For local staycationers or those visiting from elsewhere, the Bonavista Peninsula needs no introduction. An area overflowing with boundless beauty, unique geology, interesting history, and great local shops and restaurants, there’s already so much to draw people to the area. This summer, the Bonavista Biennale returns, providing another great reason to visit.
Taking place from August 14 to September 12, the theme of this year’s event is “The Tonic of Wildness” – a fitting one considering the isolation and anxiety that has helped define much of the past year and a half. The Biennale not only offers the chance to slow down and experience thought-provoking installations in spectacular settings, it also provides people the opportunity to unplug and reconnect with nature, the community and themselves. And featuring 26 artists at 26 sites across the peninsula, there’s a lot to take in, including a treasure hunt, fossil hike, printmaking and watercolour workshops, photography installations, films and much more.
We chatted with Sarah Agnew, Co-Executive Director of the Bonavista Biennale, about what people can expect this year, and the economic impact that the event has made.
Business & Arts NL: Quite a lot has changed in the world since the last Biennale in 2019 and because of the pandemic, we’ve had to enjoy and appreciate art from afar or via a computer screen, making this Biennale’s theme, “The Tonic of Wildness” all the more relevant. What sort of experience do you hope to cultivate for visitors this year and what message do you hope they’ll take away?
Sarah Agnew: The experience: After close to two years of separation and isolation, much of our human interaction has been mediated by digital screens. Our engagement with art and culture has been online. Our sense of adventure and yearning to travel have been fed virtually. The Biennale is an opportunity for people to reconnect with community, art and nature in tangible ways, to experience them in a real place in real time.
Biennale visitors find art embedded in historic spaces and age-old landscapes around the Bonavista Peninsula, a place shaped over millennia by the forces of wildness. The meeting of artwork and viewer in this physical (not digital) space has been the core of the Biennale experience since it began. This year, we hope that the experience is a healing re-engagement with the world beyond digital screens.
The message: The Biennale is a platform for artists and audiences to explore, challenge and express ideas and perspectives on major societal and cultural issues, through contemporary visual art. “The Tonic of Wildness” theme gives the artists a context for exploring how humans live with nature at this critical point in our, and the planet’s history—defined by climate change, our unprecedented impact on the environment, and now pandemic. Rather than deliver a message about these issues, the artworks excite, provoke and inspire our audiences to question, debate, and draw their own conclusions.
Business & Arts NL: This year, there will also be the special group photography exhibit, Regeneration I Piguttaugiallavalliajuk I Ussanitauten, featuring seven Northern Labrador photographers, at the Quinton Premises in Red Cliff. How does this exhibit tie in with the overall theme?
Sarah Agnew: All of the photographers in Regeneration l Piguttaugiallavalliajuk l Ussanitauten are Indigenous, from Nunatsiavut and Sheshatshiu. Although some now live and work elsewhere, they all grew up in the northern “wild” of Labrador. The images in the exhibition capture elements of the natural environment and traditional cultures and practices of the North. The linking threads in the works are woven by people with deep knowledge of place: the habits of birds and animals, seasonal cycles for hunting and gathering, how to gauge ice thickness or navigate seemingly trackless terrain and brutal weather. The lived experiences and practical knowledge of the photographers enhance their ability to respond artistically to the astonishing and varied beauty of the natural environment of the North—and to recognize the urgency of respecting and protecting it.
Business & Arts NL: Featuring 26 artists (from across the province and country) at 26 sites across the peninsula, there’s a lot to experience at this year’s event. What are some of the highlights you’d especially encourage people to check out?
Sarah Agnew: This is always the hardest question to answer! All of the artists, works and programs are outstanding, so it is difficult to choose which to highlight. We recommend that people tour the Biennale in whatever way works best for them, and to see as much as they can. It takes a good two days to see everything, preferably three.
But, looking through the lens of different types of experiences that visitors might be looking for, here are some suggestions:
Photography and video:
- Regeneration l Piguttaugiallavalliajuk l Ussanitauten is 11 large-scale photo works installed outdoors and indoors at the Quinton Premises. The works are stunning not only in their size but the beauty of the images. Most of the artists are self-taught. Some use sophisticated equipment or digital editing tools to construct more personal images while others keep it simpler.
