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Oluseye's Ploughing Liberty features a series of old wooden hockey sticks and affixes them seamlessly to antique farm implements evocative of early Black Loyalist farmers, in a statement on how Canadian identity has been narrowly crafted.Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy Patel Brown Gallery

The art world does love its big pulse-taking group shows that summarize the contemporary scene every two or three years. The venerable Venice Biennale keeps spawning descendants and you can now add COVID chaos to that crowded family tree: At the top, the 59th Venice Biennale has been postponed a full year and will open next April; at the bottom, after its successful debut in 2019, the Toronto Biennial of Art has been delayed six months and will open in March, 2022.

The latter is not to be confused with Greater Toronto Art 2021, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s bid to launch a triennial group show devoted to the city’s “most exciting” artists. On the one hand GTA 21, as it is cleverly abbreviated, is a necessary attempt by MOCA to root itself more firmly in Toronto soil with a promise of regular seeding and watering. On the other hand, it competes with the Toronto Biennial for similar turf, an awkward overlap only emphasized by the early fall timing, just when its competitor should have been busy comparing the local to the international.

Well, many things feel awkward these days and, not surprisingly, the new art unveiled at GTA 21 when it opened Wednesday, is marked by the pandemic and all the fear, disruptions and claustrophobia forced upon us. If you are looking for an image that captures the moment, look no further than Walter Scott’s Read the Room, a group of jerry-rigged, half-assembled sculptures on castors and carts that include trailing wires, some shapes outlined in neon tubes, cardboard boxes, a dismembered pair of plaster feet and a pair of hooks that spell SO …. These days even a cry for help gets postponed.

Water Scott's Read the Room captures the pandemic and all the fear, disruptions and claustrophobia it forced.Courtesy the artist and Cooper Cole

As they commissioned Toronto artists to create new work for this exhibition, MOCA artistic director November Paynter, and colleagues Rui Mateus Amaral and Daisy Desrosiers have had the smart idea of including some designers and architects in the mix, and Scott shares the ground floor with the experimental architectural firm Common Accounts. Partners Igor Bragado and Miles Gertler contribute Parade of All the Feels, a model for an unrealized parade float that features a doll-house-sized apartment in a plastic bubble boasting two miniature screens playing a demonic talking head. Pull up a QR code on your phone and you can then, via Instagram, enhance the experience with a Lego-like buggy that circles the house. Voila, it’s a recipe for a Zoom reduction, a miniaturized version of our current state.

On the two upper floors the curators attempt to wrangle their 21 participants into more enduring themes: the second floor is devoted to the idea of inheritance and the third to mutation, but the current anxiety permeates both. For example, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, who deploys unusual perspectives on mythic narratives painted in a rather classical style, has mounted a series of her canvases as theatre or fairground flats, as though, like Scott’s sculptures, they might need to be shifted at short notice. Native Art Department International (Maria Hupfield and Jason Lujan) has created a double gazebo that is cordoned off so the visitor can’t enter it. Sculptor Tony Romano has included a month’s worth of lockdown watercolour self-portraits.

Igor Bragado and Miles Gertler's Parade of All the Feels features a model for an unrealized parade float that features a doll-house-sized apartment in a plastic bubble boasting two miniature screens playing a demonic talking head.Courtesy of the artists

If you are looking to define Toronto art here, it appears as a movement that emerges from a great diversity of backgrounds, is fascinated by global and personal identities, and deeply committed to decolonization. No surprises there. Oluseye takes a series of old wooden hockey sticks and affixes them seamlessly to antique farm implements evocative of early Black Loyalist farmers, in a beautifully executed if rather transparent statement on how Canadian identity has been narrowly crafted. Ashoona Ashoona and Alexa Hatanaka have collaborated on a delicate cultural map made from squares of washi paper quilted together to depict the links between Japanese and Inuit printmaking, and from one artist’s grandmother to the other.

Despite Ashoona’s presence, themes of indigeneity, which animated the Toronto Biennial two years ago along with a powerful interest in local geography, are largely absent: Oddly, Toronto the city seems missing from GTA 21. (There is also not much art about the environment and biology – let alone disease – with the exception of Kara Springer’s photography, which includes images of oil slicks and a startling lightbox showing a ladder standing in an ocean.) Toronto is celebrated for its diversity but here the focus on cultural identity makes the exhibition seem rootless. Works such as Jesse Chun’s projected text panel O (for various skies), in which a U.S. military document about colonization of the moon morphs into a piece of astronomical poetry, or Sahar Te’s Toyota Tacoma ominously wrapped in black fabric, feel like they could have been made in any cosmopolitan capital.

Perhaps that is another effect of lockdowns, a kind of divorce from the tangible specifics of the urban environment as we experience life either at a hyper personal level or virtually with a global perspective. Almost all the works in the show were commissioned specially for the occasion, yet site specific interventions into MOCA’s light industrial space are few and far between. Scott has wrapped several of the pillars on the ground floor in protective zippered coverings as if providing further evidence of his sculpture’s instability. And Ghazaleh Avarzamani has created a beautiful blue enclosure, a large metal grille echoing Islamic architecture, to cover one of the ground-floor windows. From the exterior on Sterling Road, as it punctuates the Tower Automotive building’s utilitarian brick and stucco façade, it offers a refreshing bit of placemaking. Avarzamani’s other contribution is equally reflective; a large gathering of wooden tops of different shapes laid out on a plywood platform on the ground floor. Some are perfectly turned but others are misshapen or half-formed. In the midst of much angst, it’s a work that approaches its human themes with a welcome lyricism. Yes, some of us are still spinning; others not so much.

Greater Toronto Art 2021 continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto to Jan. 9, 2022.

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