Quibble as I may with the curatorial thrust of this year’s Bonavista Biennale—I remain somewhat unconvinced as to the “wildness”—politically and culturally at least—of the island portion of the province, especially given the festival’s locale. The town of Bonavista has seen in recent years an astonishing revitalization and reconstruction, with the Biennale since its inception in 2017 playing a major role in a nexus of cultural tourism, local and small business, and corporate interests that have collaborated in transforming what was, even within recent memory, a crumbling infrastructure and economy, into a living, breathing, thriving NL Tourism brochure, whose very picturesque qualities are undercut by its own meticulously crafted branding campaign. It sure was nice to get out from behind my computer screen and to experience—gasp!—real live art (and artists!) for the first time in what seemed like a period measurable most appropriately in geological terms: The Covid Eon.

If “wildness” can be said to exist in Bonavista, then one would hope that it could be found in the work and/or the artists invited to participate in this year’s festival, and not so much in the cultural products being displayed and produced by the cultural tourism shock troops—mostly white, middle or upper-middle class, retired or semi-retired professionals—who’ve bought up large swaths of land and property on the Bonavista Peninsula since the town’s revitalization began. That said, co-curators Matthew Hills and Patricia Gratton, who deserve much praise and recognition for what they’ve accomplished, warts and all (I for one, cannot imagine the level of pressure that must come with putting together a show of this kind, only to have some dingbat like yours truly take shots at you in the press), have assembled an astonishing array of works and artists that address the anxiety that the pandemic (not to mention widespread environmental, economic, and political instability) has presented us, even if, for the most part, this year’s Biennale has avoided the kind of controversy we saw in previous incarnations.

One in a line of several contemporary art festivals (Nocturne in Halifax, Hold Fast in St. John’s, Art In The Open in Charlottetown, Antigonight in Antigonish, and Third Shift in Saint John NB, amongst others), the Bonavista Biennale strives to bring contemporary art and discourse to an audience that would ordinarily not be privy to its presentation, with this year’s event seeking to “offer visitors a healing re-engagement with the world beyond digital screens.” Zoom fatigue for many of us has definitely set in, and, while several of the works presented at this year’s festival are projected video installations, the Biennale, and its attendant opening-weekend buzz, created an undeniable air of excitement reminiscent of our pre-pandemic days, even if, ultimately, as is frequently the case with festivals of this kind, the successes of the works presented are as varied as the works themselves. 

From Gerald Bealieau’s impressive outdoor installations of a giant crow’s head and an oil drinking Tyranosaurus, to assinajaq’s compelling video Rock Piece, to the stunning paintings of Michael Jonathan Pittman, the roster of 26 artists for this year’s Biennale has something for everyone. For the purposes of this piece, I’ve chosen to focus on two artists whose works, made specifically for the festival, encapsulate several of the tensions intrinsic to presenting contemporary art in the particular context of Bonavista itself, and speak to wider challenges such communities, and our broader society faces as a whole.

Will Gill: Camper (2021), photo courtesy of the artist.

Continuing his dive into his singular vision of spooky whimsy, Will Gill’s Camper presents viewers with a glowing, shimmering camper attached to a pick-up (complete with patio lanterns, and matching camp chairs nearby, facing out to the ocean—a callback perhaps to Gill’s earlier The Green Chair?) perched cliffside along the road that winds through Hodderville on the way into Bonavista town proper. Like much of Gill’s recent work, Camper creates contradictory feelings of unease and wonder, an uncanny rendering of childhood nostalgia overlaid with quiet, ghostlike, otherworldly strangeness. Gleaming in a white paint infused with glass beads to refract light, Camper transforms in the shifting spectrum of light caused by the setting sun, the haphazard glare of passing headlights, and of camera flashes, from a curious, if somewhat mundane object into something more suggestive of the supernatural. Is Gill here pointing toward our tendency to view our childhood excursions into the wilderness (as tame and manicured as it may actually have been) as romanticized versions of the truth? An insidious desire to cast the means of our interactions with nature (literally and otherwise) in a magical light? 

As Gill says, “[I began to] start thinking about ways that we do actually interact with nature. It’s never really an immersive experience, is it? I mean, we are creatures of comfort, so in our minds camping is kind of an escape to nature, but it’s simply a smaller home away from our bigger home. I’m not making a critique of camping. I love camping. Campers are ubiquitous in the landscape, especially in this province. Perhaps it’s never been about getting closer to nature though but rather simply a fun time.”

