Illusions are real: Quebec City's art biennial returns with a nod to the politics of post-truth
Manif d'art is back for 2022 with a timely focus on illusions
It's happening a year late, but the fact it's happening at all is cause for celebration. Manif d'art 10 (The Quebec City Biennial) opened Feb. 19, and as the only winter biennial in North America, its return would seem to herald an optimistic start to this year's event calendar.
Biennials (or biennales, depending on your spelling preferences) — those contemporary-art exhibitions that draw artists and (jet-set) audiences to varying hubs around the world — would seem to be surviving the pandemic. The Toronto Biennial of Art is ready to launch March 26, to give you a Canadian example. And the one that started it all, the prestigious Venice Biennale, begins on April 23.
As for the situation in Quebec City, there was no splashy launch reception for Manif d'art this past weekend, the sort of thing where out-of-towners might mix and mingle while touring the 34 exhibition sites. Because while the program features work by more than 100 artists — Canadian and international names alike — relatively few are expected to make an appearance during opening week.
Steven Matijcio, this year's guest curator, made the trip. Originally from Toronto, Matijcio is the director and chief curator at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, and he worked with the Manif d'art team remotely from Texas. (His first IRL walkthrough was on the Wednesday before opening.)
Only four or five outside artists will be in attendance for Manif d'art's kick-off, he estimates. "That does feel a little strange," says Matijcio. "Typically all of the artists are here for the opening weekends, and there we come together; we celebrate."
The lead-up and the opening certainly looks different than it has in the past, but I think that the organizers here are certainly trying to maintain all of those programs that have made Manif d'art what it is.- Steven Matijcio, guest curator, Manif d'art 10
Like any biennial, Manif d'art's raison d'etre is to bring local artists — and art — in dialogue with people and ideas from elsewhere. "I'm all for online virtual rooms and VR tours of exhibitions, but it's so crucial to be here in person," says Matijcio. "I want everyone … to see those artworks in person and to have that sort of physical confrontation with all of these pieces — and for us to be able to discuss and debate and confront them."
He's hopeful that will eventually happen, though. There's discussion of doing an event, maybe a closing party, depending on how the pandemic evolves. The biennial runs to April 24.
"The lead-up and the opening certainly looks different than it has in the past, but I think that the organizers here are certainly trying to maintain all of those programs that have made Manif d'art what it is."
What is happening at Manif d'art?
Of all the programming, which includes exhibitions at partner galleries throughout the city, Manif d'art's centrepiece is a group exhibition at the Musée National des Beaux-arts du Quebec (MNBAQ). The show taps into the biennial's curatorial theme — "illusions are real" — and features a variety of works meant to trick the eye and mess with your general grasp on reality.
Inside the museum's Pierre Lassonde Pavilion, visitors will find a metal skull (with a nose to rival Pinocchio's) that appears to hover in space. (It's not magic — magnets are involved — and it's a sculpture by Montreal's Maskull Lasserre.)
Open Black Box, a 2006 installation by American artist Tom Friedman, makes reality seem like a Tilt Brush screencap. The installation mimics a graphical drawing of a cube, one that's been sketched into real space. It is, in actuality, an assemblage of strategically hung bits of construction paper.
A variety of video works play with an increasingly ordinary sort of trickery: deep-fake technology. And Blue Monochrome (a 2003 work by past Sobey Art Award-winner Michel de Broin) seems like a backyard DIY project that really should have trended during the first year of the pandemic. The piece is a dumpster-turned-hot-tub.
What is the biennial's theme about?
"Illusions are real." It's a topic Matijcio selected in 2019, informed by his interest in trompe l'oeil artwork. The genre felt uniquely timely, he says, especially given his perspective as a Canadian living in Trump's America. "A torrent of lies and fabrications and inventions just became the everyday reality in the U.S.," he says. "The political punctuation of being and living through the thick of the post-truth era I think crystallized the idea for me."
Matijcio's edition of Manif d'art was originally scheduled to open in 2021. But the theme has only become more relevant with time, he says. One example: "You can't deny that the pandemic is everywhere around us, and yet people do! There is rampant misinformation and anti-vax conspiracies and all these things, which seems to me has punctuated this even further. We are very deeply embedded into this post-truth environment."
Manif d'art also includes a public-art program
Illusions are indeed everywhere at Manif d'art, including on the street, and public art projects can be found at 12 locations around the city. Against the Run, a topsy-turvy street clock by the Berlin-based artist Alicja Kwade, should confound anyone passing through Places d'Armes — especially if they're wondering what time it is.
At Place Ste-Foy, Le Grand Boum, a new installation by Dutch artist Gabriel Lester, invites visitors to pass through a sort of rainbow tunnel, an illusion created by hanging layer upon layer of colourful netting.
And a word of warning to anyone wandering around the Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Site in the next few weeks: if you think you see someone hanging from a tree — wrapped in a cocoon — don't panic. It's (probably) a sculpture by American artist Mark Jenkins.
Will an art biennial bring tourists back to Quebec City?
According to the organizers of Manif d'art, 263,900 visitors attended their ninth edition in 2019 — and 20 per cent of those art-lovers came from outside of Quebec City. That attendance figure doesn't account for the number of people who would have gawked at any of the public-art projects, however, and notably, the 2019 biennial launched on the same day as the Carnaval de Quebec. (The 2022 version of that winter tradition wrapped Feb. 13 with some COVID-safe adjustments.)
2019 was also a record-breaking year for Quebec City tourism — a rep for Destination Québec cité says almost 8 million visitors travelled to the provincial capital that year. And though 2020 put much of the industry on pause, they say they expect growth in 2022. (Pre-pandemic, 53 per cent of tourists travelled there from within the province; Americans accounted for 11 per cent and Ontarians for nearly 6 per cent.)
"Manif d'art is positioned in a way that is supposed to generate cultural tourism in Quebec City and, you know, it's tapping into the other winter festivals that take place here," says Matijcio.
"I'm really hoping that there are no more variants out there, and that we can continue to gather over the course of this biennial," he says. "To me, that's where everything comes alive."
When is Manif d'art on?
The biennial continues at venues throughout Quebec City to April 24. More information can be found at www.manifdart.org.