Things are often not where you expect them to be. Sure, the Louvre belongs in Paris, the Golden Gate in San Francisco. But should the largest not-for-profit contemporary-art and performing-arts space in the United States be in a sleepy former mill town tucked in the northwest corner of Massachusetts? Probably not. But it is – it being the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, nestled here in the winding Hoosic River Valley, where the treetops of the Berkshire Hills meet the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Two years ago, Denise Markonish, one of the two full-time curators at MASS MoCA, as the museum is commonly called, found herself in the office of her boss – the museum's founding director, Joseph Thompson – talking about a group show she was preparing.
"Well, what's it gonna be?" Thompson asked. "Fifteen artists? 20? What?"
"Probably 40," Markonish replied.
That would be 40 Canadian artists.
And, it turns out, Markonish was being modest in her estimate. When the exhibition Oh, Canada finally bows this weekend, the public will be asked to navigate more than 120 works – all made within the last five years, 10 of them original commissions – by no fewer than 62 artists. Running through next April 1, with a full-colour 400-page catalogue due in July, the show is being billed as the biggest survey of contemporary Canadian art ever held in the United States, maybe even the world.
"There was just so much good stuff worthy of inclusion," Markonish said last week in North Adams, as she and her staff hustled to finish installing the exhibition, which contains a judicious mix of artists old and young, familiar and not-so, from across the country. Among them: Michael Snow, David Hoffos, John Will, Annie Pootoogook, Kent Monkman, Shary Boyle, Rita McKeough, Kelly Mark and Marcel Dzama.
The works span almost every imaginable idiom. And size. Some of the spaces in MASS MoCA – which gets about 150,000 visitors annually – have ceilings higher than 10 metres.
Markonish, 36, comes by her Canadian enthusiasm honestly. Travelling with her parents from their New England home to Toronto as a 12-year-old, she was particularly struck by two of Snow's public sculptures: Flight Stop, hung from the ceiling of the Eaton Centre; and The Fans, on the exterior walls of what is now the Rogers Centre. Ten years later, while visiting a private collector's museum near Hamburg, Germany, she encountered the strange, intricate drawings of Winnipeg's Dzama and, she says, "never forgot them. He became someone I wanted to work with."
In 2007, when Markonish, by then a graduate of New York State's Bard College, was being interviewed for the MASS MoCA job, Thompson asked her what exhibition she thought the museum should do. Her reply: "A Canadian show."
"Over the years, I'd notice there were these artists whose work was really great and who I learned were from Canada," Markonish explains, as we discuss the exhibit in the foyer of MASS MoCA, which is carved out of five red-brick buildings in a former factory complex that, over a 125-year history, produced everything from Civil War uniforms to electrical systems for atomic bombs. "Yet I didn't know more. And I wondered, 'Why do I know more artists from China than I do from Canada?' I realized the art world tends to pay attention, at least in recent years, to one biennial after another in exotic locations … but why wasn't anyone just looking north?"
Shortly after earning the MASS MoCA curatorship, Markonish began to contact artists, artist-run centres, curators and postsecondary fine-arts departments in Canada to ask who should be on her radar. By mid-2008, she had a list of some 800 names. That October, she flew to Vancouver and Winnipeg for the first of what would become more than 400 studio visits spanning three years. The only places not visited in what she calls her "grand tour": Labrador, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
"I went with no preconceived ideas at all," she asserts, "no 'I want to see this kind of work, that kind of work.' Whatever exhibition was going to result, I wanted it to be very organic, to come out of what was holding me."
By October, 2011, Markonish pretty much had her roster in place. To the surprise of many, it did not include some of Canada's art stars – Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas and Janet Cardiff. Such omissions, Markonish says, were entirely intentional but not meant as a slight. "[They're] already what the art world expects when they hear 'Canadian art,' " she says. "Canada's a big country, and there's a lot going on, and I wanted to give voice to a lot of artists who aren't known here; or if they're known, to present other facets of their practice."
She acknowledges that organizing a show of contemporary art along nationalist lines may seem a bit old-fashioned.
If there's a word to describe the show, it would be "puckish." There are certainly works of gravitas: Inuit artist Shuvinai Ashoona's drawing Carrying Suicides, for instance; Garry Neill Kennedy's Spotted (80 photographs of airplanes allegedly used by the CIA to render political prisoners to states that practise torture); Ruth Cuthand's Trading, in which she renders, in native beads, such viruses as hepatitis C and West Nile.
But much else is conveyed with what Markonish calls "a little wink."
Quebec artist Michel De Broin's Tortoise is a mini-fortress made from picnic tables. A 2009 Diane Landry installation, Knight of Infinite Resignation, comprises 12 bicycle wheels, motorized like Ferris wheels, their rims affixed with plastic bottles. Monkman's Two Kindred Spirits, a MASS MoCA commission, isa tour-de-force diorama. In it, the Lone Ranger and Tonto share a semi-detached log cabin (and parallel traumas) with Old Shatterhand and Winnitou, characters created by 19th-century German author Karl May, who some believe are the progenitors of the Kemo Sabe and his aboriginal sidekick.
Another commissioned artist, Micah Lexier, has produced 100 silver coins that he is sticking in 100 corners throughout the sprawling MASS MoCA campus. The title of his piece? A Coin in Every Corner. Another installation, Vanité, by Nicolas Baier, is a reflective nightmare that would overwhelm even the most ardent narcissist: a work station in which everything – printer, computer, speakers, lamp, chair, wastebasket – is made of chrome.
For the time being, Markonish is willing to proffer only a few generalities about the show and what it says about the Canadian scene, which she deems "less commercially oriented" than the American one, in part because of the Canada Council for the Arts's tradition of funding experimental, project-based work. Recent visits to the Whitney biennial and New Museum triennial in New York revealed art, she says, that is "coming from this un-monumental, anti-aesthetic, ephemeral place." In Canada, by contrast, Markonish "found work that was going back to the studio, that was thinking about making things, about 'quoting' traditional materials and methodologies – what might even be called a sense of craft."
Canadian artists are grateful for Markonish's efforts, her smarts and the showcase. Nevertheless, veterans like 61-year-old Kim Adams – whose 2011 installation piece, Optic Nerve (a Ford Transit perforated with hundreds of holes, and illuminated from within) is one of the first artifacts Oh, Canada visitors will encounter – aren't expecting a career renaissance. "I've seen people take off and people not take off," says Adams, who has been featured in several group shows in the United States. "I don't throw that bag of expectations in there any more."
Adams's caution was echoed by 27-year-old Joseph Tisiga. A native of Whitehorse now studying in Halifax, he first met Markonish when she visited his Yukon studio in February, 2011; he has six pieces – drawings, paintings and collages – in Oh, Canada. "It's pretty dope all right to have all this diversity in one space," he says, "but it's really hard to say what it all amounts to. It seems abstract and awesome all at the same time. Will it be beneficial for me personally? I don't know; we'll have to see how it plays out."
Oh, Canada: Contemporary Art from North North America opens Sunday at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass., and runs till April 1, 2013.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story quoted art curator Denise Markonish recalling a conversation with Quebec artist Michel de Broin. This was her recollection of what Mr. de Broin said and not an exact quote; Mr. de Broin denies he made those comments to Ms. Markonish. This version has been updated.