TORONTO — In bright neon, a work by Kendell Geers, spelling out the word BELIEVE, flickering on and off, revealing the letters ‘L-I-E,’ shines at the entry to the rebranded Museum of Contemporary Art. This long-awaited art home was formerly known as the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. Perhaps, the museum opted to drop a ‘C’ for efficiency, or presumably as a nod to a more international program.
I met curator David Liss two weeks before MOCA’s reopening. “I didn’t move from Montreal to open up a contemporary art museum in a garage,” he said during our interview. Walking throughout the newly renovated MOCA, set inside the former Tower Automotive Building, one gets the sense this is what Toronto needs. Not exactly a Tate Modern, but certainly on par. Toronto has lacked a proper space for contemporary art for as long as I can remember.
None of the usual suspects can hit the high notes. The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is constrained by its facade. And the Power Plant offers few surprises. Neither have put on particularly noteworthy shows in recent years. All the more reason to celebrate MOCA’s reopening. Since its closure in 2015, contemporary art has been severely lackluster in Toronto.
Toronto needs MOCA, and it needs it here, in the East Junction. Located in a former automotive factory — a massive five-story tower that dominates the local skyline — only a block away from a Nestlé candy bar factory, a new outpost of the Drake hotel, a restaurant chain, and the chic Henderson Brewery, the area has long been a mecca for artistic activity, albeit in the midst of one of Canada’s most rapidly gentrifying cities.
Rapidly rising rents led to the shuttering of the former MOCCA on Queen Street West. At which point, Liss — who has been the institution’s principal steward for 18 years — set about finding a new building for the venerable institution. He set his sights on the Junction Triangle. The same area where Kent Monkman — arguably Canada’s most important painter — maintained a studio for years. Now, however, skyrocketing real estate has made Toronto an unaffordable dream for many young artists, a reality Liss and many others are keenly aware of.
When I asked Liss if he was worried about being priced out of the area as had happened on Queen West, he explained that MOCA’s new lease was negotiated in good-faith for 40 years. The development company who owns the building, Castlepoint, also owns the large site around MOCA, which they plan on developing into a mixed use residential, commercial, and artistic hub.
The ground floor of the new MOCA includes a bookstore that is being run by Art Metropole, which on opening weekend appeared scant with few notable titles, save for a small table, and one small shelf. I presume the printed matter on offer will steadily grow and expand.
On the second and third floors of the gallery, the inaugural exhibition in the new space — Believe — offers some hint of the direction the institution will go. Medium centricity does not reign supreme. Instead, Liss and the newly formed curatorial team — including November Paynter, the British born curator who many will remember from her years working at SALT in Istanbul, and Nahed Mansour — have made it a point to focus on substance over style.
That sentiment manifests in a healthy mix of local and international names, including Barbara Kruger, well known for massive wall-texts, which in MOCA’s case spell out: “Doubt,” “Believe,” and “Sanity,” mixed with two small textual equations: “Forever + Fearing” and “Forever = Fearing.”
In Jeremy Shaw’s “Quickeners” (2014), belief is treated with a kind of shamanic twist. In a video remixed from a 1967 ethnographic documentary called Holy Ghost People — chronicling the performative rituals of a Pentecostal church community engaged in snake handling, speaking in tongues, and singing — Shaw chops and screws the voices into barely recognizable murmurs. Then, he interposes narrated subtitles that invoke a kind of William Gibson-esque, speculative, near-future, spiritual ritual.
In Liquor Store Theatre by Maya Stovall, a series of performances and interviews the artist conducted with people in Detroit unfolds, a series of screens are displayed in the gallery that dispel mainstream media myths about urban ghettos, and with it the ability of dance to transform these environments. For her PhD, Stovall filmed herself dancing and interviewing Detroiters outside the city’s ubiquitous liquor stores, documentation of which is presented on the third floor.
While in Awol Erizku’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (2017), two iconic revolutionary symbols stand staring down one another, and are displayed near the entrance. The sculptural installation is of the Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, juxtaposed with the emblem of the Black Panther Party, a visual reference I read in relation to themes like colonialism and gender.
On the fourth floor, Paynter has introduced a programmed community building concept – Art in Use. She explains: “I worked for some years with the Association of Arte Util during SALT’s participation in the L’Internationale Confederation of Museums, and I really wanted to network in these international partners, artists, and academics with the local artists and the art scene of Toronto and Canada. Art in Use allows us to create bridges and mentorship opportunities by working with artists who strongly engage with societal issues and concerns. The studios managed by Akin Projects add working practices into this mix with production and process happening in real time in the space.”
There, a group called , Akin have partnered with MOCA to offer rental space to 30 visual artists and cultural practitioners at affordable rates.is managing artists’ studios that are being subsidized and are available for lease to local artists in the community. Starting from as small as 25 square feet, and expanding to as large as 200
Leaving MOCA, I trekked across this rapidly developing area with trepidation and skepticism. Just weeks prior to MOCA’s opening, a $45 ticket Banksy show — which was criticized as inauthentic by Banksy theyself — had just opened next door to MOCA’s gritty new industrial home. It’s an all-too familiar pattern. In the words of Lee Reed, a Canadian rapper: “first you get the artists, then you get the coffee, then you get developers in waves like zombies, then you get the taco, then you get the condo, then you gotta go cause it’s not for you yo.”