Category Archives: Venice Biennale for Architecture

Honouring Arts Advocate Dr. Shirley Thomson

The headline Donor supports Venice Biennale’s Canada Pavillon caught my eye.  I’m fond of Venice  – one big art gallery, really! – and visited the Architecture Biennale in 2016.  (You can read a short post about my Biennale adventures here, and a brief description about the Canadian exhibition here.)

Venice Biennale site, image by T. Vatrt

Venice Biennale site, image by T. Vatrt

What is interesting about the $3 million donation to maintain the Canadian Pavillon at the Venice Biennale site is that the donor remains anonymous.   Instead, the patron wishes to honour a former director of the National Gallery of Canada, Dr. Shirley Thomson (1930-2010.)  Barbara Stead- Coyle (National Gallery of Canada Foundation) reports The donor wanted the focus to be on Dr. Thomson and Dr. Thomson’s time at the gallery.  

Among her many achievements, Dr. Thomson was the director of the National Gallery of Canada when it moved from an office building to its current (and stunning) purpose-built location along the Ottawa River.

Maman, Louise Bourgeois, 1999 National Gallery of Canada image

Maman, Louise Bourgeois, 1999 National Gallery of Canada image

National Gallery of Canada, T. Vatrt image

During her 1987-1997 tenure at the National Gallery, Dr. Thomson diversified the permanent collection, acquiring contemporary art, as well as important historical works.  Under her direction, the gallery purchased  Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (1967) in 1989 for $1.8 million.  It proved to be a highly controversial topic in Canada, outraging Conservative politicians, and sparking discussions amongst Canadians. How wonderful to have citizens talking about art!

Here’s a concise video by  National Gallery curator Annabelle Kienle Ponka  explaining the significance of this painting.

Voice of Fire, Barnett Newman, Winnipeg Free Press image

In addition to her degrees in fine art and history, Dr. Shirley Thomson received an honorary degree from Université Concordia in 2001.  This citation outlines some of her many accomplishments throughout her career, as well as at the National Gallery.  Besides diversifying the permanent collection with savvy purchases (imagine what Voice of Fire is worth today) she valued education and accesibility for all:  she initiated an internship program for university students, and began the Cybermuse program, which ensured the collection’s online availability.  In honour of the donation, the Abstract Expressionist space is now The Dr. Shirley L. Thomson Gallery.

Isn’t it refreshing to have an arts advocate honoured, instead of the usual Mr. and Mrs. Millionaire/Billionaire Memorial Gallery?  For a bit of insight into Dr. Thomson’s leadership style and personality, this interview with Rob Labossiere provides some insight into this remarkable woman.  Our thanks to the generous donor for maintaining the Canadian Pavillon at the Venice Biennale and for bringing Dr. Shirley Thomson to our attention.

Dr. Shirley Thomson, Ottawa Citizen image

Dr. Shirley Thomson, Ottawa Citizen image


Answering back!

The Art Caravan is working towards informing its subjects about the discussion in this blog.  After writing a post, I often send an email to the artist to tell them I wrote about their work.  I have been pleasantly surprised that artists like Jennifer Stilwell (June 2) and Anila Agha promptly responded to my emails.  (If you haven’t read the January 15 posting on Agha’s installation, please do so! Right now is as good a time as any…..just click here.)

Pierre Belanger, landscape architect, and head of the Canadian installation at this year’s Venice Biennale for Architecture, responded to last week’s blog posting, Can You Tell Me What’s Going On Here?  In the last paragraph I wrote:  I did enjoy the variety of ways the ideas are presented. I only wish the presentation had provided a vision for a way forward.

I was somewhat surprised, but happy to hear back from M. Belanger. Here is his response, in part:

The conversation we are looking to curate next year across Canada during our tour will hopefully address your questions about strategies moving forward. For us, it was important to first put this issue on the table, for which most Canadians (let alone Europeans) that live in big metropolitan regions are unaware of, nor really care to think much about. There is a huge part of territorial history that Canadians need to know about, and we believe that this project of mapping is a projective in itself. The lens it casts on Canada opens up many unheard voices with many ideas, old and new, about the future. We’re simply providing grounds for those voices to be heard, understood, and acted upon.

He genuinely seems interested in continuing the dialogue.  It’s a timely discussion, considering  yesterday’s beginning of the Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.  This is, hopefully, the season for truth telling and reconciliation in Canadian society.

photo by T. Vatrt

“Can you tell me what’s going on here?”

….I asked the host/interpreter who was standing near the Canadian entry at the Biennale Architettura in Venice. I could tell he was the host, because he was wearing a ball cap, and standing near a fold-up table displaying printed materials. Seriously.

