Capturing the Ellipsis: the BNG 2012 Biennial of Contemporary Bermuda Art

By Lisa Howie Wednesday, December 12th, 2012 Categories: ARC, Biennales, Features, Updates

In preparation for their submissions to the exhibition, local artists (Bermudians, residing foreigners) often ask what is considered to be “contemporary”. How do they know that the international jurors (this year Naomi Beckwith and Christopher Cozier) will deem their submissions acceptable? It’s a tricky thing, this notion of the contemporary, a word that at once captures a time that bends. It’s not enough to say that simply work made today is indeed considered contemporary, and yet, the work is very much a creation of the present moment.

As the director I have no say in what gets selected for the exhibition. I organize the jurors, ensure that they have an engaging, critical experience; that before they leave the exhibition has a considered form; and that they are on the path to writing an essay for the catalogue. My overarching role is a manager, overseeing the selection of the submissions, casting an eye on the unfolding of an unplanned narrative on the present state of art in Bermuda within the narrow time frame between the day of submission to the exhibition’s conclusion. It is exclusive.

Fungus Art Collective- James Cooper & Russell de Moura. All Togeher, 2011, mixed media. Variable. Collection of the artists

The exhibition can also be defined by what it is not. It is not a survey. It does not speak on behalf of all of the various art groups, aesthetic practices, subjects, or medium on the Island. It does not communicate the history of art in Bermuda, posting signs at the leaders in the field. It does not acclaim. There are no prizes. No awards.

The curator, Sophie Cressall, has the unusual task of arranging an exhibition that she has not constructed. Gone is the critical question, the compelling motif. In this exercise, she must create an experience for the viewer to enter into the museum, navigate the various expressions and do so in a way that encourages intellectual or reflective links, while not compromising the intentions of each artist, of each unique expression. It is, as I have seen, a challenging exercise.

So what is the 2012 Bermuda Biennial? This year, had you visited, you would have first experienced the installation in the City Hall foyer, a Dr. Seuss like-illustration with draping men’s ties, colorful plastic streamers, simple tubing that appeared both caterpillar and whip awhirl– you could drop a ball at the top on the third floor and watch it descend through this playful journey of materials. This work, while representing the journey/ cycle of life, also represented a very new direction for the exhibition. For the first time a collective submitted a proposal for an installation. The artists, James Cooper & Russell de Moura (and their installation team) created an interactive, playful experience that while engaging in its own right, that purposefully interrupted the austerity of the City Hall foyer with its historical portraits and grand staircase.

I was delighted. Here was an opportunity to demonstrate the museum’s commitment to the contemporary: artists working in partnership; an interactive project that required different needs thanks to its interactivity; and irresolute solutions. How dare we encourage artists to take chances if we are unable to do so as an institution?

Inside the museum, we were met with a 30-foot cedar tree (Juniperus Bermudiana) suspended from the roof, emerging from the removed ceiling panels, extending entirely into the space, hovering several inches off the floor. A tree. On the Monday following the exhibition opening, word had gotten round that we had a cedar tree. It is illegal to cut down a cedar tree in Bermuda. These are our prized indigenous trees that through blights and industry are now regulated and protected. So it’s a big deal. But the investigation, led by a government personnel sought to give a five thousand dollar fine; he was rebuked by the posted sign indicating that the artist, Antoine A. R. Hunt had received the tree from the agency’s sibling department: this was a Parks and Conservation internal debate. Once again art challenged the institution.

Antoine A.R.Hunt. Deconstruction Forest, 2011. Tree, Metal Staples, Screws and Glue. 180" x 60". Collection of the artist

Children entered the space and gasped. Adults shuddered. The tree had been dissected– not simply pulled from its roots and shoved back into the space, but sawed apart, section by vivisection the tree had been destroyed of its vitality then carefully, shrewdly, reconstructed in a most unwholesome location. Long gone the soil, the light. Held together with bolts, dripping Gorilla glue, staples, its limbs mismatched. When I saw the proposal I thought. When I saw the work I hurt.

Art can do this– enter into the body, move through the mind’s eye and take hold of an emotion (if we let it) to register somewhere that may feel uncomfortable in the public space. How often do we pause to think? To reflect?

