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The Rise of Canada's Art-World Class Clowns

Quebec City art collective BGL installed a full-scale depanneur at this year's Venice Biennale, the latest in a career of humouous, high-concept projects.

Water Velocity. Photo courtesy BGL

When I arrive to meet Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère, and Nicolas Laverdière (aka BGL) at their Pan Am Games installation in Scarborough on a Friday in early June, I find two of the three artists high above the site in a crane, while on the ground, Giguère tries to sort out a dilemma over the phone to Montreal. BGL are missing "little stick" attachments needed to reinforce the structure of Water Velocity, a giant, looping aluminium interpretation of a swimming-pool lane, one that glitters like water at night and rustles colourfully by day, decorating what will eventually be the bustling outdoor lobby for the Pan Am Sports Centre's two Olympic-sized pools. The little sticks were addressed to Montreal by mistake, meaning the artists may have to stay in Toronto a little longer.

The Quebecois trio, who have worked as an art collective for 18 years and are fresh from the 2015 Venice Biennale, are wearing hardhats and safety gear but don't fit in with the rest of the crew preparing the Pan Am site. It's clear that having artists around is an oddity here, as various hardhat-wearing staff flit in and out during our interview to check on them (eventually one will notice me and kick me out). The construction workers and administrators contrast with BGL's easygoing natures—Bilodeau re-explains their predicament to one as he sign forms she's carried to them on a clipboard: "We'll have to stay this weekend, except if we find Superman and he can fly from Montreal to here."

"Okay," she answers.

Last fall, BGL were dubbed Canada's "avant-garde pranksters" by the Globe and Mail, which pretty accurately places them in line as contemporary dadaists. BGL's popular Canadassimo installation currently at the the Venice Biennale, curated by Marie Fraser, transports a replica of a full Montreal depanneur to Italy, where shelves full of pop, chips, candy, cereal, and household items prompted Marina Abramovic to express disappointment when she learned she couldn't purchase any items.

BGL have told me they can meet for lunch at the site, and their spirits are high and their moods welcoming and jovial even though they're clearly stressed over the drama surrounding the missing little sticks. While hundreds of colorful handmade squares move in the wind outside, Bilodeau, Giguère, and Laverdière eagerly share their homemade feast and do their best to fill me in on what it's like to create things like a carousel with shopping carts for seats, or install a false water surface made out of paper squares above the Louise Basin in Quebec, or turning an actual car into a giant hookah—essentially, to be the Bart Simpsons of the art world.

Together for nearly two decades, beginning in art school at Laval, BGL flow organically as a unit: they finish each other's sentences, assisting each other with English while dropping charming phrases like "site web" (instead of website, obvi.)

Surprisingly, the trio tell me they've followed a traditional route in the Canadian art world, having started small and worked their way up to their current position as full-time artists, beginning with small artist-run centres in Quebec.

BGL. Photo courtesy BGL

It was Toronto that really broke BGL, where at first they recall, "there was a little rumour about our work." The artists made a lot of relationships quickly including Mercer Union, who introduced them to Diaz Contemporary, the gallery who now represents them along with Montreal's Parisian Laundry. "The art community in Toronto is strong—they talked to other people, and maybe that's why we were invited to other cities."

But BGL are unclear as to how they arrived at their success (art has been their modest full time job for 15 years, which pretty much qualifies as success in Canada).

"Even us, we ask ourselves: how did we get here? It's not a strategy," Laverdière says. "We don't have a huge goal: the offers are appearing, and we're like, 'Wow, that's a good offer, let's try!' And we try. It's not a highway; it's like a country road—'Whoah, there's a little path, let's go there!'"

While BGL won their Pan Am installation by jury, Canada's National Gallery never asked them to submit to the Venice Biennale. BGL recall: "We just answered the phone... [it was] a surprise."

"We never really thought we would do this for so long. It's always been like, 'Okay let's try, okay let's try'— just dreaming of surviving doing that job, never convinced it would succeed. Maybe for the past 10 years we've known [it was sustainable]."

When I ask if a big public art piece like the Pan Am installation pays a lot, they grin. "It pays a lot? No. There's a big budget, but we put so much into the construction, and there's all these extra costs. We don't know how much BGL will have at the end. We give a little cash to ourselves while we work, to feed our stomachs and be sure that we can pay rent."

Stability arrived in 2000, when they began to enter the world of creating public art. Sales to museums are a huge boost as well (when Josée Drouin-Brisebois of the National Gallery first came calling in 2007 to purchase Le discours des éléments, BGL had to ask her if she was joking).

BGL's Venice Biennale installation, Canadassimo. Photo courtesy BGL

Whether they're building rideable carousels out of metal police barriers or attaching a walker to a motorcycle, audience reactions are what have driven BGL to stay together for so long. "We really like it when people enjoy art," they confide. "Maybe this is another thing about humour. We like art to be joyful—to provoke pleasure."

"We did a piece called Chicha-Muffler where people can smoke hookah out of the car. We transformed the use of the car into a huge pipe—just the muffler, but it's crazy to see that effort: there's an absurdity to turning the car all the way on its side just to smoke the muffler. Lots of people are laughing because the car is on its side, and you see people smoking from the muffler. People don't understand how it works, though it's pretty simple: some people are laughing, and some are having fun living the image of smoking a car."

Chicha-Muffler. Photo via Facebook

This mix of absurdity, questioning, and comedy is BGL's hallmark. The idea is to defamiliarize viewers, to open them up to thinking about the work with a fresh set of eyes.

