As the name suggests, the La Biennale di Venezia / Venice Art Biennale takes place in Venice, Italy, every two years and is widely considered the most significant global contemporary art exposition. Often referred to as the “Olympics of the Art World,” the Biennale brings together almost a hundred countries that collectively showcase the work of a formidable group of artists chosen to represent their home nations.
A consistent theme of nationhood has been a part of the Biennale since its inception, positioning artists and their artwork within larger political contexts and narratives. The first iteration opened on April 30, 1895, at a newly constructed pavilion in the public Giardini della Biennale / Biennale Gardens of Castello, the largest of the sestieri (districts) of the city. The genesis for a Venetian-organized contemporary art festival grew out of the success of the 1887 Esposizione Artistica Nazionale / National Art Exposition hosted in city and is now attributed to Riccardo Selvatico, then mayor of Venice, Antonio Fradeletto, member of city council, and philosopher Giovanni Bordiga. “The international emphasis was deliberate and productive, reflecting the ambition to make the exhibition an international event,” observes Margaret Plant and “in this way it diverged significantly from previous national expositions, although Italian and Venetian art were well represented.” In that first year, 285 artists (with a total of 516 works) from France, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and other countries participated.
Today, the main venue of the Biennale is located at the eastern tip of the island of Venice, occupying one of the cities few green spaces. These Giardini are a product of major urban renovations made under Emperor Napoleon I after the fall of the Venetian Republic at the hands of the French in 1797. Since then, however, the site has gradually been adopted and transformed into a psuedo-international village with many of the participating nations constructing highly individualized permanent architectural pavilions to house their country’s biannual offering, affording each nation (who has the space and resources) independence to determine its representation.
Canada’s formal representation at the began in 1952 with an exhibition of paintings by Alfred Pellan, Goodridge Roberts, Emily Carr and David Milne mounted in the Canadian room in the Padiglione Italia / Italian Pavilion (later renamed Padiglione Centrale / Central Pavilion). Within the Central Pavilion countries were organized alphabetically, with Cuba and Brazil as Canada’s neighbours, providing an early example of how the dominance of national participation shapes visitor experience. The significance of such inclusion at the Biennale to Canada was noted by Donald Buchanan, then Director of the Industrial Design Division of the National Gallery of Canada, in the 1952 summer issue of Canadian Art. “Canada now takes its place with most of the other nations of the free world in this assembly of the arts,” he noted. Only six years later, Canada inaugurated its own permanent pavilion.
Designed by Milanese architect Enrico Peressutti, of Studio Architetti BBPR, the inspiration for the plan has been variously interpreted over time, from a nautilus shell to a “wigwam” to the Archimedean spiral. This curvilinear layout—unusual for pavilions that are often more austere than hospitable—is further characterized by an abundance of windows that clad the front façade and a tree that was strategically integrated into the design. An architectural rendering of the Pavilion, both in plan and section, appeared in the summer 1958 issue of Canadian Art, providing the Canadian public with its first view of the design.
Tucked back in the far south-east corner of the Giardini and flanked by the German and British pavilions, the Canada Pavilion was initially proposed for an alternate site that is now home to the Urugayan Pavilion. In a 1956 letter Buchanan, who was then Associate Director of the NGC, wrote to Enrico Pallucchini, the General Secretary of the Venice Biennale: “I can now inform you that we shall be in a position to build our pavilion at any time after July 1956, and should like to reserve the space between the Czechoslovak and United States pavilions”. In the end, the Pavilion was built between the classically formulated, temple-like structures of Germany and Britain and despite lengthly correspondence between the NGC and Pallucchini, the reasons for the change in site are not made clear.