The camp chairs beside the camper (locked, by the way, its windows painted over) present a glorious view of the surrounding landscape, the waves of the North Atlantic can be heard from the top of the hill where they rest. I was struck seeing the view by memories of my long ago days sweating through Art History at NSCAD, of the Magisterial Gaze and its relation to Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting: how the natural world was depicted, as though by divine right, as falling under the purview and primacy of settler colonialism. An antecedent of the Enclosure Movement in Britain, which brought an end to the notion of “The Commons,” the Magisterial Gaze was part and parcel of a colonial doctrine that viewed the land and its inhabitants (Indigenous and otherwise) as resources whose worth was to be extracted, means to an ultimate goal: the continued supremacy of white, colonial, patriarchal capitalism.

Does the gleaming whiteness of Gill’s Camper suggest our more brutal and ominous colonial history? As I write this, more than 6000 bodies have been recovered from mass graves across this country—the horrifying results of the Residential School system. The legacy of colonialism and the rapacious capitalism through which it continues to draw breath can be seen and felt acutely in the leisure activities of the ruling class, even as they remain blissfully unaware of it.

For many, RVs, campers, and camping itself represent an escape from the monotony of our urban lives suffering under the drudgery of work, school, kids, et cetera—freedom, in short, of a kind not dissimilar to that sought by the day-trippers (myself included) and culture vultures that inhabit the town of Bonavista itself—yet here, Gill suggests, the quest for freedom, for the “wildness” of the Biennale’s theme, remains illusory: an idealized narrative shot through with a disquieting notion of loss. 

Melanie Colosimo: Sync or Swim (2021), photo courtesy of the artist.
Melanie Colosimo: Sync or Swim (2021), Detail, photo courtesy of the artist.

In a similar vein to Gill’s Camper, Melanie Colosimo’s Sync Or Swim likewise treads the tightrope between whimsy and humour, and the more ominous elements of certain contemporary realities of rural life—be they economic, cultural, or otherwise.

Installed beside the recently constructed Champney’s West Aquarium—itself an offering to the burgeoning cultural tourism industry of the area—Colosimo asks viewers to consider a 1200 gallon water-filled blue hard-plastic fish tank atop a platform on the grass beside the nearby seaside. Stuffed with 14 daisy-chain style linked life preservers visible either through rectangular windows cut into the tank’s sides or jutting up through the surface of the water itself, the installation suggests a claustrophobic sense of stagnation, even as we hear the tank’s filtration system hard at work somewhere underneath. Lit from within, the tank and its constricted preservers echo the aquatic life in the adjacent aquarium wherein samples representative of local sea creatures can be viewed by art-goers or regular tourists alike in the hopes they may “learn about ocean life sustainability, the inter-connectivity between species and the evolving economic impact to our province.”

Knotted together and bunched up, there’s a certain ambiguity between whether the preservers support one another, or are in fact, struggling to keep the others down—a commentary perhaps on the benefits and challenges of our tightly-knit Atlantic Canadian art community. That which supports us, that allows us to survive, is that which limits us, is that which threatens our ability to evolve.

As stagnant or unable to move, flourish, and grow as the preservers may appear to be, there is also a certain stability or, dear I say it, solidarity in how the rings are linked that are reminiscent of people’s linked arms: the iconic pose of protestors or striking union members against either public or private security forces. As Colosimo says in her artist statement, the preservers represent “the Sisyphean effort to keep industries alive and communities together” in the face of “government licenses and agreements that have made it challenging for industries to be profitable locally,” represented here as the enormous tub of water, which sustains but limits that which it holds. 

As volatile extractive industries such as mining and the fishery, either presently or in the past, continue to wreak considerable havoc on the environment—and the very fabric of the communities they exploit—do not our cultural products, Colosimo seems to ask, have some place in mitigating the collective trauma and offering a sustainable industry to our communities, as problematic as that industry may sometimes be? And, if so, for whom are these cultural products made? And who do they serve?

A card-carrying lefty whacko, I believe that collective action can accomplish more, and benefit more people than any individualistic enterprise can ever hope to achieve. But to what degree Colosimo’s work asks, must one remain vigilant against the kind of group-think prone to stifle communities such as Bonavista, or for that matter, larger ones like that community of artists who’ve presented their work for our consideration at the Biennale itself?

In any event, the engagement with the work and sense of pride from the local community when it comes to the festival was evident all over the peninsula, the landscape of which operates as a stunning backdrop that informs the complexity of the works on display. 

On Saturday morning, exhausted from all the driving and the dance party Graeme Patterson threw the night before, having ridden our rental bikes around town until I got a flat, having lost my vape somewhere on the road, having had breakfast at one of the seaside cafes, having walked forever to an ice-cream truck oddly tucked next to some random house beside a truly astonishing panoramic ocean-view where the greenery burst with blueberries and raspberries, where we swam in a warm pool of water nestled in hills, we pulled out of the lot beside our Airbnb on River Styx Road (!) while our host—wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with a cat’s head superimposed over the solar system—waved to us from her front deck. 

Bonavista is a strange and beautiful place. We shall see, as time goes on, as new industries replace the old and no one yet knows what to make of it all, if that continues to be the case.