What really matters?

Michael Walsh is interested in this too. The word ‘nothing’ pervades the language to describe his portfolio and yet the objects are heavy with pondering, weighty with considered and fine execution, meditative in their ambiguous meanings. In the corner, an enlarged wooden amulet, populated with railway spikes, corroded post-firing, resting against the wall with both calm and conflict. If this piece could talk, I’d love to hear its story. And yet the person who hears is not a universal. Walsh’s work speaks a certain language or, perhaps, speaks to a particular mindset. The portfolio is rooted in philosophical considerations, one that is reductive, purposefully shedding away to reveal not the lack but the being.

This is the second iteration. When Michael set fire to the first piece, the heat transmitted by the railway ties entirely consumed the piece, undocumented. I remember this unseen piece. Its soul is in this new work, equally painstakingly rendered, ironically entitled, We Did Nothing.

Michael Walsh. We Did Nothing, 2011. Wood, Iron Spikes, fire. 72" x 36" x 24". Collection of the artist

So where are the women artists, you ask?

Dany Pen astutely interrogates the construct of history and memory in her mixed media film installation Erasures. The viewer adorns a headset, one of four, and looks down on a screen that shows a sepia portrait of a man in a communist style jacket and cap, while an unseen persona vigorously attempts to erase the visage from the paper. We hear her breathing; we feel her angst. We watch her hand, (or is it our hand?) attempting to erase the face. Just above is a clear tiny vessel containing what we must assume are the erasures from this fraught exercise. History, memory cannot be erased. Here is the attempted capitulation of those capital killers, the Khmer Rouge regime, who annihilated the artist’s family, their history, their future. We come to the piece unknowing that we will soon share in this tragedy. It is a profound expression.

Dany Pen. Erasures. Digital, Mixed Media, 24" x 48" x16", 2011. Collection of the artist

Here is an example of where the Bermuda Biennial transcends borders, moves so very far away from this mid-Atlantic geography/ history and enters into the global narrative. The politic surrounding Pen’s past is not a dead history. Neither for the survivors or their families, nor for the mass of humanity presently submitted to the ills of dictatorship, to the tyranny of power poorly matched to man.

In a very different expression, Louisa Flannery explores identity using her own hair as the body of a character fondly named Hairy Bear, Scary Bear; hairy yes, scary not quite, as the figure generally stays within a few inches dimension or less. Flannery draws extremely well, bringing her character to life with the face of a raging squirrel or aggressive shark, each evoking a very passionate emotion, each begging a story to be told. I imagine Flannery’s work in a book; each 4”x 6” portrait accompanied by their potential narrative.

Louisa Flannery. Untitled (an experiment in integrity). 2011/12. Hair, Ink, Gouache, Paper. Collection of the artist

What makes this project exceptional is how it is situated in the exhibition. For the first time, an artist is given an active studio space with which to explore, visit weekly, build on ideas, engage with the public, share with us her sketches and leave behind her mugs with tired tea bags. We enter the space tentatively, feeling a bit like we are intruding. And then after a brief moment, we begin to explore closely, sharing in this privileged encounter with the artist.

There is, or was, more to the exhibition than this, but I sway from getting descriptive in a survey way. Not just because I am soon out of word limit, but this is unjust to the exhibition which itself is not a survey.

As a director I want to see this exhibition move. From my biased point of view, the artwork in the 2012 Bermuda Biennial has legs. I believe it has the potential to engage audiences beyond our shores. I envision it, or parts of it, fitting well with another island context, or any city for that matter. The works are not narrow in subject, nor tedious in expression. Finding a way to share the work beyond the island returns to the contemporary element. My involvement must be to push the boundaries of this museum’s walls, find a museum/ gallery partner with whom to share the work, discover innovative ways to articulate the exhibition beyond that found in the City Hall, Hamilton, Bermuda architecture. To do so is my commitment to the Bermuda Biennial’s underlying criteria: to be an expression of the contemporary moment.

Lisa Howie
Lisa Howie

Lisa Howie is the Executive Director of the Bermuda National Gallery (BNG). For her, the Bermuda Biennial exhibition shapes a significant dialogue on the Island’s contemporary art scene and she is determined to see local artists gain greater international exposure.