Prairie Modern

Canada’s newest art museum attempts to reconcile local and international interests

Saskatoon, the largest city in the vast prairie region of Saskatchewan, Canada, does not seem a likely stop on the international art world circuit. There are no direct flights from New York or Los Angeles. Yet it is now the home of Remai Modern, a new museum of modern and contemporary art, that recently opened in a spacious CAD$100 million building there, with an endowment matched only by Canada’s largest institutions. Situated on the bank of the South Saskatchewan River in Riversdale, a historically low-income neighbourhood once plagued by a 46 percent commercial vacancy rate, the museum is emblematic of Saskatoon’s dramatic transformation in recent years; Riversdale now boasts a symphony orchestra, a major theatre, several smaller art spaces and plenty of hip dining and retail spots. Remai Modern’s riverside plot was designated by a 2004 municipal development plan as the site of a ‘future destination centre’ – an icon to draw tourists in, and a cultural anchor from which development would expand.

tiff-remai-17small.jpg

Remai Modern, Saskatoon, designed by Bruce Kuwabara, KPMB, in association with Architecture 49, opened 21 October 2017. Courtesy: Remai Modern, Saskatoon

Facing pressure to fulfill the city’s hopes for a major tourist destination, Remai Modern (named after its leading donor, Ellen Remai) needed an attention-grabbing building. But Canadian architect Bruce Kuwabara’s design is less a flashy statement than a set of referential gestures that eschews the bravado of recent museum architecture. The building is governed by a horizontal energy, which looks back to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style designs. Wright’s dwellings were meant to appear as if they had sprung organically from the American Midwest landscape. This relationship to context is true too of Kuwabara’s structure: its rectilinear, cantilevered volumes, containing within them 126,000 square feet of floor surface, mimic the region’s flat topography, while the largely glass exterior echoes the river as a mirror to the sky.

If Remai Modern’s architecture is a paean to place, the institution it contains is dogged by the politics of location. During the opening weekend, people demurred at whether the museum could reconcile its remote location with its aspiration to be an international art destination. Its director, Gregory Burke, and chief curator, Sandra Guimarães, both bring extensive international experience to the project – but neither were trained in Canada nor have prior ties to the prairies. Those who consider this an issue were further encouraged by Andrew Hunter’s resignation in September from the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. In a public letter that followed, the esteemed Canadian curator criticized the predominance of non-Canadian curators at the institution, who he feels lack a true understanding of the country’s art and its communities.

walid-raad-installation.jpg

Walid Raad, Letters to the Reader, 2014, MDF wood, paint and wall text, 11 panels, 240 × 122 cm each. Courtesy: © the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; photograph: David Stobbe

Walid Raad, Letters to the Reader, 2014, MDF wood, paint and wall text, 11 panels, 240 × 122 cm each. Courtesy: © the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; photograph: David Stobbe

Burke and Guimarães’s inaugural exhibition, ‘Field Guide’, places Canadian contemporary art firmly within an international context. Featuring more than 80 artists, the show is given reign over the entire building: its 11 modestly sized gallery spaces, light-filled hallways and stairwells, and a 150-seat theatre. The exhibition’s contemporary portion attempts to sidestep the centre/periphery trap: it avoids geographical categorizations, arranging works instead in what Guimarães characterizes as a ‘constellation’. The model succeeds in drawing out relations between recent practices across various axes, rather than along a single binary. The selection of Canadian art encompassed divergent practices and were dispersed across the show. For instance, Edward Poitras’s Vita Brevis (1992), a coyote sculpted from bones, braying beneath hanging circuit boards and radio parts, is flanked by Kader Attia’s Colonial Modernity: the first mass in Brazil and Algeria (2014), a diptych of replicated 19th-century colonial paintings, and Paulo Nazareth’s Anthropology of black II (2014), a stark black and white video shot at the Hospital Colônia in Brazil where society’s ‘undesirables’, largely people of Indigenous and African descent, were tortured through the 20th century until its closure in 1980. Placed in conversation, these works encouraged consideration of indigeneity and colonial experiences across different contexts.

ryan-gander-an-attempt-2017-small.jpg

Ryan Gander, An attempt at a facsimile of Pablo Picasso’s Portrait de Jeune Fille, d’après Cranach le Jeune II, (1958), 2017, black Posca marker pen and Tipp-Ex on 160gsm cartridge paper, 30 × 42 cm. Image from Picasso and I (2017) by Ryan Gander. Courtesy: © the artist

