Geneviève Cadieux: The Humanity of “Barcelone”
Geneviève Cadieux is one of the most significant and celebrated contemporary Canadian artists working in Quebec today. In May 2020, the National Gallery of Canada approached her to commission a work for its exterior façade, supported by the Scotiabank Photography Program, marking the first of three commissions of Leading with Women, an initiative that will see works by female artists command the Gallery’s exterior over the next three years.
The Montreal-based artist, who has strong connections to Ottawa, is keenly interested in the intervention and integration of art in urban spaces through its interaction and impact on passers-by and the resulting association between an artwork and a particular site at a specific moment. The remarkable thing about art is how meanings change over time, as audiences, society and our lived experiences inform and affect us.
The humanity that Cadieux brings to her work, coupled with the successful realization of ambitious projects in Quebec and France, as well as the fact that the Gallery had not significantly engaged with the artist for over 15 years, informed our decision and invitation for this new initiative. In my early discussions with the artist, we talked about the current moment, the impact of COVID-19 and the changes occurring in society and in our personal and professional lives. In particular, we discussed the longing for interaction with people. Over the past few months our instinct as physical beings to comfort others has been transformed into various forms of distance – in order to keep each other safe. Like so many people, the artist has not been able to be close with loved ones during this time. Our human interactions have taken on new, and at times loaded, signification.
Geneviève Cadieux is at the forefront of the development of photography that can be monumental in scale. Her approach to making is inspired by theatrical and cinematic conventions, as well as advertising strategies, and their effect on individuals. She comes to these interests honestly, her father having run the recently closed ByTowne art-house cinema, whose eclectic art and foreign film program was formative for the artist. When considering the Gallery’s façade, Cadieux immediately recognized the cinematic quality of the site and proposed a reworking of her 2003 photographic series Barcelone into an immense frieze.
In her practice, Cadieux frequently draws upon an archive of existing images, at times recycling fragments into new works, or inserting them into current contexts to create new associations and meanings. Barcelone documents an encounter between two people in an ambiguous, brightly lit setting, which appears to exist beyond space and time. During the photo shoot, the subjects moved about the space while three cameras remained stationary, recording the invisible dance from various angles. In the 2020 monographe Geneviève Cadieux, writer Isabelle de Mévius points out that Cadieux’s photographic work creates “a mysterious and powerful connection between the character on the screen and the viewer. … The poses of her staged subjects often suggest a breakdown of communication; they seem to be suffering, on the verge of expressing their pain but unable to do so, trapped in an in-between. … The subject is caught up in an internal experience, seemingly holding back emotion.”
In Barcelone, the photographs document the tension between lovers – played by the artist’s sister and renowned Quebec actress, Anne-Marie Cadieux, and her partner at the time Hubert Marsolais (art critics have alluded that her sister is often a stand-in for the artist herself). The psychological tension between them is particularly expressed in the woman’s body language. Barcelone – the title being a word play on the French “seul” and the English “alone” – speaks to a state of detachment and distance, as well as a longing for moments of connection and embrace.
Interspersed between the scenes of the couple are three white panels on which a bright sun is faintly visible. In each, it appears in a different position in the sky, suggesting the span of a day and the passing of time. The artist captured this strange sun in Montreal during the summer of 2002, when forest fires, started by lightning strikes, raged in northern Quebec. The haziness of the sky created the strange atmosphere. Montreal and part of New York State saw their skies darken, a warning of the impact of climate change. Cadieux manipulated the images to translate her perception and experience of this unusual light, so that they appear white with a white sun. In the 2021 rendition, she has enlarged the sun, making it more prominent.
Today, Barcelone also speaks to the embodied choreography that we are all currently engaged in, as we manoeuvre around one another and wait for each other to move, as we try to circulate. We are aware in a new way of our interactions with strangers and our sense of time seems altered. Many people are noticing how important encounters have become for them.
Barcelone is a meaningful work that captures the unspoken tension and emotional suffering of two people who have grown apart. It allows us to see and relate to the incredible manifestation and embodiment of isolation. Like us, the figures are longing for connection – whether simple or intimate. The work brings focus on how we may be feeling in this difficult moment of the pandemic, when many of us are navigating isolation, stress, loss or pain. Cadieux is a keen and sensitive observer – one who interprets the intricate and complex nature of human interaction.
Genevieve Cadieux's Barcelone, supported by the Scotiabank Photography Program at the National Gallery of Canada, is on view on the façade of the National Gallery of Canada from June 2, 2021 onward; Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.