07/06/2011 10:58 EDT | Updated 09/05/2011 05:12 EDT

Canada at the Venice Biennale

It's better late than never for some highlights from this year's Venice Biennale.

Flying into Venice. All photos: VoCA

Having been to several Venice Biennales in my life, I almost always prefer the pavilions where the artist addresses the architecture of the pavilions in which the art is housed. The first Biennale was held in 1895 and there are only 30 permanent national pavilions in the Giardini. This year, there were 89 participating countries, many of whom exhibited in off-site pavilions throughout Venice.

The whole concept of the pavilions in the Giardini is, to my mind, rather outdated, and art has clearly moved on from such constraints. Many of the pavilions are architecturally designed to best showcase painting or drawing shows like this year's contribution from Canada. Luckily, Vancouver artist Steven Shearer managed to give Canada's little pavilion, wedged in between Germany and Great Britain, some oomph with an enormous billboard and DIY shed-like entrance.

Shearer's lyric-filled billboard and shed-like entrance to the Canadian pavilion.

This year's biennale curator, Bice Curiger disputes the notion that the pavilion idea is dated, writing in the catalogue:

"The view voiced repeatedly in past decades that La Biennale with its national pavilions has become an anachronism prompts the suspicion that there is instead an agenda to eradicate history. This is because as an event La Biennale celebrates the most recent contemporary art -- an expression of the eternal "now" -- set against a domineeringly historical backdrop."

I don't know if I agree. While it may be important to view contemporary art against a historical backdrop, I believe it's also important for artists to be able to move beyond historical constraints and beyond archaic architecture. Which some artists are doing. Monika Sosnowksa did so with an excellent pavilion for Poland a few Biennales ago, and Mike Nelson did so for this year's show, in which he represented Great Britain with a stunning re-creation of a Turkish slum. His thought was to 'erase' the pavilion, which he did by completely transforming the interior architecture, including removing the pavilion's skylight to create a disorienting interior courtyard.

As for Shearer's show, aside from the entrance and billboard, there was nothing new or particularly exciting to see if you've already seen his work at the Power Plant in Toronto or elsewhere, but it was a strongly, if subtly curated representation of the excellent work coming out of Canada these days.

Here are some images:

Curiger goes on to write:

"La Biennale was launched in 1895 as a private an artistic initiative (rather that one representing the state), based on the conviction that "art constitutes one of the most valuable elements of civilization and promotes freedom of thought and fraternal understanding among all peoples."

Well, you can't argue with that.