On August 25, 2006, Egypt’s antiquities council performed an impressive feat: officials moved a 36-foot-tall, 3,200-year-old seated statue of Ramses II through Cairo’s streets, from Ramses Square to the Giza Plateau, in one piece. Tens of thousands of civilians lined the streets and photographed Ramses’s eight-mile journey on flatbed trucks; also documenting the chaotic scene was artist David Gheron Tretiakoff, who edited his handheld footage to create “A God Passing” (2007).
Currently on view in this year’s Biennale de Montréal, the video is one of the most striking works in an exhibition that explores our experiences of viewing. As I noted in my photo essay, beauty and violence are at the heart of Le Grand Balcon (The Grand Balcony), a title that curator Philippe Pirotte drew from Jean Genet’s play Le Balcon, which is set in a house of pleasure during a time of revolution. But across the city, many works by the 55 participating international artists also deal with the possibilities, limitations, and consequences of spectacle and spectatorship.
“A God Passing,” screening at the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) — which is home to the majority of the show — pulls together all these threads. Tretiakoff’s vantage point, though unassuming, highlights the surreality of Ramses’s public parade. Confined in a steel cage and protected by plastic, the statue glides silently past a crowd that whistles, cheers, and waves flags. His migration from the pollution-heavy square to his new, sterile home — the future site of the Grand Egyptian Museum — was a huge event, broadcasted live. It took four years to plan; officials even created an exact replica and rehearsed the journey.
Tension fills this massive, expensive production. We watch, wondering if this irreplaceable ancient artifact will survive the trip. For Egyptians, the move was further charged by the opportunity to vocalize ideas while authorities stood by. Politics clashed in the open: Tretiakoff trains his lens on people chanting, “long live Egypt!” and on others calling for the release of political dissident Ayman Nour. One protestor criticizes the government’s embrace of Islam at the expense of rejecting its Pharaonic history; some people debate him, while others remain silent but unnerved. More than parading a massive statue, the 10-hour procession made the city pause. Civilians witnessed and participated in open conversations, under the gaze of Ancient Egypt’s most powerful monarch. In the wall text, Tretiakoff even asks: “Can the removal of Ramses be seen as the starting shot of the revolution in the Middle East?”
Le Grand Balcon urges such awareness of our own agencies while looking. Outside the room with “A God Passing” is Luis Jacob‘s “Sphinx,” installed in MAC’s rotunda. The sculpture is actually a take on the classical nude, but it channels the enigma of its titular beast. A tongue-in-cheek, modern-day corruption of the established vision of ideal beauty, Jacob’s man stands headless and frames his surroundings with his hands. As the first biennial work to greet visitors to the museum, “Sphinx” is a conspicuous prompt to think about our position as viewers and how we form meaning within certain frameworks.
Projects that engage with historical imagery abound in Le Grand Balcon, which drew inspiration from the oldest artwork on view: a circa 1540 portrait of a woman acquitted of witchcraft by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The story of “Portrait of a Lady” — which is a refreshing addition to a contemporary art exhibition — frames the conflicts of looking that the biennial explores: Cranach’s sitter wears heavy, gleaming chains with an ornate brocade dress, but she was supposedly originally painted as one of history’s famed, plucky ladies who decapitated men (i.e. Judith or Salome). It’s a picture of restrained beauty, tinged with a violence that makes it strangely alluring.
Pirotte has deliberately hung the German Renaissance painting in a room where pleasure and perversion fight for your attention. The most immediate entrapments are long, snakeskin-like sculptures formed from interlocking enamel plates. Created by Elaine Cameron-Weir, they hang from the ceiling like ceremonial banners, held up by a pulley system that’s anchored by sandbags. Their sheen is seductive, but, caught in this moment of suspension, they are also ominous, threatening to collapse from their palpable weight. Steel clips and mesh screens hold the sculptures together, lending them an unexpected delicateness and lightness.
The most ethereal works in this gallery are by Luc Tuymans and the late Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin. Tuymans’s series of new paintings, Doha, is rendered in shimmering, watery blues, but portrays empty walls at Qatar Museums Gallery Al Riway — lonely, melancholic scenes. Directly across the expansive room, Alptekin’s photographs are more joyous. Capturing, in film-like progression, blowing curtains and flouncy dresses bathed in breathtaking light, the images record fleeting moments of quotidian beauty. Pirotte has balanced these with Alptekin’s graphic captures of wet cupping therapy, pictures that steadily scrutinize a practice some might find unsettling.
There’s a lovely and subtle visual rhythm, though, that exists between those photographs and a painting by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, hanging near the Cranach. “Thread” (2012) depicts a woman kissing her lover’s naked back, her mouth delivering a healing touch of another kind. The pairing of these similar gestures draws out the intimacy underlying the seeming violence of Alptekin’s photographs. It’s one instance in the exhibition that reveals the mutability of perception.
Just as Alptekin prolonged moments to retrain our eyes, so too does Luke Willis Thompson, with a video that stirs tension and even discomfort. The most understated work in Le Grand Balcon, his “Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries” (2016) is arresting and deeply moving in its visual simplicity. The four-minute-long video — which takes its title from a series by Marcel Duchamp — replicates the style and technical specifications of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, showing two black men who stare silently at us. They remain still, their blinks and discernible breathing the only signs that this is a moving-image work. People of color are largely absent from Warhol’s famous videos; here, the individuals’ steadfast gazes demand acknowledgement.
But there’s more to it. As wall text explains, these men are descendants of women killed by police in their homes in Britain in 1985 and 1993. Today, incidents of police brutality against black individuals flash across our screens; the unwavering stares of Thompson’s sitters remind us that these acts are not new. “Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries” asserts that exclusion from representation is a form of violence, inviting us to become spectators with agency and awareness. These men who represent victims of racism are present on the screen, but countless others have not been seen or had their voices heard.