- Leslie Reid has two photography installations, one outdoors at the Coaker Factory in Port Union and the other at the Sealer’s Interpretation Centre in Elliston. These new works are about the disappearance of ice, a marker of climate change.
- Marlene Creates, at Lester-Garland House in Trinity, combines photography and drawing in three large works, employing her own body and boreal forest acreage in examining connections between humans and the natural environment, and beyond.
- Noted filmmaker and artist asinnajaq’s film Rock Piece at the former Salt Fish Plant in Catalina.
- Graeme Patterson’s video Ghosts of a Gathering, a six-projector installation that leads viewers from room to room at the James Ryan Tenement in Bonavista.
Drawing and printmaking:
- Jonathan S. Green’s exhibition To build a fire at Union House Arts in Port Union, and Michael Jonathon Pittman’s exhibition Black Island across the road at the Union Electric Building.
- Also in Port Union, St. Michael’s Printshop Mobile Press: This year we’ve partnered with SMP to being their mobile printing press to the Biennale. It will be in Port Union for a week, offering “show-and-tell” sessions and two printing workshops.
Kids (and grownups) will enjoy these:
- Immersive installations such as Janice Wright Cheney’s Sardinia at the Mockbeggar Big Store in Bonavista, and Philippa Jones’ Out of Time in The Alexander Mortuary Chapel of All Souls, also in Bonavista.
- Gerald Beaulieu’s outdoor installations When the Rubber Meets the Road at Robinhood beach in Port Rexton (a 16-foot-long crow made of used tires) and Extinction in Upper Amherst Cove (a 27-foot-long dinosaur skeleton that moves like a pumpjack for an oil well).
- A treasure hunt: Find Vessela Brakalova’s Human Wireless Charging Station starfish on five different beaches (Duntara, Hodderville, Newman’s Cove, Upper Amherst Cove, Champney’s West cove). They’re big enough to lie on (and take a selfie!).
- St. Michael’s Printshop Mobile Press: There will be two days of family-friendly programming at the Clarenville Farm and Market on Sept. 3 and 4 – a show-and-tell one day and hands-on printmaking the other.
For theatre lovers:
- We are partnering with Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland to bring Biennale visitors an audio experience inspired by past Biennale artworks. There are five sites where visitors can download a free audio app and listen to narratives written by five leading Newfoundland writers, and voiced by Artistic Fraud’s resident talents.
All the information about artists, sites and programs are on our website, and there is a downloadable map on the Visitors page.
Business & Arts NL: Since its first event in 2017, the Bonavistia Biennale has made not only a cultural impact, but a significant economic one as well. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Sarah Agnew: The Biennale’s mission is to make a positive cultural, economic and social impact on the Bonavista Peninsula through curatorial excellence in the presentation of contemporary visual art. Since it began in 2017, the Biennale has generated or induced over $1 million in new spending on the Peninsula through creating employment, purchasing goods and services on the Peninsula, and drawing first-time and repeat visitors. The Biennale employs two people year-’round and more than a dozen others on a seasonal or contractual basis, all local residents of the Peninsula. While we expect a higher proportion of staycationers this year due to COVID, in the past we have drawn visitors from across the country, the US and all continents who stay in local accommodations, eat at the restaurants, shop at the grocery and gift stores and so on.
Business & Arts NL: Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
Sarah Agnew: The exhibitions and all of our programs are open to everyone, free of charge.
To provide a COVID-safe experience for visitors, we have increased the proportion of outdoor sites. Indoor sites will adhere to the current Public Health requirements and regulations and have attendants who—in addition to welcoming visitors and answering their questions—will be monitoring COVID-safe practises such as physical distancing, and sanitizing.
And finally, we want to extend our deepest gratitude to our corporate sponsors, public funders, donors, and the many community and site partners on the Bonavista Peninsula who make the Biennale possible.
Cover photo: 2019 Boulder Kite Workshop with Meghan Price and Suzanne Nacha. Photo: Brian Ricks