Ryan Gander, An attempt at a facsimile of Pablo Picasso’s Portrait de Jeune Fille, d’après Cranach le Jeune II, (1958), 2017, black Posca marker pen and Tipp-Ex on 160gsm cartridge paper, 30 × 42 cm. Image from Picasso and I (2017) by Ryan Gander. Courtesy: © the artist

One of Remai Modern’s guiding principles, according to its website, is a ‘commitment to interrogating the idea of ‘modern’ from multiple cultural, historical and contemporary positions.’ Its inaugural programming boasts the inclusion of Picasso, with a presentation of the museum’s collection of his linocuts curated by artist Ryan Gander. Making Picasso accessible to Saskatchewan’s communities is welcome; relative to its large geography, Canada has few museums with the facilities and finances for exhibiting or acquiring canonical art. But this particular display showed no meaningful engagement with the work’s history in relation to modernism, and in effect merely appeared as an effort to elevate a minor aspect of Picasso’s practice by associating his fetishized name with that of another famous artist.

12-pae-white-dave-stobbe.jpg

Pae White, Lucky Charms, 2014/17, 165 neon, transformers and electrical wire, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Remai Modern Collection, Saskatoon. Purchased with the support of the Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation, 2017; photograph: Dave Stobbe

Pae White, Lucky Charms, 2014/17, 165 neon, transformers and electrical wire, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Remai Modern Collection, Saskatoon. Purchased with the support of the Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation, 2017; photograph: Dave Stobbe

The show is more successful when it hones in on specific histories, as with its presentation of work by artists from, or inspired by, the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops, a famed series of classes led in the 1950s and ’60s by major figures of postwar modernism, including Clement Greenberg, Barnett Newman and Frank Stella, just outside of Saskatoon. Emma Lake forged radical cultural ties between Saskatchewan and New York, and significantly shaped the region’s art production. This legacy is represented by the pairing of Kenneth Noland’s Flares “Fly” (1991) – a sculptural painting on three irregular-shaped Plexiglas panels – with a large monochrome titled by longtime Emma Lake participant Robert Christie (The Red Studio, 2012). In the midst of this boy’s club, Saskatoon-based Tammi Campbell’s gridded drawings Dear Agnes (2014) pay homage to the Saskatchewan-born Agnes Martin. Though it highlights an important local lineage, the compact selection left me wanting a more comprehensive and researched exhibition, the kind Remai Modern should be able to mount.

althea-thauberger-maratsade-2012.jpg

Althea Thauberger, THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE CHARENTON ASYLUM UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE AS PERFORMED BY THE PRAGUE-BASED EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE COMPANY AKANDA FOR THE PATIENTS AND STAFF OF THE BOHNICE PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL, 2012, HD video still. Courtesy: Collection of Remai Modern, Saskatoon. Purchased with the support of the Mendel Art Gallery Foundation, 2014. 

Althea Thauberger, THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE CHARENTON ASYLUM UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE AS PERFORMED BY THE PRAGUE-BASED EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE COMPANY AKANDA FOR THE PATIENTS AND STAFF OF THE BOHNICE PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL, 2012, HD video still. Courtesy: Collection of Remai Modern, Saskatoon. Purchased with the support of the Mendel Art Gallery Foundation, 2014. 

Indigenous people make up one sixth of the Saskatchewan’s population, and ‘Field Work’ includes a notable commissioned project by Ontario-based artists Tanya Lukin Linklater and Duane Linklater that honours this heritage. Determined by the River comprises a large raft structure that gestures to the South Saskatchewan River, a traditional gathering place for millennia. The raft holds a smattering of works by the artists assembled from tipi poles, horsehair, local stones and river sand. Gathered on the raft are also over a dozen works by several generations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit artists from Remai’s collection. This selection offers a real interrogation of the ‘modern’, with Kenojuak Ashevak’s stonecut print Tundra Hawk (1970), for example, gesturing to the long history of experimental printmaking by Inuit artists in Cape Dorset.

haegue-yang-184.jpg

Haegue Yang, Four Times Sol LeWitt UpsideDown, Version Point to Point, 2016–17, aluminum Venetian blinds, aluminum hanging structure, powder coating, steel wire, LED tubes and cable, dimensions variable, installation view, Remai Modern, 2017. Courtesy: Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin and Greene Naftali, New York; photograph: Matt Ramage, Studio D

