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The display is anchored by colourful columns of various heights, perfectly rounded pillars formed by undulating bands of pulverized rock and metal, like some giant pieces of free-standing sand art.

toni hafkenscheid/Courtesy of the Toronto Biennial of Art

This may come as a surprise to the downtown scenesters but if you want to know what a biennial might do for Toronto and for art, you will have to go to Mississauga. The inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art includes two main group shows, one inside a former car dealership in the Port Lands and the other in the western suburbs, in a decommissioned munitions factory at Dixie and Lakeshore. The latter is the stronger show, more inviting and more rewarding, so let’s start there.

Despite its name, the Small Arms Inspection Building is a delightful place, a large, light-filled work room with three walls of lattice windows that create the feel of a greenhouse. It’s a space in which one artwork can speak to another in a show that addresses us, whoever we might be, and the land we stand on.

The display is anchored by colourful columns of various heights, perfectly rounded pillars formed by undulating bands of pulverized rock and metal, like some giant pieces of free-standing sand art. You can experience them simply as pleasing minimalist sculptures but they are bi-products of the mining industry, moulded from casts made of bore holes. They were created by artists Tanya Busse and Emilija Skarnulyte or the New Mineral Collective, which cheekily describes itself as the largest and least productive mining company in the world. Aesthetic, environmental and political, the columns send ripples of meaning out across the room.

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How the Toronto Biennial of Art will stand out in a crowded landscape

Those ripples flow backward to a series of archival photographs by the American feminist artist Judy Chicago: These are the record of environmental performances she organized in the 1970s featuring fireworks, and clouds of coloured smoke released from rock fissures in the desert. The work was Chicago’s reaction against the macho land-art movement in which male artists made giant and sometimes permanent alterations to a landscape. The reference here is a quick reminder from biennial curators Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien that today’s art is inevitably political, whatever form it takes.

This concrete sculpture of vertical waves by Montreal artist Caroline Monnet represents the pattern of sound waves created when an Anishinaabe elder spoke the word meaning 'the river that passes between the rocks.'

toni hafkenscheid/Courtesy of the Toronto Biennial of Art

And the ripples flow forward to another stone upright, a pleasing concrete sculpture of vertical waves by Montreal artist Caroline Monnet. But what do these waves represent? They are the pattern of sound waves created when an Anishinaabe elder spoke the word meaning “the river that passes between the rocks” and they evoke the 19th-century voyages of the Algonquin Chief Antoine Pakinawatik, who travelled by canoe all the way to Toronto to petition for the restoration of his nation’s territory.

Not far away, Abel Rodriguez’s obsessively detailed acrylic-on-paper botanical paintings of the Amazon jungle float effortlessly in the space, mounted in transparent frames and suspended from the rafters. Rodriguez, who was recognized Friday with the biennial’s inaugural $20,000 prize for an outstanding contribution, and his son Wilson are Nonuya, Indigenous Colombians living in Bogota; both artists create paintings that read simultaneously as naif delights and as a desperate recording of a disappearing land.

Abel Rodriguez’s obsessively detailed acrylic-on-paper botanical paintings of the Amazon jungle float effortlessly in the space.

Courtesy the artist and Instituto de Visión, Bogota

Nearby, there’s a comfortable video station: One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, the film by the Inuit collective Isuma about the relocation of a semi-nomadic elder to a settlement, makes the colonial nature of the environmental issues explicit. In this smart company, even a project as obviously didactic as Talking Treaties – a pageant by Ange Loft and Jumblies Theatre about the Toronto purchase that transferred the Mississaugas’ land to colonists – looks relevant because it fits so neatly into the conversation. (It is represented here by videos of the original performance and an installation of fabric props including a map of the area.)

And so the themes of environmentalism, indigeneity and place swirl about in Mississauga, but back downtown, in a more awkwardly adapted space, the artworks often seem deaf to one another in a sometimes chaotic mélange of video, photography and sculpture. Now, the question arises: What is this biennial about anyway?

Playing off its various waterfront locations and Toronto’s status as a Great Lakes city, the stated theme is what Hopkins and Bastien have dubbed the shoreline dilemma. That’s their metaphoric riff on the real phenomenon known as the coastline paradox: The length of a coastline varies widely depending on the unit of measurement. Hard science can’t deal with all the nooks and crannies where land meets water, so other kinds of knowledge step in. So far so good, but the curators then extrapolate from that intriguing proposition to ask the participating artists: What does it mean to be in relation?

At that point, the theme becomes so large it can encompass almost anything and wanders off in two unrelated directions, one about relations to land, environment and peoples, the other about personal relations. There are several major installations about indigeneity that anchor this larger exhibition: The New Red Order contributes a witty video satire in which settlers are recruited into a repatriation scheme as though it were a health cult, while veteran conceptual artist AA Bronson has returned to Toronto from Berlin to offer an apology for his missionary great-grandfather’s genocidal rule over the Siksika reserve in Alberta. The Embassy of Imagination and PA System are displaying the parkas and props a group of Inuit youth artists from Cape Dorset used in a procession untitled The Long Cut that began in Nunavut and continued in Toronto.

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These multidisciplinary projects take some concentration to grasp and the mix of work at 259 Lake Shore Blvd. E. doesn’t exactly encourage that. At least The Long Cut speaks to similar installation and performance work, while other Inuit art, including Napachie Pootoogook’s pioneering drawings of the 1990s depicting social and mythic subjects, and antler sculptures by Nick Sikkuark, seem a bit beside the point. In its isolation, the North feels very different from Toronto’s layers of growth and migration. Meanwhile, works such as Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak’s Entranced, a remarkable video project in which the long-time couple undergo hypnosis to consider what it might feel like when the other dies, also feel extraneous, a sad state for such an intensely reflective work.

Hera Buyuktasciyan from Turkey won the biennial’s emerging artist award. She starts with rolls of beige broadloom into which she has burned pictograms suggesting traditional rug patterns, maps and aerial views of landscapes.

toni hafkenscheid/CCourtesy of the Toronto Biennial of Art.

Half of the artists participating in the biennial come from outside Canada, and much of the work was commissioned for the occasion. It’s a big ask to bring a foreign artist to Toronto to create new art that speaks directly to this place. One who has risen to the task is Hera Buyuktasciyan from Turkey, who won the biennial’s emerging artist award. She contributes rolls of beige broadloom into which she has burned pictograms suggesting traditional rug patterns, maps and aerial views of landscapes. References come thick and fast from the stump-like carpet rolls: to the forest cleared to make way for the city, the industrial lands on which the exhibition takes place, the abandoned offices of the car dealership and the prized “Turkey carpets,” those rugs that peripatetic traders rolled up and carried with them.

By their nature, biennial exhibitions are sprawling affairs. This one includes not only these two group shows but also numerous satellite exhibitions as well as several site-specific installations along the waterfront and across the city. But biennials are also occasions to which visitors look for a summary of the moment, a focused statement on contemporary art. At its best, this new biennial uses history, geography and politics in profound and engaging ways to create art for this place. Whether surveying the centuries or unrolling their carpets for a few brief months, the artists gathered here bring the world to Toronto and Toronto to the world.

The Toronto Biennial continues to Dec. 1 at venues across the city. Admission is free. Torontobiennial.org

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