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Building hope: Saskatoon’s Remai Modern art museum draws on a powerful theme

Remai Modern - Art museum

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February 5, 2020

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by Marsha Lederman

Hope can be a fertile tool. It is the concept at the centre of an expression Saskatchewan’s settlers clung to as they navigated a land more harsh and circumstances more isolating than they had anticipated. “Next year things will be better.”

As the province was being settled, things were often not better next year – not for the exhausted, freezing settlers, nor for the Indigenous people whose homes and ways were under threat by the new arrivals.

Still, the promise of improvement can be powerful.

Issues around settlement, land, Indigeneity and hope are central themes in the new exhibition at the Remai Modern art museum in Saskatoon. Next Year’s Country examines the importance of place – whether that place be Saskatchewan or elsewhere – using work from the permanent collection, acquired as recently as about a week before opening, in the case of Brian Jungen’s Mother Tongue, 2013.

“Hope is something that is part of the human existence. But that’s what made it curious to me – that it was such an expression here,” the exhibition’s curator Sandra Fraser says. “So, psychologically, what does that mean? For that to be an idiom that defines a place?”

It is also on theme for an institution that grew, perhaps improbably, from a hopeful dream – a major gallery with international appeal in a city many non-Canadians have never heard of. Fraser has been thinking about putting this show together for years, dating back to before the move from the Mendel Art Gallery to what it is now, Remai Modern.

“Part of the thinking about it was building this building; the optimism of building this building,” Fraser says.

It is also an institution going through its own difficulties, with the resignation in 2018 of Gregory Burke, who served as executive director and chief executive during the transition from the Mendel to the Remai, followed by the departures of several board members. There is a continuing human-rights commission case involving Burke as well.

Next Year’s Country opens with Wally Dion’s Steel Star, 2009, referencing the eight-pointed star blanket of Ojibwa culture. The shiny steel surface announces this as a contemporary work, and urges the viewer to reflect on their own role in perpetuating stereotypes, including easy assumptions about Indigenous art.

From there, you head into the exhibition and through five galleries, each roughly themed around an idea painted subtly, low on one wall.

The first gallery, “grounding,” is anchored by three monumental landscape paintings. Gregory Hardy’s Bison in March, 2011, is a calm prairie landscape that feels endless.

Eleanor Bond’s Lake Community, 1994, at first glance appears to present a cluster of white crucifixes on the reddish landscape; in fact, they are airplanes, and this is a bird’s eye view of the land.

On the opposite wall, Edward Poitras’s Optional Modification in Six Parts, 2002, maps out a political statement in black and white and shades of grey. The title refers to a bill introduced in 1996 that would have made changes to the Indian Act. Many Indigenous leaders did not support Bill C-79 and it failed when Parliament was dissolved the next year. The Métis artist’s choice of material to represent settlers’ cabins, which multiplied around Last Mountain Lake, also serves as a metaphor. They are screws.

The next gallery, “a path here,” evokes a sense of isolation – railways, roads and paths through snow going somewhere; we’re not always sure where. In Ken Lum’s Cheeseburger, 2011, a worker at a Chinese-Canadian restaurant takes a break; a reminder in this context of the unforgiving work Chinese men did to build the railway, essential to populating this part of Canada.

The gallery titled “waiting” holds a single installation: Lynne Marsh’s Anna and the Tower, 2014. The video is set at a former Soviet airbase-turned commercial airport in Germany. The airport was attracting no business, but continued to employ an air-traffic controller. This represents the epitome of hope: Build it and they will come. (They never did; the airport ultimately shut down.)

There is a lot of whimsy in the “fragments of history” gallery, as in Grant Arnold and Randy Burton’s photographic series Finders, Keepers, 1982. They documented museums across the province, including community museums and their often wonderfully weird contents.

In the gallery “marking time,” Victor Cicansky’s Pink Pantry, 1981, appears on the surface to be a pretty display of clay pantry items. But this is not intended as a simple, homey scene; the work is a nod to the importance of urban ecology, food sovereignty and sustainability, Fraser explains.

Joseph Fafard’s Ceramic Bull, 1980, sits nearby, gazing past Jungen’s installation made with deer hide, VW fenders and Frigidaire freezer. It feels like the prairies.

If you are visiting the Remai, don’t miss the exhibition upstairs. The Sonnabend Collection presents more than 100 works from art dealer Ileana Sonnabend and her family’s remarkable private collection of modern and contemporary art. The exhibition features several works by Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and many others. It’s a Canadian first and the most comprehensive presentation of the collection in North America. Not bad for a museum built in a place once sustained by the hope that things can only get better.