Once completed, the Canadian response was highly optimistic. “What is certain is that Peressutti has given Canada an exceptionally fine small pavilion with a freely spaced and open plan, a building much more exhilarating in aspect than are the most massive structures which adjoin it,” wrote Buchanan on the occasion of the opening. These positive sentiments were later picked up by writer Kathleen Fenwick in 1958 following the opening of the first exhibition in the new Pavilion, which featured works by James Wilson Morrice, Jacques de Tonnancour, Anne Kahane and Jack Nichols: “Now that Canada has a pavilion of her own, of which she can be justly proud, in this great permanent exhibition of the art of the modern world, she must also ensure that the interest and quality of the future exhibitions she will display there will always show her contemporary arts at their best.”
In the intervening years, however, public sentiment about the purpose and function of the Pavilion ebbed. In particular, the collapse between nation and nature, rooted in the prevailing mid-twentieth-century national aesthetic cultivated in the wake of the Group of Seven and others and hinted at by the Pavilion’s integration within the forested area that surrounds it, has been a point of critique. This is perhaps most clearly evident when viewing the Giardini on Google Maps, which depicts the Canada Pavilion all but concealed by a dense green canopy, while it’s neighbours dominate the surrounding landscape.
Writing in 1990 in the catalogue for Canadian artist Geneviève Cadieux’s self-titled exhibition at the 44th Biennale, curator Chantal Pontbriand outlined the Pavilion’s problematic origin story: “The Canadian pavilion was built in the fifties with the idea of harmonizing the building with nature. Simply as a pavilion in a public garden, the building is a historic artifact representing a certain conception of architecture and a dated interpretation of the relationship between the nature and culture. As an exhibition space, it is commonly viewed as a problem. Weighted with cultural baggage and physically inhospitable for many types of art.” In that same year, critic John Bentley Mays, explained the situation bluntly: “I cannot take credit for the idea that the Biennale’s Canadian pavilion should be torn down and replaced, though I would gladly put my name on a petition to do just that.”
“Each of the pavilions seems to stand for someone’s idea of a nation and how it relates to their history,” Steven Shearer, Canada’s representative for the 54th Biennale in 2011, noted in his catalogue of the same year. “If you were a Fascist power you built a pavilion like Germany’s, and if you are a colonial power you have one like Britain’s. But if you are Canada, you have something diminutive in scale under the trees that attempts to achieve some kind of harmony with nature.” What Shearer’s comments fail to capture is Canada’s own position as a colonial power, with an international policy that has intimately woven together nature, culture and nation to create a palatable and profitable international brand.
In the late 1950s through the 1960s, funding for cultural production was at its domestic height in order to build a marketable national identity that could then be exported across the world and used as a calling card to develop relationships with international art institutions—the expansion of the National Gallery of Canada in the 1960s and Canada’s hosting of its first International Exposition, better known as Expo 67, in its centennial year.
Yet, much has changed with respect to Canadian identity, its construction to both national and international audiences and national arts funding in the intervening years. After the artistic and financial responsibilities of the Pavilion were transferred to individual institutions in the 1980s, management was once again claimed by the NGC in 2010 following decades of causing significant financial obstacles and burdens to those commissioners involved.
In recent years, there has also been an increasing acknowledgement of the politics and privilege tied to exhibiting at the Biennale. Framing her solo exhibition Music for Silence at the 55th Biennale in 2013, Toronto-based Shary Boyle presented a silent, 35 mm film featuring a deaf woman signing the poem Silent Dedication (2013), which Boyle also read aloud at the opening. Serving as a direct reminder to those in attendance of their position, the poem asked audiences to consider who was not present at the Biennale and why that may be.
In turn, Geoffrey Farmer’s A way out of the mirror in 2017 coincided with the country’s sesquicentennial celebrations, inhabiting the Pavilion mid-renovation with material and metaphoric rubble from 150 years of national construction, including rebar from the Peter Pitseolak School in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, that burned down in 2015.
Still, whether lauded or loathed, the Canada Pavilion remains material scaffold for larger concepts of nation-building—political, economic and artistic—as they continue to transform. As the collective Isuma prepares to release their newest film One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019) and live streaming project Silakut Live inside the Pavilion that, together, explore the damages of this colonial project, perhaps there is no better home.
This article is the first in our series Vantage Point.