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Artist Sin Wai Kin's 22-minute film A Dream of Wholeness in Parts features two figures with elaborately sexually coded costumes and painted faces.Courtesy the artist

At the Greater Toronto Art triennial, artist Catherine Telford Keogh contributes a sculpture that features open glass boxes holding both familiar litter from our everyday lives, but also more mysterious detritus. The text panel provided by the Museum of Contemporary Art explains that the contents include sedimented industrial waste from the bottom of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, which is where the Toronto-born Telford Keogh now lives and works.

This may seem like a picayune complaint, but there’s a certain absurdity to importing sediment from New York for a showcase of art from the Greater Toronto Area: Surely this region has lots of its own industrial waste to offer. And so, the long story of MOCA’s fitful attempts to root itself in Toronto continues with this, its second triennial devoted to the art of the metropolis and its suburbs, if not necessarily art about the metropolis and its suburbs.

(The triennial is not to be confused with the Toronto Biennial of Art, featuring Canadian and international artists and returning to the city this fall.)

The GTA project at MOCA began back in 2021 with a show about cultural identity and – this was the second Fall of the pandemic – virtuality and anxiety. It had interesting moments but was full of art that could have been made in any Western capital.

GTA 24, as this second iteration is dubbed, recognizes that problem. Indeed, the show begins outside the museum, with an augmented-reality and audio walkabout around the Tower Automotive Building that houses MOCA in the semi-gentrified Junction Triangle. As you follow along with your phone and headphones, Ojibwa artist Lisa Myers riffs hypnotically about the chocolate smell wafting from the nearby Nestle factory and the sound of passing trains.

In an essay for the forthcoming exhibition catalogue, B.C. art scholar Camille Georgeson-Usher will tie the piece to Indigenous mapping, as Myers speaks directly to the layers of history on and under the street.

Inside the building in the ground floor lobby, MOCA’s new curator Kate Wong, and collaborators Ebony L. Hayes and Toleen Touq, begin with more recent history: a collection of Toronto photographs shot by artist June Clark in the 1970s and 1980s. They include views of children waiting for the Caribana parade and skaters in Nathan Phillips Square, as well as several intimate images of Black women, as the multicultural city took shape.

Sometimes, the curators’ decision to include some previous art – from the 1960s to the 2000s – provides this kind of clear reference to the city’s cultural history, and other times it feels extraneous. The ground floor also features a clever juxtaposition of Mani Mazinani’s interactive light-and-sound piece, Solar Scale, with the last composition of the Toronto band Fifth Column (G.B. Jones and Caroline Azar), created as part of a multimedia performance installation at Nuit Blanche in 2012. It is playing in the concrete stairwell behind Mazinani’s work, subtly suggesting the precedents for his lantern of colour, light and music.

But this is not an exhibition about the history of contemporary art in Toronto. Rather than pointing to precedents or illuminating themes, some worthy older pieces – Theo Jean Cuthand’s 2012 Super 8 film Sight about indigeneity and blindness or P. Mansaram’s 1960s collages of imagery from Indian and Western commercial art – are overwhelmed by the newer works that surround them.

Indeed, the main question that GTA 24 raises is: What is this show about or what does it wish to achieve? Too much, a viewer may feel.

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Toronto-born Catherine Telford Keogh's sculpture display, in which glass boxes sit on steel conveyor rollers.LF Documentation/Courtesy of the artist and MOCA Toronto

Telford Keogh’s intriguing piece of glass boxes sitting on steel conveyor rollers, a work relating to environmental and historical themes in any gritty city, anchors a strong sculpture display on the second floor. It faces off against Oreka James’s startling steel wall anchored in clay and topped by a series of cow horns, in reference to both Japanese and Yoruba culture, and is backed by Tim Whiten’s 1995 cube of stacked carpets with a Chinese motif.

Cultural diversity is everywhere – that’s Toronto – but after viewing Sukaina Kubba’s intriguing redrawing of a Persian rug, Ésery Mondésir’s films about the Haitian diaspora in North America or Timothy Yanick Hunter’s multimedia installation with a video comparing the fate of Jamaican migrant farm workers in Canada to historic slavery, you have to recognize it’s a global theme.

Hunter’s newly commissioned work, the centrepiece of the third floor, also includes a large photographic image of a Black Madonna sculpture mounted on a transparent acrylic wall and two photo books featuring both recent images of Toronto, Montreal, Dakar and Jamaica, as well as archival images of Senegal (where the artist recently did a residency). Perhaps its fourth element, a photo panel in which an erotic image of a bare-chested man on an ornate couch is sliced up like Neapolitan ice cream, makes it clearer: The point is the diffuseness, the multiplicity, the non-linear story.

And that is perhaps the point of GTA 24, too: In her forthcoming catalogue essay, writer Tiana Reid points out that the term Greater Toronto Area suggests something both capacious and vague.

Meanwhile, in this third floor gallery, artist Sin Wai Kin overshadows both the historic and the contemporary with their remarkable film, A Dream of Wholeness in Parts. It’s a surreal yet precisely observed 22-minute narrative featuring two figures with elaborately sexually coded costumes and painted faces: part Chinese opera stars, part kewpie dolls, part drag queens. Based in London, where they were nominated for the Turner Prize for this work filmed in Taipei, Sin is winning plaudits the world over. Conveniently, the artist was born in Toronto.

Greater Toronto Art 2024 continues to July 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sin Wai Kin's film won the Turner Prize. It received a nomination. This version has been updated.

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