Artists delineate and decolonize the borders between people, places and psyches

Art by Gregory Beatty

Borderline: 2020 Biennial of Contemporary Art
Remai Modern
Until Feb. 14

There’s a tradition in the art world of holding gala biennials (or biennales) every two years to showcase hot artists and curators and generate buzz about visual art. Venice, Sydney and Sao Paulo are probably the best known — but there are literally dozens.

With Borderline, which opened at Remai Modern on Sept. 26, Saskatchewan joins the list.

It’s not a standalone biennial, as its being done in partnership with Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, which has been doing an Alberta biennial since 1996. And it’s only a one off, as the Remai has no plans to hold a second biennial in 2022. But it’s still significant.

Remai collections curator Sandra Fraser and guest curator Felicia Gay were the Saskatchewan curators, while Lindsey Sharman and Franchesca Hebert-Spence represented the AGA. Together, they assembled a roster of 34 artists and collectives which have been split between the galleries for shows in Saskatoon and Edmonton.

Fraser says the theme originated with Sharman.

“When she was looking at the idea of geographical borders in Alberta, she thought ‘Well, Edmonton’s on Treaty Six. Saskatoon is on Treaty Six. So maybe we can think about borders in a different way’.

“That led her to flesh out the idea of how we define borders,” says Fraser. “Our gallery wasn’t necessarily interested in initiating a biennial but I loved the idea of being able to showcase prairie artists and build our relationship with the AGA.”

Contested Territory

Saskatchewan and Alberta didn’t become provinces until 1905. Treaty Six was signed in 1876, so it predates the creation of the provincial border. That adds a unique dimension to the show, says Gay — currently a curatorial fellow at MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, and past curator at Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

“It really counters what the national imaginary is with respect to colonial borders,” Gay says. “It’s a way of allowing artists, if they chose, to decentre that narrative. If you think of actual borders, and who is allowed to pass and who isn’t, it’s a really rich concept.”

From the rise of nationalist authoritarians such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Boris Johnson and Nahrendra Modi, to refugees fleeing violence and oppression, the global struggle against climate change, the current pandemic and more, borders have become highly contested territory in the early 21st century.

“While the growth of fascism is a longer arc, there are particular flashpoints,” says Fraser. “It’s the same with colonialism, racism and the environment, they have longer arcs too. So as a curator, it’s about thinking as broadly and richly as you can, so that it’s specific, but not so specific that it loses its edge through the shorter arc of the exhibition.”

For humans right now, solving the many vexing “border issues” we’re facing is definitely proving to be a challenge. And that factored into the curators’ thinking too, says Gay.

“How do you reduce anxiety so you can remove those borders that are so entrenched, but that have to change?” she says. “The artists we were drawn to were those who looked really critically at borders. We didn’t say anything to make them go in any direction, but there were artists who did think critically about it.”

While political borders are probably most prominent in the public mind, borders come in many other forms. Within cities, for instance, there are socioeconomic borders between rich and poor neighbourhoods (with police serving as internal border control). On a personal or psychological level, borders can exist too. Sometimes, we erect them ourselves. Other times, such as with negative stereotypes, they can be imposed on people.

“As an Indigenous person, I recognize that identity is very nuanced and complex — especially being part of a colonized country,” says Gay.

As much as some Canadians might wish to deny or dismiss the many borders colonization has erected between Indigenous and settler populations, they still exist. Sometimes, as with the Colten Boushie case in 2016, and the March shooting deaths of Jake Sansom and Maurice Cardinal while hunting in northern Alberta, they even flare into violence.

“That sort of violence, because of the notion that it’s ‘not your land, and you’re trespassing’, is terrifying,” says Gay. “For myself, when I drive up north for six hours with my children to visit my family, I can’t help but think ‘What if I run out of gas or have a flat tire?’ I can’t just go knock on some farmer’s door, it could be my life at stake.”

Meta Borders

Rather than grounding their work in real-world concerns, some artists took a more metaphysical approach to borders, says Fraser.

“Their stance is more poetic and thinking about the space between dreaming and being awake, or between life and death. So there are other kinds of borders that are more within the subconscious or unconscious realm.”

While we mostly think of borders as something we cross, they aren’t null spaces. They do have a dimension to them and that’s reflected in the show too, says Gay.

“I wrote about that in my essay, and was thinking about bell hooks and how she talks about the margin as a site of resistance,” Gay says. “I also thought about Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s idea of ‘borderscape’, where the border is a site of transformation and change. That really interested me, not just talking about borders as these lines, but something you can embody, where it becomes a place of power.”

If you scan the artist roster for the Saskatoon and Edmonton shows, many familiar names such as Bill Burns, Wally Dion, Heather Benning, Cindy Baker and Thirza Jean Cuthand jump out.

As an added bonus, most have produced new work for the show, says Fraser

“The fun thing about the biennale structure is it’s an invitation to make new work,” Fraser says. “When artists answer a public call, they might have a specific work they’re proposing, or they might just have an idea which we discuss during a studio visit and figure out what sounds achievable and exciting to work on. So at least 75 per cent of the show is new work.”

Photo credit: Lisa Birke The Land of Milk and Honey (2020)