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book review

Romanian artist Serban Savu’s The Bathers, one of the works from art city of the future Cluj.

If, when thinking of a city that pulsates with exciting contemporary art and avant-garde possibility, Paris, New York or London comes immediately to mind – think again. You won't find any of those art capitals profiled in Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant-Gardes. Nor will you find contemporary art centres such as Berlin, Glasgow, Stockholm, Shanghai or Los Angeles. In fact, Europe is largely absent from the list (with the exception of the Transylvanian city of Cluj, and Istanbul, which straddles Europe and Asia). And there is only one city in continental North America that makes the cut: Vancouver.

"I think it's testament to the artistry that this city has become known for," says Reid Shier, the curator, critic and gallery director who handled the Vancouver section. "We're in a moment right now of extraordinary artistry and it's something I think to be celebrated."

The other to-some-extent-off-the-radar cities profiled in the photo-laden brick of a volume are: Beirut, Bogota, Lagos, New Delhi, Johannesburg, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Singapore and San Juan, Puerto Rico. In each section, a designated local embedded in the art scene in some way profiles eight artists or art collectives indicative of the dynamic at play in the city.

The book is not interested in grand museums or artists who have achieved widespread international recognition, but in "anticipating the foremost figures and artistic forms of tomorrow," it explains.

It's an interesting departure for Phaidon, which has published volumes such as Cream and Fresh Cream, conceived as exhibitions in book format, which featured art and artists largely connected with acknowledged art capitals. "What we wanted to explore in Art Cities of the Future were the new frontiers of contemporary art," explains Phaidon's editorial director Amanda Renshaw. "We wanted to feature ground-breaking or avant-garde art that is being created outside the focus of American and European media. So we purposely selected cities that were new to most of us. Places that were not on the 'art tour' map; places that are hives of artistic activity and dialogue that are not in the London, Berlin, New York spotlight."

Indeed, some readers (ahem) might find themselves Googling Cluj at the outset. It's a Romanian university town that, according to independent critic and curator Jane Neal, is an ideal breeding ground for avant-garde artistic production: in an effort to avoid provincial connotations, Cluj's artists looked not to the capital Bucharest for recognition, but sought validation by breaking into the international market. And indeed the rising stars of the tight-knit, collaborative scene have been earning some international attention – something Neal says would have been the stuff of fantasy just a decade ago.

In contrast, the bustling, frenetic Nigerian city of Lagos boasts the largest local art scene in West Africa, bolstered by a large number of artists, institutions and collectors, according to Antawan I. Byrd, a former Fulbright fellow and curatorial assistant at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos. CCA was founded in 2007, "signalling an alternative spirit," writes Byrd, and helping to generate a growing international buzz. Photography has emerged as an important area, and social commentary is a frequent theme.

Vancouver might seem a bit of an anomaly for this book, Renshaw explains, but she says it was important for Phaidon to include a city in North America. "The home of Jeff Wall and Geoffrey Farmer has a thriving, new, distinct and self-reflective group of artists – reflecting on and reinterpreting their own art history as well as themselves."

Vancouver has long been a centre for photoconceptualism, but with the book interested in artists on the cusp of international recognition, the likes of Wall, Farmer, Stan Douglas and Brian Jungen are absent. Instead, Shier writes about Raymond Boisjoly, Rebecca Brewer, Andrew Dadson, Julia Feyrer, Gareth Moore, Isabelle Pauwels, Kevin Schmidt and Ron Tran. Shier, who is director of Presentation House Gallery in North Vancouver, chose artists working at a very high level about whom he could write with firsthand knowledge and conviction.

Already they're moving beyond the cusp: Brewer won the RBC Painting Prize in 2011; Moore made a splash at Documenta (13) last year; Dadson was named one of "20 artists to collect now" in the December, 2013, issue of Architectural Digest.

A sense of place emerges as an important theme in Vancouver: Dadson documents an argument with a next-door neighbour in the seven-part 2003 photograph Neighbour's Trailer. Moore (with Jacob Gleason) created St. George's Marsh, a functioning corner store with vitrines that also served as a gallery and performance space. Schmidt painted right onto a tree stump the new, less obstructed view of West Vancouver from Stanley Park following the 2006 windstorm – and then photographed it.

Using a photo found in the civic archives as her reference, Feyrer built a meticulous recreation of a turn-of-the-century Gastown logger bar in her backyard, opened it up to friends for a summer as a speakeasy serving homemade apple spritz for $1.00 a glass, and filmed the action, for The Poodle Dog Ornamental Bar. Shier was struck by the film's masterful tone. "It was one of the most beautifully evocative tonally perfect things I'd seen in a long time. It caught this afternoon light which was both totally romantic and yet completely realistic."

For Apartment #201, 2008 Ron Tran removed his front door and installed it in a group show, living for the duration at home without a front door. In his 2004 performance Dinner with a Stranger, Tran spent evenings in a fast-food restaurant, mimicking the actions of diners sitting next to him.

This is the type of work that won Vancouver a spot in this important volume.

"Why has there been anything that's happened in this little city on the western coast of North America to the degree it has? What are the ingredients that have produced so many good artists? And will it continue?," says Shier, when asked about the city's "art city of the future" status. "Some of the forces that are turning Vancouver into the city it is now are not altogether friendly for the production of art. So the fact that there is still so much great art being produced here is testament to the strength of the artist community. Whether or not that's going to continue, I don't know. I hope it does. My job relies on it."

Marsha Lederman is The Globe and Mail's Western Arts correspondent.

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