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Canadian artists making an impact

Prestigious Bienniale in Sydney has global influence

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Canada's top visual artists are set to make waves Down Under this week. Not only are 12 Canadians exhibiting their work in Australia at one of the largest and longest-running exhibitions in the world, but the 18th Sydney Biennale is also partly organized by Gerald McMaster, the Frederik S. Eaton curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

"Canadian artists are definitely on par with every other artist around the world," McMaster says over the phone from Sydney, where the Bienniale is set to open Wednesday and is expected to attract more than 500,000 visitors.

"When others look at you, they immediately think of Canada as this large, northern country with a northern climate, and perhaps that comes out, a minimalist sensibility, born out of our weather," the event's co-artistic director adds. "Also, Canada is a country that is totally multicultural, so you might have artists who are mixing cultures and sensibilities."

In addition to the Canadians in Australia, other homegrown artists are making their presence known at major art events around the world, including Documenta, Germany's prestigious exhibition that takes place every five years.

"Many Canadians have been some of the art world's biggest secrets. Now they're starting to be recognized and placed in a context where their work can be understood," says Matthew Teitelbaum, the AGO's director and CEO, who is also in Sydney for the Biennale.

Teitelbaum attributes the increase in Canada's global influence partly to curators. He cites McMaster, who acted as the Canadian commissioner to the XLVI Venice Biennale in 1995, and Kitty Scott, director of visual arts at the Banff Centre, who was an adviser to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, artistic director of Documenta, which runs until mid-September.

"You're seeing a new generation of Canadian curators positioning themselves more ambitiously internationally," Teitelbaum says. "And there are a generation of Canadian artists -- Jeff Wall, former Winnipegger Marcel Dzama, Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller -- who've gone into the international context and who have advocated for other Canadian artists. It's sort of like a current in an ocean where you see the forces."

Against the proliferation of biennial exhibitions, which number in the hundreds around the world, the Sydney Biennale stands as the third oldest and the largest in the Asia-Pacific region; it remains a strong arbiter of what is on the cutting-edge of contemporary art.

McMaster and his co-artist director -- Belgium-born Catherine de Zegher, who was director of exhibitions and publications at the AGO -- chose to spotlight many lesser-known artists this year, and artists whose work is designed to interact with the audience. "Early on, we were thinking of artists like Ed Pien, for example, collaborating with another artist from Berlin. Ed started to collaborate with Tanya Tagaq, who is the visual artist and renowned throat singer from the North," McMaster says.

Montreal's Erin Manning is one of the Canadian artists who has brought her work to the three-month-long exhibition. Her experimental work Slow Clothes invites participants to put their clothing together into a single pieces of fabric. Toronto architect Philip Beesley, whose plant-like technology appears as delicate white fronds that respond to human presence, will also display his work.

"Ten years ago, you would've said the art world was centred on New York, London and Paris," Teitelbaum says. "Now you come to Sydney and there are artists from well over 25 countries; they're working with materials that are unusual and they're dealing with ideas that are specific to their experience. Now there are many art markets and many audiences.

"The Sydney Biennale tells us how big the art world and how connected it is."

The Sydney Biennale opened June 27 and runs until Sept. 16. For more information, visit bos18.com .

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2012 D3

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