Haegue Yang, Four Times Sol LeWitt UpsideDown, Version Point to Point, 2016–17, aluminum Venetian blinds, aluminum hanging structure, powder coating, steel wire, LED tubes and cable, dimensions variable, installation view, Remai Modern, 2017. Courtesy: Galerie Barbara Wien, Berlin and Greene Naftali, New York; photograph: Matt Ramage, Studio D

In Remai Modern’s inaugural show, such instances of strong, local perspectives provoked new questions of modernist canons and of contemporary cultural production. With solo shows by Thomas Hirschhorn and Jimmie Durham in the pipeline, it remains to be seen whether the museum will bring the region’s particular historical and cultural legacies – both the colonial and the collectivist – to bear in a more significant manner on its international programme, or become merely another indistinctive stop on the contemporary art circuit. With a photogenic building and prodigious funding, Remai Modern makes a great cultural brand for the city; but unclear yet is whether it will root itself as a cultural space for the city, an institution that responds to the creative and radical energy of its communities.  

Main image: Remai Modern, Saskatoon, designed by Bruce Kuwabara, KPMB, in association with Architecture 49, opened 21 October 2017. Courtesy: Remai Modern, Saskatoon

Amy Luo is an art writer currently based in Vancouver. 

Most Read

In further news: MOCA Detroit suspends Jens Hoffmann after harassment allegations; Met refuses to remove ‘suggestive’...
‘Conflicts of interest’ may have cost Beatrix Ruf her Stedelijk job but the problem doesn’t just lie with individuals...
Her work animates the consequences of our colonial history and the construction of identity politics: in a divided...
France's President Emmanuel Macron meets Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian Kabore at the Presidential Palace in Burkina Faso on November 28, 2017. Courtesy: LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images
The French President’s recent comments hint at a dubious politics: using art restitution as a stopgap to France’s...
More from today’s Briefing: protesting Raghubir Singh; documenta artists defend exhibition (again); Enrico Castellani (...
Tiffany and Co., Sterling Silver Paper Cup, 2017, from the ‘Everyday Objects’ collection. Courtesy: Tiffany and Co., New York
Tiffany & Co.’s new range of gift objects and the shifting meaning of the ‘everyday’
From Hannah Black to Not Surprised, the changes demanded by today’s letter writers are still a long way from being...
Johan Grimonprez, Shadow World, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, Galerie Kamel Mennour, Paris, Flatland Gallery, Amsterdam, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, Louverture Films, Dillywood and Shadow World inc., New York
Johan Grimonprez’s recent films explore the mechanisms of the arms trade
A pivot to glass by the sculptor shows an attempt to see hope through political disillusionment
In further news: initiative for museum staff diversity; Gwangju Biennale's 2018 curators; Jens Hoffmann clarifies Front...
Ahead of Manifesta’s opening in Palermo next summer, the importance of remembering an alternative Mediterranean...
Inverting the gaze: real life biography, game play fantasy and Frantz Fanon combine in the British artist’s films
Old Food, 2017, production still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York and Rome, and dépendance, Brussels
Helen Marten responds to Ed Atkins’s new work, Old Food, currently showing at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin
Elsewhere: activists protest AfD with Holocaust Memorial replica; censorship at Kuala Lumpur Biennale; Venice Biennale'...
Twenty years after the First Cyberfeminist International at Documenta X, what does Cyberfeminism look like in...
Thinking about propaganda, palimpsests, and a presentation of Tino Sehgal works in Moscow
As London's Architectural Association celebrates 100 years of female students, rediscovering the city designed by women
Lin May Saeed, Lobster, 2017. Metal, 11 x 24 x 14.5 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Nicolas Krupp, Basel, Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt am Main and Lulu, Mexico City
Lulu, Mexico City, Mexico
For the 6th Amsterdam Art Weekend, our picks of the best shows and events across the Dutch capital
Highlights of the shows included in the third iteration of Dublin Gallery Weekend
An interview with Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory, on new ways for art institutions to work
With her current show at Studio_Leigh, London, the artist shares some important images
Recent instances of censorship show an emboldened far right attacking the arts, queer identity and more: artists,...
The staggering price reached by Salvator Mundi prompts the question: what are you really buying when you buy an artwork?
Wong Kar-wai, Happy Together, 1997, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Alamy 
From the new issue of frieze: Changes in urban cultures and queer aesthetics across the Sinosphere 
On the occasion of two UK solo exhibitions, the British artist reflects on the art and events that have shaped her...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

September 2017

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017