Thompson’s black-and-white imagery came to mind when I saw Kerry James Marshall’s new series of light-box comics at the Musée des Beaux Arts, one of the biennial’s satellite venues. A continuation of his Rythm Mastr series, the ink drawings include some frames as insistent as Thompson’s, with closely cropped characters staring at you, posing questions that resonate far beyond their panels. Glowing on one wall in an expansive room, they freeze vignettes of black urban life in a format that’s direct and easy to consume, although the messages might not be. Marshall is known for using intense black to color his African American subjects as an assertion of their presence in the historically white canon of art history. Here, rendered through light boxes, those contrasts are pushed to the extreme and the assertion amplified.
These works are particularly powerful for their quietness; where dynamism also succeeds in conveying the violence of seeing is in Nicole Eisenman’s recent paintings at MAC. Hanging side by side, her large images of gunmen, rigidly rendered, are petrifying: the barrels of their weapons align with their eyes and aim directly at the viewer with fierce intention. The message is immediate; you can almost hear the trigger cock and sense the fatal shot.
Tanya Lukin Linklater similarly explores the ethics of the gaze. Her installation “He was a poet and he taught us how to react and to become this poetry Part 1″ centers on Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina. Linklater projects, on a low stage, a video of Tallchief discussing her role in George Balanchine’s Firebird; the space comes alive further when dancers perform “Part 2” of the piece on top of the projection.
While Thompson and Marshall make bodies and histories painfully present, Linklater works with their absence: she presents a space that anticipates performance. With dancers appearing only periodically, the installation prods us to contemplate how an institution might structure our gaze and, consequently, how looking might objectify indigenous women’s bodies in particular. Even on its own, the video is difficult to view clearly: screening essentially on the floor, it appears stretched, making our vision continuously skewed.
The interplay between the absence and presence of bodies arises again in two stimulating sculptural installations by Haegue Yang and Valérie Blass, respectively. Occupying central spaces in separate galleries, both compel you to slow down and discover pleasure in the sensory experiences that are offered.
Yang uses simple materials such as artificial straw, twine, and plastic plants to construct anthropomorphic, highly textured sculptures. They reward close examination, revealing enticing details as you circle each one. Balanced on casters and often integrating small bells, they also suggest performance, an effect reinforced by their setup between two wooden constructions that resemble stage backdrops. Thriving on artifice, Yang’s installation celebrates the fanciful within its self-contained world. It also makes you reconsider the source of pleasure in performance: how much arises from the props versus the actions or even the spectator?
Blass presents a new series of sculptures: voluminous pieces that are cast from humans and objects and suggest invisible bodies — from a pair of pants worn by a phantom dancer to green sacks that recall a drug smuggler’s pockets. Bulges allude to sensual and illicit pleasures, but Blass relies on optical delight, too; she relishes bright and busy patterns and teases our eye. As with Yang’s figures, seeing these semi-abstract forms from multiple angles delivers pleasurable surprises. The experience feels indulgent, stoking our senses even as we grapple with understanding the objects’ meanings.
Hedonism was at the core of what was perhaps the biennial’s most buzzed-about work: Anne Imhof’s “Angst III,” the final chapter of the German artist’s three-part performance that previously unfolded during this year’s Art Basel and Berlin Art Week — both largely to rave reviews. A four-hour-long undertaking, “Angst III” involved six performers moving around a runway in a fog-filled room, five live falcons that sat still on perches, many cans of shaving cream, numerous tubs of Vaseline, and cigarettes. Structured as an opera (with emphasis on the word’s Latin roots that mean “work”), the epic piece involved hypnotic, droning compositions to which the performers moved their limbs very slowly — when they were not marching through the room, smoking, rubbing Vaseline on their skin, or shaving each others’ bodies with utter apathy.
When I saw the falcons engulfed in smoke, I was set to detest the piece for exploiting the exotic. (I was later told that the birds are a-okay, although many people will undoubtedly have their gripes.) But “Angst III,” which allows visitors to drift in and out of the room as they wish, kept me affixed. Its performers’ mystifying actions were utterly banal and self-absorbed, but the hazy yet sterile setting felt cinematic, otherworldly, and somehow unplaceable along any spectrum of time. Tension hung heavily in the air; the minutes slowed to allow every sight to sink in. I felt placed under a spell that confounded yet satisfied with the utmost perversion.
The question of whether such hedonism is possible today, in a world fraught with pressing anxieties, was one of Pirotte’s central concerns in organizing Le Grand Balcon. Or, posed more bluntly in the recent words of the Wall Street Journal‘s Sohrab Ahmari, “Remember when art was supposed to be beautiful?” Ahmari yearns for a time when art was free of identity politics and pure spectacle; at the biennial, these aspects are, unsurprisingly, still at play, but rarely at the expense of visual appeal. Beauty (which is, of course, subjective) is not incompatible with the questioning of privilege and power, as exemplified in pieces by Thompson and Linklater. Le Grand Balcon suggests that the prettiest visuals may be those that shake our perceptions with brute force.
We were left, at the end of “Angst III,” with piles of shaving cream, cast-off cigarettes, and crushed soda cans. Imhof’s enchantment ended in material debris. The stage was an unsightly mess — and a perfect symbol of what 21st-century capitalism consumes and spits out. It was a lingering vision of waste and excess that stung with unflinching realness.
Le Grand Balcon, the 2016 Biennale de Montréal, continues at various locations around the city through January 15, 2017.