(With true patriot love,  I had chosen the Canadian pavilion as my first stop when I -finally!- found the portion of the Biennale hosting the permanent pavilions.)  After discovering the installation wasn’t actually inside the Canadian pavilion (it’s being renovated, but the Canucks in the crowd will be happy to know it has gorgeous water views) this is what I saw…..

image from

image from

I had initially walked past , not understanding that this is Extraction, the Canadian presence at the 2016 Biennale for Architecture.

image from

image from

Perhaps you understand my confusion.

The young man in the ball cap was happy to answer my questions and explain the project to me.  He’s an architecture student at Harvard, studying under the Canadian Pierre Belanger, a co-director of the Post Graduate Design Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.  He said Extraction is based on Canada’s role in resource extraction, both nationally and internationally.  It seeks to ask all kinds of questions about the global impact of resource extraction.

Here’s a quote from the catalogue:  Extraction redefines our understanding of urbanization in the 21st century.  If everything we build comes from the ground, then extraction is the process and practice that reshapes our assumptions about urban economies……..Where do these materials come from?  Whose lands? Whose laws? Where do they go?  Who processes them? How are they moved?……From land rights to mineral rights, aboveground and underground, between rule and representation of the ground, every dimension of urban life is mediated by resource extraction.  It is our urban, political and cultural ore.

He explained that the white sacks are filled with gold ore from an abandoned Canadian mining company’s project on the Italian island of Sardinia….a project that left behind a poisonous spill.  On the ground is a gold survey stake, marking the intersection of the UK, France and Canada pavilions.  Inside is a peep hole, where you can lie down and watch the film 800 Years of Empire in 800 images in 800 Seconds.

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Yes!  I did lie down, and watch the whole film.

No, I did not have an audience.


Click here for Extraction’s  website.


You may want to read Robert Enright’s interview with Pierre Belanger in the arts journal, Border Crossings.  (Find it here.) It helped me to further understand the conceptual nature of the project. The CBC’s News article (click here) acknowledged the controversial nature of the installation.

I asked the young man how the project is being received.  He told me most visitors liked it enthusiastically;  Canadians were less pleased.  My quibble isn’t with the conceptual nature of the project, or the issues raised.  It’s important that we question, and acknowledge the sources of the materials for our built environment. I did enjoy the variety of ways the ideas are presented.  I only wish the presentation had provided a vision for a way forward.  How do we deal with the environment in a sustainable manner?  How should we extract resources in a way that is both ethical and sustainable?  Big, challenging questions, I know.  But isn’t that why we have events like the Biennale?  It’s important to ask the difficult questions, and to also offer up possible solutions, and a way (or three) forward.


La Biennale di Venezia

Many of us have heard of the Venice Biennale…..probably the most important international exhibition of contemporary art, held every two years.  I think of it like the World’s Fair of art:   many countries have pavilions, and different exhibitions are installed for each new Biennale, but it occurs (largely) in a dedicated site in Venice.

Visiting Venice this year, I knew that this wasn’t the year for the Biennale for Art.  What I didn’t know is that it’s the year for the Biennale for Architecture. (What I don’t know could fill volumes! As Saint Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” The Art Caravan has miles to go…..)

Venice Biennale site Photo by T. Vatrt

Venice Biennale site
Photo by T. Vatrt

Venice Biennale site map

Venice Biennale site map

The theme of this year’s Biennale Architettura is Reporting from the Front.  It runs from May 28 to November 27, 2016.  There are 63 nations participating, including Nigeria, the Philippines, Seychelles and Yemen as first time participants.  It’s a big deal!  The exhibitions are not confined to the Arsenale and Giardini sites, but a few are installed in other locations in Venice.  As well, there are symposiums, panel discussions,  a summer school, and much more.

The second pavilion I visited was Great Britain.  (Yes, the first was Canada, but I’ll share my thoughts about it in a separate posting.) Five different, creative propositions answered the challenge of affordable housing in Britain, and by extension, other countries.  Please click here to see a short video explaining the project.  If you want to see and hear more in another short video, please click here.

British pavilion at Venice Biennale for Architecture Photo by T. Vatrt

British pavilion at Venice Biennale for Architecture
Photo by T. Vatrt

The American pavilion showed 12 different responses to rejuvenating sections of Detroit.  Here is a very good video explaining the project in less than five minutes.

Rest assured, I won’t report on every pavilion or display I visited….at least not today.  Perhaps the most important observation is the engagement I felt visiting the Biennale Architettura, despite my very limited knowledge of formal architecture.  For the most part, the projects proposed solutions to real life problems, or reported on creative solutions to challenging circumstances.   The ideas were not only accessible to an average citizen, but also inspiring in their creativity to improve the quality of life for everyone.  This is not an elitist, theoretical display but an opportunity (for everyone) to think both serious, and fun thoughts, about the built world we inhabit.

An added reason to visit Venice soon… if you need another excuse to go.