Oh, America

As galleries across Canada tentatively consider hosting the largest exhibition of Canadian art—Oh, Canada—in 2014, Lizzy Hill catches the closing party and a glimpse of what might cross our borders

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Daniel Barrow's installation - LIZZY HILL
  • Lizzy Hill
  • Daniel Barrow's installation

"License and registration please."

A mountie with a hard beer gut is sauntering towards our car, pen and ticket book in hand. I can tell by the height of his fur beaver hat and purposeful stride that arguing this one is useless—I didn't even know they gave speeding tickets for $400. That's like... rent. This wasn't how we imagined starting our trip from Halifax to Massachusetts to catch MASS MoCA's largest exhibition of contemporary art, Oh, Canada (May 26-April 8). We haven't even left Halifax and group divisions are starting to rear their heads.

"Ah, it sucks we got a ticket," I tell our unhappy driver.

"Yeah, it sucks you got a ticket," echo other voices from the back seat, with the emphasis on the "you."

"It could have happened to anyone," I say—by which I mean it could have happened to me and I'll probably be next. "Don't worry—we'll all chip in."

"It couldn't have happened to anyone," mutters my little sister Sally, a fine arts student at Mount Allision University in New Brunswick, who religiously stays within 9% of the speed limit. I've just abducted my sister to come on this trip—her class just happened to be on a field trip to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, and I pressured her into squeezing into a tiny little Ford Fiesta with us for the next 10 or so hours. Our group includes myself, exhibiting artist Mitchell Wiebe, local artist Aaron Weldon and the notorious dot com entrepreneur Anton E. Self who surprised us by jumping in at the last minute.

"You need to get out of Sackville. See some of these artists you're studying in school," I had said to Sally patronizingly. Perhaps I was projecting a bit—I needed to get out of Halifax and to see art by Canadian artists who I'd read about on the Internet, but whose work I haven't actually had the opportunity to lay eyes in real life. The fact that I have to travel to the US to see Canadian art is kind of weird, but a welcome change of scenery. And gauging by our outfits, it looks like we all need a vacation. Despite the fact that Massachusetts is not exactly warm in the spring, we're all dressed for California—we've got bare legs, sunglasses and gross pale Halifax toes peeking hopefully out of open-toed shoes.

Several hours and utterances of the word "recalculating" by Self's GPS robot—a British female voice we've deliriously started calling Fiona—later, we arrive at our destination, North Adams, Massachusetts, a former American mill town named, like the famous American beer, after the patriot Samuel Adams. Like many small American towns with a population of less than 14,000, North Adams was economically hit hard when abandoned by its industries in the 20th century, but unlike many small towns, an art gallery swept in to revitalize the economy. And in that part of the US, where the rich live like eccentric recluses in faux castles along the Hudson river, those words are not oxymorons.

MASS MoCA moved into the former site of an electrical research company in 1986, Sprague Electric, and since then, a smattering of restaurants and local businesses followed suit to feed tourists and art lovers from the nearby Williams College scene. It's hard to separate the Oh, Canada experience from the MASS MoCA experience itself. Situated on a sprawling complex of factory buildings and surrounded by a river that feels more like a castle moat, the gallery has transformed the eerily quiet town into a Neverland of sorts for artists.

The kind of Neverland where you find yourself sitting in a hotel hot tub with New Brunswick artist Graeme Patterson, Mitchell Wiebe and Aaron Weldon, as they make kooky noises into a tape recorder to prepare in a freestyle manner for the newest musical project that they'll perform at Toronto's Luminato Festival. The kind of Neverland that on the surface could resemble the Jersey shore—drunk girls in their undies drape themselves over broad chested men in the hot tub while shrieking. But instead of demanding pickles and other unmentionable things, the shrieking girl is shouting "The old masters! I fucking LOVE the old masters—I mean GOYA! Goya! How can you not love Goya?" And all the drunks are either art collectors or important curators.

And it was the kind of Neverland where you get kudos for being from the east coast. A man from "Upper Canada" in a suit comes up to you—as the east coast artists with you are engaged in an almost horizontal, thigh-destroying dance-off on the floor, while King Khan shouts that he doesn't know half the songs the crowd's requesting, as he gets mauled by little children with insistent musical requests whose parents are hippies who encourage that sort of thing in their five year old—and asks "You guys are from Atlantic Canada?" When you ask him how he knows, he says simply, "You guys always bring the party." A cliche statement of course, but in the moment it makes you feel incredibly proud to be Atlantic Canadian.

If you could say one thing of Oh Canada, the spirit of collaboration was in the air—the exhibition enabled creative connections to take shape in a haphazard organic way. These creative conversations weren't always intentional. In Daniel Barrow's dreamy exhibition, The Thief of Mirrors, while you pore over Barrow's surreal projections that tell the story of a bandit who steals from the rich, you can hear the strange mingling of pan flutes from Winnipeg artist Noam Gonick's nearby installation and heavy metal from Canadian expats Hadley + Maxwell's neighbouring video piece. Some have muttered that the show was too crowded, but as a viewer, I found the proximity of the works to one another dizzying and exhilarating.

Whether I was staring through holes in the walls at the fluorescent animal-human hybrids that leapt off of my friend Mitchell Wiebe's canvases or peering into the dollhouse-sized world Graeme Patterson created in his exhibition, The Mountain, entering the exhibition felt like stumbling through the looking glass; new worlds unfolded around ever turn, without chance for a breath or palate cleanse in between, leaving me feeling saturated in the best possible way.

As the party drew to a close, many were whispering in the hot tub about the fact that galleries across Canada are tentatively considering whether or not they're able and willing to cough up the funds to host this massive exhibition next year. As I find myself reminiscing about running through abandoned buildings with gallery interns and sitting on the porch of the artists' housing watching locals yell at their dogs as a gentle breeze rustles my notes, I get nostalgic pangs—I really hope the works do cross back into our borders. Canadians ought to have a chance to see the exhibition on their own soil, and to have the Oh, Canada experience, but of course a new exhibition would have to take on a drastically different character. Unless of course the local bartenders want to start free pouring, hotels want to turn a blind eye to drunk artists and journalists crashing over their fences into their pools and local restaurants want to start selling taco platters and pitchers of margaritas, which is of course all completely fine by me.

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