Canada’s Latest Contender for Britain’s Top Art Award


Portrait of Janice Kerbel (2015). Photo: Mark Lewis. © the Artist and greengrassi, London

For the second time in two years, a Canadian-born artist has been shortlisted for one of the world’s most prestigious and talked-about art awards: the Turner Prize. Born in Toronto and based in London, Janice Kerbel has been singled out for her operatic work, DOUG (2014). Kerbel’s nomination follows last year’s shortlisting of the Ottawa-born, Glasgow-based artist Ciara Phillips for her exhibition, Workshop (2010–ongoing). 

“It’s really exciting to see two Canadians nominated back to back like this,” says Josée Drouin-Brisebois, the National Gallery of Canada’s Curator of Contemporary Art. “Kerbel was a very young artist when the Gallery bought its first work by her, so we have been engaged with her practice for a long time.” The Tate gallery awards the Turner Prize annually to a British visual artist under the age of 50. Both Kerbel and Phillips qualified for the £25,000 prize (nearly $50,000 CDN) because they now live and work in the United Kingdom. There are many art prizes awarded each year around the world, including Canada’s prestigious Sobey Art Award, for which Kerbel was shortlisted in 2006. But the Turner Prize is different.

“There are so many art awards now that I wouldn’t be able to list them all,” says Drouin-Brisebois. “The Turner Prize, however, is still the most prestigious, because there is a lot of discussion — and sometimes controversy — around it, and part of what makes the prize so well recognized is that debate. But it’s also because it’s at the Tate, and there’s always an exhibition for the prize that travels to the various Tate venues, introducing people to artists with whom they may not be familiar. I know, from speaking to artists who have won, that it can be a life-changing award.” 

Janice Kerbel, DOUG (2014). Performed on 1 May 2015 in the Jeffrey Room, The Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow. Commissioned by The Common Guild, Glasgow. Photo: Alan Dimmick. © greengrassi, London and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver

The NGC’s Associate Curator of Contemporary art, Jonathan Shaughnessy, describes the nomination as “wonderful” but not surprising, considering how Canadian artists have been garnering recognition across the art world in recent years.

“When you look at last year’s Shine a Light: Canadian Biennial,” says Shaughnessy, “you can see how international the work of so many Canadian artists already is — from Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass, which took the world by storm at the last documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany, to Jeremy Shaw, who is based in Berlin and making waves in both Canada (where he was recently longlisted for the Sobey Art Award) and abroad. There’s also David Hartt, who was born in Montreal, went to university in Ottawa, and is now based in Chicago, where his work is currently part of a major travelling exhibition organized by MCA Chicago.” 

Born in Canada in 1969, Kerbel earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, before moving to London to do her masters at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her intense, researched-based works often use a wide variety of media, including audio, print, radio plays and performance.

One of her best-known works, Bank Job (1999), is comprised of maps, architectural diagrams, and instructions, which have been collected in the form of an artist’s book detailing how to rob a bank at 15 Lombard Street in London, England. To collect the information needed for the book, Kerbel posed as an architecture student, accessing the building and befriending staff in an undertaking that took two years.

Janice Kerbel, Launderette: Suspended Garden (2005), ink jet print on wove paper, 87.8 x 122.7 cm. Purchased 2006 with the Joy Thomson Fund for the Acquisition of Art by Young Canadian Artists, National Gallery of Canada Foundation. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © National Gallery of Canada

The National Gallery of Canada has a number of works by Kerbel in its collection, including several from the Home Climate Gardens series. In the series, Kerbel employs the language of architectural design, presenting meticulously researched and carefully planned site-specific gardens that explore our relationship to nature and urban design.

Conceived during her residency at the University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the series features garden designs tailored to various work and living spaces, including a student’s bookcase, a revolving restaurant, and a launderette. Kerbel did not actually construct the gardens, however — the proposals were completed works in and of themselves, creating a tension between the reality of the drawing or project, and its fictive existence.


Janice Kerbel, DOUG (2014). Performed on 1 May 2015 in the Jeffrey Room, The Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow. Commissioned by The Common Guild, Glasgow. Photo: Alan Dimmick. © greengrassi, London and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver

The work that garnered the attention of the Turner Prize committee was DOUG, in which nine songs, performed by six singers, chronicle a series of catastrophic events in the life of Doug, the protagonist of her story. The work initially began as a blog detailing the misadventures of a fictional character as he survives various scrapes and life-threatening situations. The Common Guild, a visual arts organization in Glasgow, commissioned Kerbel to create an operatic version of the work for a one-off performance in the Jeffrey Room at the city’s Mitchell Library.

“I’ve been privileged to work with Janice Kerbel in numerous ways over the past decade,” says Kitty Scott, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, who first purchased Kerbel’s work for the National Gallery of Canada when she was its Curator of Contemporary Art. “Janice is an artist who moves from strength to strength, opening up new avenues of inquiry and modes of working. She is a great figure within the context of contemporary art in Canada, and internationally. I have been supporting her work for a long time. What can I say? I hope she wins.”

Other artists shortlisted with Kerbel include Nicole Wermers, Bonnie Camplin and the art collective Assemble. The winner of the Turner prize will be announced on December 7, 2015.

Share this article: 

About the Author