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Another country

Discover surreal dreamscapes, dark scenes and sensual folk legends on a journey through contemporary art and autumn colours

Nestled among verdant forests and quaint villages, near cultural outposts like Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow, is a large black mirror reflecting darkly the reality — and the fantasy — that is Canada today. Located in North Adams, Massachusetts, a nine-hour drive from Toronto, Oh, Canada at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) is the largest ever survey of Canadian art outside of Canada.

For three years curator Denise Markonish travelled the entire country, with visits to more than 400 studios in every province and territory, to come up with the exhibition’s 62 artists and more than 120 works. She traversed more landscapes and cityscapes than most Canadians and, in turn, is asking Canadians to make the excursion to this remote town and delight in her findings.

It is not the traditional landscape of Canadian art, but a terrain that we know. Markonish veered off well-trod paths to show us what we already know to be true — that there is a new guard of under-recognized contemporary artists making great work in Canada. Seeing the face of Canadian art reflected back at us, it is comforting knowing that someone else “gets it.” Someone else sees what we see.

And what is it that we see of ourselves? Even though the exhibition does have its share of omissions (including queer female artists), there is a favourable representation of the LGBT community, including some new additions and notorious favourites that never disappoint. In Oh, Canada the queer voice is that of a storyteller and provocateur. The narratives are full of surreal dreamscapes, dark scenes and sensual folk legends.

Oh, Canada is not a romantic amalgamation of mementos or keepsakes of a holiday spent discovering the true north, but a rigorous and concise collection of cultural production representing Canada now…. It is a celebration of the unexpected.

Kent Monkman tells the story of Two Kindred Spirits in a newly commissioned work that explores similarities found between fictitious buddy characters spawned in the US and Germany — Tonto and the Lone Ranger, and Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. Based on male warrior/lover relationships the double diorama is set a split-room log cabin where we see two male mannequins: Tonto mourning the death of his partner and on the other side Winnetou mourning the loss of his. Scattered at their feet are discarded beer cans hinting at a drunken lover’s quarrel turned deadly. The figures look to the audience for sympathy and assistance in their most intimate of moments.

Across the room Monkman’s large-scale paintings illustrate another layer to this complex story. Based on the works of Bierstadt, a German-American painter, they speak to an ongoing schism between American and German depictions of Aboriginal culture and reality. The non-Aboriginal imagination is fleshed out in paint to uncover fears of the exotic, the wild and unknown.

Taking another mysterious and sinister turn, Sobey Award-winning Daniel Barrow throws the audience into a dark watery dreamscape in The Thief of Mirrors. Barrow describes his work as an experimental moving picture experience that utilizes a complex circuit of voice, image making and projection. Drawing his stories through images layered on overhead projectors, he produces a series of tragic characters. The immersive installation pays homage to the popular character called the Kissing Bandit who simultaneously violates and charms his victims with a single kiss or expression of affection. The Thief of Mirrors tells of a maniacal masked jewel thief who speaks to his victims as they sleep, burdening them with nightmares of affluence. The piece serves as a monologue and the vignettes take place between media, to create and then elaborate upon an emotionally complicated portrait of wealth and privilege.

Far less grim and dramatic, but equally provocative, is the installation of a lackadaisical young man gazing up at the ceiling trapped in a geodesic dome of projections. Daydreaming of a seductive meadow romp on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, he is impervious to the audience’s gaze, ignoring all else around him. Wildflowers of Manitoba, a performative installation by Noam Gonick and Luis Jacob, is one of the few pieces in the show that has been exhibited elsewhere. Like a wildflower it has popped up in Montreal, Winnipeg, Mechelen, Berlin and now in Massachusetts.

Questioning histories and stories of representation, Brendan Fernandez’ work demands attention as it blinks in code from the window. Rhythmically lit in Morse code Fernandez’ neon masks interrogate and problematize the colonial histories and cultural appropriation attached to many artifacts in museum collections. It also asks: What is the souvenir and which is the artifact?

Oh, Canada is not a romantic amalgamation of mementos or keepsakes of a holiday spent discovering the true north, but a rigorous and concise collection of cultural production representing Canada now. Adeptly, the show links works thematically through a diverse range of practices instead of compartmentalizing artists into slippery categories like region, age or sexual orientation. It is a celebration of the unexpected.

The works are unapologetically big allowing the viewer to be immersed in a sequence of events that often speak to the queer body in the Canadian cultural landscape. Whether it is Ed Pien’s loud scaffolding installation constructed from rear-projected video onto paper cutouts that is reminiscent of late night dance clubs, or Micah Lexier’s quiet coins in the corner of the room, Canada is shown to be a queer country. We are here.

Oh, Canada continues at MASS MoCA until April 1, 2013 (massmoca.org), but don’t wait to book your trip. Get out of Toronto this fall and enjoy a drive through the Berkshire Mountains and eat up all things Canadiana south of the border. Just don’t mention you brought your own maple syrup.

When in North Adams

The Porches Inn Quaint with a contemporary twist, this inn of converted Victorian row houses will charm you with its heated pool, sauna, outdoor firepit and free Wifi. porches.com.

Public Eat+Drink This gastropub is a favourite with the locals for its simple but tasty lineup of American classics. A good craft beer selection makes for a lively crowd on a weekend night. publiceatanddrink.com.

Jack’s Hot Dog Stand Founded in 1917, Jack’s is a must-visit local institution. You’re on vacation, so grab a seat at the counter and get the chili cheese dog and onion rings. jackshotdogstand.com.

Wild Oats Market For groceries while you’re in town, hit this natural foods market in nearby Williamstown. wildoats.coop.

Hudsons The owner will bargain with you if you find that very special antique treasure that you can’t leave behind. hudsonsart.com.

Mount Greylock State Reservation This park surrounding the state’s highest point features more than 100km of designated trails for hiking, mountain biking, back-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling. mass.gov/dcr/parks/mtGreylock.

Images Cinema If it’s raining, catch a movie at the region’s only independent movie house. imagescinema.org.

Michele Pearson Clarke