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A disappointing Montreal Biennial Add to ...

Under the direction of art world stalwart Claude Gosselin (head of the Centre international d'art contemporain de Montréal), the Montreal Biennial has been an important lightning rod for the Quebec scene since the eighties, an uneven undertaking prone, from year to year, to hits and misses. When the show has been curated by the likes of René Blouin, Peggy Gale or Wayne Baerwaldt, it has been good, even great. Other years, like this year, not so much.

In fact, this year is one of the weakest ever. First, the theme is woolly in an annoyingly trendy sort of way: Open Culture. The exhibition is not to be an assembly of objects (how passé) but rather a platform for interaction between artists and public, between artists and artists and between the public and the public. Collaboration is the order of the day. The impresario of all this cross-pollination was to be a curator named Scott Burnham, a newcomer to Canadian art circles with a transatlantic website that slickly espoused the notion of the exhibition as interface. He also is apparently very fond of street art.

Burnham is, however, less fond of delivering the meat in the sandwich. He and the mercurial Gosselin had a falling out some months ago, which is unfortunate as this $1.5-million show is one of Canada's most important contemporary-art venues. Walk the halls of the École de Bourget, the former Catholic school that CIAC currently uses for its exhibitions, and you will be hard pressed to find an exhibition there at all.

One room, organized by Montreal artist Melissa Mongiat, is filled with bits of paper stuck to the wall, scribbled on by gallery visitors invited to share their best compliment ever, some good news, a word of advice, and the like. The work is called The Good Conspiracy , and aims to "transfuse the city with positive energy," but contributions are sadly bland: "I'm Pregnant." "Eat carrots." "Be Yourself." The problem with public interface is that the public may - how to put this delicately - underperform.

Another work, by the duo Mathieu Bouchard and Alexandre Castonguay, consists of a kinetic machine hooked to a wall which scrawls messages input by Web-grazing participants. The contents, the wall label tells us, is derived from "a succession of open laboratories that have mapped a series of concepts." Among the entries: "Make Art Not Love," "Enjoy Coca Cola," " Je ne sais pas quoi écrire ."

This is exhibition-as-toilet-cubicle-wall. On the day I visited, a copy of Roland Barthes's Death of the Author was to be found open on a table in the room. Was this intentional? I'm really hoping not.

In a hallway, a work by Montreal artist Danielle Jolliffe, titled One Free Minute , involves a bicycle hitched to a megaphone on wheels that has been rigged to transmit messages phoned in to a designated number (1-888-500-1011). But in the exhibition we can hear the messages only via headphones that are attached to the wall. Was this contraption meant to be outside? What happened here? Likewise the installation by Roadsworth (a.k.a. Peter Gibson), a series of stencils of boys and girls coming to school, which was intended to start on rue Sainte-Catherine and progress to the site of the exhibition until an eruption of summer roadwork foiled their plans.

This is exhibition-as-toilet-cubicle-wall.

I'll stop here, but not before mentioning my gratitude for the photographs of the British artist Richard Wentworth, exhibited in an upstairs classroom under the title Making Do and Getting By . This suite of images documents his findings in the cityscape: the opportune propping of a doorway by a rubber boot, a stack of abandoned sectional sofa parts evoking modernist sculpture on a street corner. Considerably less successful but of like mind are the photographs of Brazilian Cao Guimaraes, which record the little ways in which people improvise with materials to solve practical problems in daily life. There is a kind of human, homey charm to this kind of work, and it offered consolation of sorts. At least there was aesthetic activity going on.

Artists Fight Back

Montreal artists are not known for taking their disappointments lying down, and artist/curator Susannah Wesley and a host of her fellow subversives have rallied in response to the Biennale vacuum, organizing a companion exhibition at the Leonard & Ellen Bina Gallery at Concordia University, just a few blocks away. The focus of this show, titled Making It Work, is also collaboration, but the process here has borne tastier fruit.

Wesley asked a few Quebec collectives to make new works illuminating their collaborative style. The five-member collective CRUM, (it stands for Le centre de recherche urbaine de Montréal) is presenting the residue of their shared writing project: the CRUMIFESTO. Completing each other's sentences on specially modified typewriters, they have created non-linear narratives in the mode of the exquisite corpse.

("Throughout the ages, forces beyond our control have oppressed our right to cut our toenails on the living room couch" or "There has never been a better time to claim our right to sweeten the deal. ALWAYS USE REAL SUGAR.") Delight here comes from expecting the unexpected.

The Quebec City collective bgl, though, has made the most thoughtful piece in the show, a selection of drawings pinned to the wall and decorated by the kind of plastic flags one finds at a used-car lot.

The drawings depict the artistic trio lying on their backs near a campfire, making shadow projections of their initials using toilet paper rolls, sausage links and an axe, all outlined against a lunar backdrop. The word "posterity" looms here and there. Does one forfeit the artist's traditional claim to immortality by working collaboratively? These guys are willing to run the ego-risk for the pleasures and synergies of togetherness.

The main event on the Montreal museum scene this spring, though, is Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, an exhibition commemorating the famous couple's "bed-in for peace" in the summer of 1969, at Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel.

I entered this show thinking grumpy thoughts about the squandering of the museum's educational mandate, but my bummer didn't last long.

This, too, is a show about collaboration, beginning with Lennon and Ono's first encounter at London's Indica Gallery in 1966 (at an exhibition of Ono's Fluxus-inspired conceptual art), following through to the Montreal bed-in (and the spontaneous recording there of the anthem Give Peace a Chance ), and onward to the creation of the Plastic Ono Band, the couple's political engagement with the American radical left, and the drafting of Imagine , a song that arose from the unique chemistry between the two artists. (The show includes a draft of the song written on a piece of letterhead from the New York Hilton at Rockefeller Center, the lyrics loosely handwritten by Lennon in fountain pen.) The song, Lennon said, was inspired by Ono's landmark book Grapefruit , in which she invited the reader to complete a number of her conceptual art works by imagining one thing or another, at her instigation. "Yoko actually helped me a lot with the lyrics," Lennon said later of the song, "but I wasn't man enough to let her have credit for it. I was still full of wanting my own space after being in a room with the guys all the time, having to share everything."

Yoko's famous antidote to this sort of thinking is her all-white chess game (a work titled Play It by Trust , begun in 1966 and continuing), presented in the current Montreal show in a large, airy gallery of its own. Participants start by opposing each other on facing sides of the chessboard only to find their players inextricably intermingled. Competition is trumped by play, and dreams of dominion are doused in the pleasures of communality.

On the day I visited the show, strangers were hanging out in the chess room, talking and laughing. I found myself spending some time there, and more time, too, playing with someone's baby on the replica of John and Yoko's giant white king-size bed. People were taking each other's pictures sitting at the all-white piano, listening to music and exchanging reminiscences.

Sharing is what Montreal is all about this spring. And there's an art to it.

The Montreal Biennial continues until May 31 (www.biennalemontreal.org). Making It Work remains on view at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery at Concordia University until June 13, and Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko, continues at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until June 21.

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