MONTRÉAL — The oldest work at this year’s Biennale de Montréal dates to before the concept of the biennial was even born: Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “Portrait of a Lady.” The circa 1540 depiction of Sidonie of Saxony, a duchess charged with, then acquitted of witchery, is a peculiar inclusion for an exhibition of international contemporary art. Yet, the oil painting hangs in a prominent place at the Biennale’s main venue, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC), as its evocation of beauty and violence served for curator Philippe Pirotte as a jumping off point for the exhibition, reflecting the concerns and fascinations at the heart of it.
Titled Le Grand Balcon, the Biennale, which opened this week, embraces the sensual and intends to question whether hedonism is still possible today. Its name arrives from another non-contemporary work involved in spectacle and excess: Jean Genet’s 1957 play, Le Balcon, set largely within a brothel catering to the affluent. While the vast majority of works are at MAC, the Biennale is spread across seven venues, with talks and performances held at 12 others; although its title may suggest it, the displays are not extravagant sensory overloads, but laid out sparsely in generous, open spaces.
With 55 participating artists (nearly half are female) from 23 countries (18 are Canadian), concepts related to luxury, of course, play out broadly at the Biennale in various ways and media. Many projects focus, in some way, on the materiality and aesthetic pleasure of objects: the heavy chain on Cranach’s figure, for instance, echoes the weight of giant, enamel snakeskin sculptures by Elaine Cameron-Weir draped seductively but ominously from the ceiling of the same room. Just as the Biennale drew inspiration from two historical sources, thoughtful artistic engagements with time and historic material are also prevalent; in his opening remarks, Pirotte contrasted Le Grand Balcon with the Berlin Biennale, which he described as “extremely naive” for considering only the present, and spoke of how many included works hold power for their historical resonance. I found this particularly true of video works by Luke Willis Thompson — which critique Andy Warhol — and by David Gheron Tretiakoff — which chronicles a surreal but true event centered on an ancient statue of Ramses.
While Le Grand Balcon does feature a number of old or widely known artworks — I enjoyed the unexpected Cranach, but found Isa Genzken‘s clothed mannequins unnecessary — it offers its own form of pleasure with the premiere of 35 new works in various media. Leaving the themes of the Biennale aside, many of these stand out as the most memorable, from Kerry James Marshall‘s lightbox comics of black life in the city to eight suggestive sculptures by Valérie Blass to a mystifying performance of endurance by Anne Imhof. Overall, many of the works are like traps: alluring and beautiful, but biting in some form.
Le Grand Balcon, the 2016 Biennale de Montréal, continues through January 15, 2017 at various locations around the city.