Skip to main content

Part of BGLs installation at the Venice Biennale, a dépanneur in the style of those found in Quebec, featuers a back room filled with food cans that have been transformed into paint pots.Ivan Binet

As their international debut at the esteemed Venice Biennale approached, the three Quebec City artists known as BGL posed for the cover of Canadian Art magazine wrapped together in a buffalo-plaid poncho, each with a few teeth blacked out. Every other year, Canada goes to Venice yearning for international recognition from the jet-set cognoscenti who prowl the world's most important art fair, and here were Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère and Nicolas Laverdière happily channelling their inner hosers.

"BGL are very playful; they love to provoke," says Marie Fraser, the Montreal curator who is organizing their exhibition at the 2015 Biennale, which opens Saturday.

Certainly, BGL's approach to the notoriously small, awkward and down-at-heel pavilion built for Canada in Venice's Giardini back in 1958 is sassy and satirical.

"It's a very small pavilion; you'd almost think it was a service booth. It looks like a Parks Canada washroom," the group says. (Speaking in French during a phone interview from Quebec City on the eve of their departure for Italy, the trio asked to be quoted as one voice, saying they repeat each other's phrases so much, they sound as though they are copying each other if cited individually.) So, BGL, whose work sometimes features a junk-shop aesthetic created with recycled materials, has made the pavilion larger by building on a terrace, and has turned the main space into a dépanneur, the shabby corner store that is a fixture of Quebec life, providing the passerby with a convenient can of beans, bag of chips or bottle of beer.

"The motivation was to offer a bit of restaurant service," says BGL, more metaphorically than facetiously. "The gardens don't have many services; you are always looking for washrooms, for water, to have a beer in the shade. You'll enter a space where that is the subject."

But the owner of this dépanneur also has a hobby: Behind the bamboo curtain in the backroom, the visitor will find that the food cans have been transformed into paint pots. Locate a secret door, and you seem to have entered the atelier of an outsider artist and folksy hoarder in full production.

"As an artist you have to have a sideline to survive," Fraser points out. "Or you can think that the dépanneur's sideline is art."

The work makes the link between artistic production and commerce, and visitors – like tourists throwing their money in a fountain – will contribute to the project by dropping coins from the terrace into false windows that the artists have added to the pavilion. It's an element that may remind some viewers of a 2008 BGL installation at the National Gallery of Canada where the group set up a scissor lift in a high gallery from which bank notes wafted down to the floor just out of visitors' reach.

Fraser explains that one of the reasons the Biennale selection committee convened by the National Gallery picked BGL to represent Canada was because the members were convinced these artists would transform the difficult pavilion into an immersive environment. Perhaps they would create something as crowd-pleasing as Carrousel, that merry-go-round made of crowd-control barriers and shopping carts that the group has been touring across Canada in recent years.

"We like people to explore a place; we create labyrinths and routes so people can discover a space," the artists say, but add that the concept of inventing a fictional character, even if one physically absent from the space, is entirely new to this piece. "Visitors will create their own character [for the store-owner]; there is no portrait or sign of life."

The experience should be intriguing and exploratory – and as far from reverence as BGL can manage in the high-art context of Venice. "It permitted us to desanctify the place. There is always this distance between the spectator and art; people lower the gaze. You don't lower the gaze when you go into a dépanneur," they say.

Of course, the only way to bring down high art is with sharp humour: With a tip of the hat to cross-cultural exchange, the Venice installation is titled Canadassimo. BGL's self-mockery as purveyors of low culture has many parallels in English-Canadian comedy – Bob and Doug McKenzie come to mind – but few precedents in the Canadian pavilion where meditative and evocative approaches have been more common.

Fraser and BGL both point to David Altmejd's 2007 installation on the theme of the werewolf as the one obvious instance where humour has been used, but BGL practises a more pointed brand of satire, tracing their ironic take back to such uncomfortable Quebec comics as Yvon Deschamps and Ding and Dong.

"Mocking yourself is certainly part of a Canadian identity, but in Quebec, humour also has a political dimension," Fraser points out. "It's a way of tackling prickly questions. … The National Gallery has made a brave choice with BGL. Their humour can be irreverent; they are artists who take a critical stance on the world and on North American consumerism."

For example, BGL has always exposed Canada's ambivalence about the mighty forests that the country both celebrates in art and exploits in industry, Fraser says. The group burst out of art school with a 1997 installation that included a sugar shack and a log cabin made of reclaimed wood.

The artists met at Laval University and were working together before they even graduated; another aspect that appealed to the selection committee was the idea of reminding visitors that, from the Group of Seven to General Idea, Canadian artists pioneered the model of the artistic collective now so popular on the international art scene.

Indeed, those gap-toothed smiles on the Canadian Art cover are very reminiscent of the satirical self-portraits produced by General Idea, the cheeky Canadian art collective of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet if General Idea's three members pictured themselves as the pampered poodles and chubby-cheeked babies of the glamorous art world, BGL are set to play its backwoods rubes. Are Canadians and Quebeckers ready to see their culture portrayed with such irreverence on the international stage?

A collective chortle comes down the phone line from Quebec City: "Ready or not, they are going to get it anyway!"

Canadassimo is on show at the 2015 Venice Biennale from May 9 to Nov. 22.