, since graduating in Fine Arts from the Université Laval in Quebec City. From the beginning, they have used found, re-purposed and recycled materials to produce works that range from small wood carvings to sprawling theatrical sets, intricately engineered contraptions to city-wide performances. Exploring the ambiguities and paradoxes of human behaviour, North American consumerism, the relationship between culture and nature, and even the absurdities of the art world, they create art that amuses, entertains and provokes.  

  

BGL, Meatballs / Tribute to the Group of Seven (2009), fluorescent Plexiglas, grill rack and tin cans. Granite Club Collection, Toronto. Photo: courtesy BGL and Diaz Contemporary, Toronto
Take BGL’s 2000–2001 project Profession: Arbre de Noël, which recounts the “tragic fate” of a traditional Christmas tree, cut down in the forest in November and turned into wood chips by January. The artists collected 60 discarded Christmas trees and carved their trunks into folk art sculptures — a polar bear, a garden gnome, a giant piece of LEGO® — representing the kinds of objects one would find under the tree. In the spring, they auctioned off the carvings, fed the remaining branches through a wood chipper, and sold the mulch in ziplock bags, to be used, as announced in a press release, “as an excellent pot-pourri or else a perfect litter for your favourite pet.”  

Imbued with the trio’s characteristically absurd humour, good craftsmanship and infectious energy, Profession: Arbre de Noël was both a critique of rampant consumerism and a comment on nature. However, the artists insist they do not take an environmentalist or ecological stance. “What concerns and inspires us is the relationship between human beings and nature,” they told Fraser. “We’re romantics. We place nature above humanity.”  

Another attention-grabbing work by BGL was Rapides et Dangereux [Fast and Dangerous] (2006), a performance given in Quebec City. Dressed in yellow lycra, two of the artists donned roller blades and broad smiles to push the third on a demobilized motorcycle through the busy city streets. The excess amount of human energy required to propel the vehicle called into question the notion of productivity and its value in North American culture.

   

BGL, The Discourse of Elements (detail) [2006], mixed media installation, installation dimensions variable. NGC

Visitors to the National Gallery might remember BGL’s installation, The Discourse of Elements (2006), which was part of the exhibition Caught in the Act: The Viewer as Performer. To experience the work, the viewer-performer walked down a narrow corridor in a warehouse-like space displaying myriad curiosities, many of them salvaged from BGL’s earlier projects. Art supplies, small wood sculptures, wrapped gifts, broken chairs, buckets, vacuum cleaners, a motorcycle, a dog house and a stuffed moose all lined the wooden shelves, which themselves were cleverly carved to look like industrial steel units. Partway along the corridor, a burned hole on one side of the shelving led into another, darkened space, where the shape of a car was barely visible under a black cover, and an electric fire burned eerily in the trunk. On the other side of the warehouse, a door marked “Push here” led to yet another space in which a disco ball rolled along a large, pivoting wooden beam.

Notions of fragility, equilibrium and control are often central to BGL’s work, as is architectural space. “As a trio,” they said in the interview, “we derive energy from a territory. We like imagining places, dwellings. We love materials and objects — fundamentally, we’re probably more builders than sculptors. We get such pleasure from building places out of humble materials! And if we succeed in confusing spectators, it’s absolute magic!”  

BGL’s presentation at the 56th International Art Exhibition — La Biennale di Venezia — will be the culmination of a long and highly collaborative process, not just for the artists, but for those behind the scenes, from the jury of senior curators that selected the collective to represent Canada, to the National Gallery, which administers the exhibition, to numerous corporate and private patrons. 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.

Although Marie Fraser won’t reveal the details of Canadassimo, she will say that it’s BGL’s most important work to date. Given their record, Messrs. Bilodeau, Giguère and Laverdière are likely to have something colourful, comical, and thoroughly engaging up their collective sleeves.

Stay tuned for more about Canadassimo as the veil of secrecy is lifted. Part 2 of "BGL in Venice" is coming soon to NGC Magazine.

Canadassimo opens at the Canada Pavilion, Venice, on May 9, 2015. Readers may purchase BGL’s limited framed edition of Canvas to help support the artists and the Canada Pavilion. The bilingual catalogue BGL: Canadassimo is also forthcoming and will be available for purchase through the NGC Bookstore.

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