The Vancouver Biennale is more than an international sculpture festival—it’s a civic gestalt. Founded by Barrie Mowatt in 2002, it has consistently pushed the envelope in terms of form and content, with works that challenge the sleepy complacency and conservatism that bely the city’s reputation for cosmopolitanism. “re-IMAGE-n,” its fourth iteration, aims to “reimagine a progressive social framework that supports free speech, reconciliation and the rights of First Nations, LGBTQ rights, artistic freedom, gender, racial and sexual equality, ecological awareness, religious freedom, and the ethics of biotechnology.”
This may seem like a tall order at the best of times, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic, but the Vancouver International Sculpture Biennale has established some impressive precedents. A decade ago, its bold choice to present Dennis Oppenheim’s Device to Root Out Evil—a 25-foot, upside-down, New England-style church with its steeple thrust into the ground—proved a revealing crucible. The Vancouver Parks Board was flooded with complaints voicing offended Christian sensibilities, and it was eventually—and rather ironically—driven out of town by “concerned” residents who complained it blocked their view.
In a city where that gorgeous view of ocean and mountains can be the enemy of compelling culture, the Biennale has now subverted the whole art-versus-nature paradigm by placing Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates in a popular seaside park, across from a duck pond. Paradise, which was installed in 2018, references prisons both real (Guantánamo and ICE cages for migrant children, for example) and metaphorical (identity being another type of cage) while revealing city vistas through the prism of an open-air mosque made of chain link and steel pipe. But not everything is as bucolic as the views. A sign next to the work, reading “RESPECT THE ARTWORK. CLIMBING PROHIBITED. Video surveillance,” was defaced in 2018, “ART” erased with a black marker and replaced by the word “Religious.” Becoming its own device for rooting out intolerance, Paradise serves as a reminder that even as Vancouver’s spot on the international art world map is increasingly visible, so too is the xenophobia that hovers here just north of the 49th Parallel.
More positively Paradise has become a venue for exploring intercultural connections, with performance and installation work by local First Nations weavers and gatherings for local Muslim and South Asian communities. This coming together of cultures has also inspired the traveling, cross-Canada exhibition “Weaving Cultural Identities.” The initial phase features a collaboration between 10 Coast Salish Indigenous artists and eight Muslim artists to create 10 woven prayer rugs. According to the Biennale, the project is a visual manifestation of “prominent, national dialogues surrounding the reconciliation of heritage, and the sharing and celebration of cultural knowledge, symbolism, and self-identification through textile traditions.”
In an era of increasing polarization, the Biennale—whose artists and curators span six continents—and its commitment to community outreach and multiculturalism are increasingly important. Last summer’s residency program, which included Afro-Cuban artist Carlos Martiel, who uses his body as material in striking mixed-media performance works, proved eerily prescient in its evocation of themes primary to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and a growing awareness of ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Martiel’s six-week residency resulted in a series of three performance works, each one confronting ongoing colonial violence in Canada. Under Occupation, the first in the series, took place on an island in False Creek and consisted of Martiel raising a Canadian flag colored red with a vial of his own blood. Statute evoked the ghosts of Canada’s infamous Indian Act—a vestige of colonial rule—against the silhouette of local Indigenous artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, whose work challenges corporate destruction of First Nations land. Martiel’s third performance, Agony, to be realized when he returns to Vancouver at a future date, examines the legacy of Canada’s residential school system, which exposed thousands of First Nations children to abuse and cultural erasure.
While the global pandemic did not stop regular outdoor community events scheduled over the summer, it certainly made them difficult. The Biennale rose to the challenge, however, with its socially distanced BIKEnnale/WALKennale strategy—self-guided cycle and walking tours framed around architecturally significant buildings, attended by hundreds of Vancouverites.
Its newest installation, Need, by Iranian-Canadian sculptor Kambiz Sharif, explores the theme of the immigrant experience and drawing connections between different cultures. Weighing 1,200 kilograms (about 1.3 tons) and measuring five meters tall, the work is made of 48 cast pieces. Situated at a key downtown site, the juncture of Jervis, Melville, and Pender Streets in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, it sits across from a former First Nations village and in front of seminal Canadian architect Arthur Erickson’s Evergreen Building, a 1975 concrete office tower (and a sculpture in its own right), with cascading green ivy pouring over balconies. Sharif, who worked for years with legendary artist Parviz Tanavoli, the “father of Iranian sculpture,” and who like his mentor also calls Vancouver home, says his work is a “re-imaging (of) the untold and unknown desires of myself and other immigrants.” Need (on view until 2022) is the first public work in Vancouver for Sharif, who moved here in 2009. (Heech, Tanavoli’s first public work here, made its debut in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby this summer; he has been a resident since 1989).
Need consists of a luminous globe with sharply angled tentacles reaching out for a sense of belonging, of connection, of home. Sharif chose bronze because, as he explains, “it is a hard object with a soft, mirror-like appearance which can—for a moment—register and then turn back into its environment. Anybody, depending on one’s point of view, may experience the reflection of self in their surrounding environment.”
Sharif’s words echo the ethos of the Vancouver Biennale, a festival/open-air museum for contemporary art that puts the onus on viewers to see the city, and themselves, reflected through the lens of innovative interventions, provocative installations, and meaningful artwork in an age of distracting ephemera and dangerous divisions.