"When something is a bit funny, it's more interesting. If someone is making jokes, you're more willing to listen in for a longer time, like, 'Okay are they joking, or is that serious?'—behind the joke there can be many layers: you can get the serious behind that. If I made a joke about something that you do wrong, it's funny, but you also know that [what you did] is not correct, so you will change more."

Readily agreeing that communication through humour is a trait, or at least a stream, of Canadian art, BGL name Graeme Patterson, Dean Baldwin (currently exhibiting at MOCCA's final show in Toronto, where he's erected a very silly summer long "Queen West Yacht Club"), Liz Magor, and Kim Adams as fellow CanCon jokers of some variety—"we could name fifty artists that we find... I don't know if it's funny, but there is humour in their work. It's generous, and they're strange. They use material nobody has used before, play with stuff no one has ever played with before, and invent new ways of expression. Our generation became bored in museums—we found that boring. Maybe it's a reaction." I'm reminded of Montreal artists Chloe Lum and Yannick Desranleau's (a.k.a. Seripop) vibrantly saturated garbage art, meant to provoke both amusement and radicalism in the most welcoming and open-ended way.

Carousel. Photo courtesy BGL/Julya Theodossopoulos

"Our country has no war, and life is really simple. Our art represents our country. We don't have famine... our art production is a little bit light and plentiful." They mumble together about native genocide. "We should talk about white trash."

When I ask what they mean by "white trash," they say, "White Europeans came and killed the people that were living here. Not just killed, but tried to transform them." BGL finally open up about the more political, though always open ended aspects of their art. "The fence—the Carrousel, it's a soft..." Giguère trails off.

"Soft politics?" I ask.

"Yeah. Art not just to critique: it's more large, mysterious, poetic, and fascinating. That's a big challenge—to do something that fascinates people."

Carousel. Photo courtesy BGL/Darren Roberts

I ask about the soft politics of the Chicha-Muffler and they tell me that while it comments on the oil market and pollution, the up-ended, up/down-cycled (depending how much you love shisha, or hate traffic) car is also meant to provoke radical thinking: "It talks about all the gas: it's everywhere. It's in our hair, day by day, the pollution, the petrol market. There are the humans and the cars, it's like two societies, and we construct the cities for the car. There are people who talk to us about that when they experience the piece, but [Chicha-Muffler] is more about liberty: you see the car on its side on the ground and think, Wow, we can do that? We're free. Maybe old people don't care, they just laugh, but teenagers see that and think we can modify our society. We can play with cars."

At work on Water Velocity. Photo by Kristel Jax

The Biennale was one more stop on BGL's strange journey. "We're gonna remember that forever. It's crazy." I ask what they'll remember most and they giggle and tell me they discovered ping-pong before waxing on the beauty of the country.

It was humour that helped Canadassimo make a splash at the Okwui Enwezor-directed Biennale, which was often dark and politically charged, with Vik Muniz's Lampedusa, a floating installation about migrant deaths, and Christoph Büchel's temporary mosque, which Italian police shut down in May. Attendees found solace in BGL's cheekier, brighter pavilion, which also included a Euro-drop coin game. "Many people said 'thank you for your work, it's really fresh and funny," BGL recall, "everything here is so dark.'"

"The depanneur—it's not a joke, but it's pretty strange, and you laugh... You have doubts, you're lost—you probably imagine that you could have some Coca-Cola or water, so it's quite funny. You have to play with the line between art and no art: the limit."

BGL took the joke further by purposefully blurring one section of the makeshift shop. "When you arrive in the back, you realize that many objects are blurry, and it's tough to focus. It's an experience. You have to feel it to understand... it's weird because you doubt about your sight: you don't laugh. You run."

I laugh as Giguère mimes fear.

Rapides et dangereux. Photo courtesy BGL/Jean-François Dugas

Just as little kids learn how to approach the world through play, BGL hope to teach everyone through offering them a chance to play forever, providing strange and unexpected situations such as a blurry depanneur a continent away from Quebec, or, as they're currently assembling in Montreal, a giant ferris wheel constructed out of city buses. It's play, too, that's kept BGL together for so long.

"Working together for 18 years: that's pretty unique," BGL admit. "Usually artist collectives are for a quick moment, and then they split because they have their own projects."

I ask how they've continued as a unit for so long.

"Money." They joke, and giggle together.

Interior of Canadassimo. Photo via Facebook

"You don't make money. [We make] a little bit higher than the minimal salary, because we share it in three parts. It's more sharing: friendship—the three of us are more stimulated to go to the studio to meet and work with our friends than alone. We do it now because we have three projects at the same time so we need to separate to work, but it started like that at school because we had more fun together, and we had a chance to keep it like that."

When I ask them about Canadian themes in their art in reference to titles such as Canadassimo, BGL seemed confused—asking, "Like, landscapes?" Nationalism for BGL is often incidental, and secondary at most, but their reaction is telling: the face of what we think of when we think of Canadian art is lagging behind Canadian art itself—artists such as BGL are building a name for Canada as a playful yet astute international class clown, bringing a sense of humour and wonder to large scale events like the Biennale or the Pan Am Games.

The Pan Am Games are running in Toronto until July 26, but Water Velocity is a permanent installation in Scarborough—or "it's supposed to be," BGL joke. In late summer or early fall, their massive project La vélocité des lieux, a 65-foot-high ferris wheel made of five buses, will open in Montreal.

Follow Kristel Jax on Twitter.