Taking its title from a verse by the activist poet Carolyn Forché, this fall’s major exhibition explores the theme of the human voice in both its physical and metaphorical registers, asking through art what it is to find meaningful connection after the long period of isolation we have just come through. Whether in the form of an Old Master painting, an ancient manuscript or a contemporary installation, the works on view in this exhibition invite us to reflect on the myriad ways we can listen to each other. How do we reach out when we may have grown accustomed to turning in? Why are we too often deaf to the voices that need most to be heard?
The title phrase of the exhibition has a special history at the Museum, where it was inscribed in stainless steel on its floor in 1991 as part of a permanent installation by Montreal artist Betty Goodwin, who was particularly moved by Forché’s socially engaged poetry. Beyond its local resonance, the line has broader reach in our current historical moment, when too many voices go unheard and those that are listened to, more often than not, are mediated by the television, computer or smartphone screen.
The exhibition unfolds across seven “chapters,” each addressing a different facet of the voice. Works from the collection – some of which have never been shown before – will be presented in dialogue with important loans from artists and friends of the institution.
Speaking across time and space
In the first few galleries, the works reflect the role the voice serves in communication. Whether being carried from the past or some far-off place, the voice is a manifestation of our desire to connect with one another. Through works that depict the whispering of angels, divine apparitions and the departed, or commemorations of them, the various artists featured here have immortalized connections between distant beings, as well as the transmission of ancestral stories and customs.
The work “Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan”: Speaking to Their Mother by Rebecca Belmore opens the exhibition in dramatic fashion. The artist created the giant megaphone, composed entirely of organic materials, in response to the Oka crisis of 1990, in which the Kanien’kehá:ka of Kanesatake fought for the recognition of land rights. This is the first time this magnificent and powerful object is being presented in a museum in Montreal. This section of the exhibition also includes a new acquisition by the multidisciplinary artist Niap as well as major works from the MMFA’s Modern and Old Master collections.
Sounding in silence
The works assembled in this gallery invite reflection on the ability of visual arts to stimulate our other senses. Images are silent and yet these works can appeal to our hearing by transmitting sounds or music through sight alone. Among the artists featured in this section of the exhibition are leading figures of Quebec abstraction such as Charles Gagnon and Yves Gaucher. Also on view is a new acquisition by Stéphane La Rue as well as Raymond Gervais’s The Theatre of Sound, which presents the viewer with a music library made up of imaginary albums of never-recorded music and invented encounters.
The body is the vessel through which beings communicate. From a cry of pain to a whisper, the sounds we emit are echoed in our body’s expression. A recurring theme in the works in this gallery is the vulnerability of the human figure, notably reflected in the moving triptych Hear Me with Your Eyes by Geneviève Cadieux, the monumental drawing Carbon by Betty Goodwin and the extraordinary Soundsuit by internationally renowned multidisciplinary artist Nick Cave.
Betty Goodwin (1923-2008), Carbon, 1986, charcoal powder, wax, oil pastel, pastel, graphite, oil and gesso on dimpled galvanized aluminum. MMFA, Horsley and Annie Townsend Bequest. Photo MBAM, Denis Farley
Voice of resistance
This section brings together works by artists who, in rising up against censorship, injustice and violence, make compelling use of discourse. Some of them employ a visual vocabulary to convey the prejudices suffered by themselves and their peers. Resistance gains momentum when voices that have been ignored or written off are given a platform. Indeed, the presentation of recovered texts of violated treaties brings home the magnitude of the injuries done to Indigenous peoples. In For, in Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit: 100 Jailed Poets, a recent acquisition on view for the first time at the Museum, we are invited to contemplate 100 gunmetal casts of books written by poets from around the world, and from different eras, who were jailed for their writings. On the books are inscriptions of quotations from the poems selected by the artist. The verses assembled in this work reveal the power of human voices to resist oppression. The recently acquired work invaders by Hannah Claus, a multidisciplinary artist of Kanien’kehá:ka and English descent, will also make its first appearance.
The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, prompted Stanley Février to create the work Yes, We Love You the very next day. To fashion this sculpture, he made a plaster cast of his own body, positioned exactly as Floyd’s was when he died. Believing that art can be a vector of social change, Février hopes this work will draw more attention to the many voices too often ignored or unheard in their calls for justice and social equality. An entire gallery is dedicated to this gripping work, which will be making its first appearance in a museum.
Breath – and, by extension, life and human presence – is at the heart of this section of the exhibition. The works presented here preserve life artificially by means of respiration or light. Among them is the recent acquisition The Angel by James Lee Byars, a poetic meditation on the beauty and fragility of existence. Composed of 125 glass spheres, each containing a single exhalation, the delicate installation reflects the artist’s spirituality and perpetual quest for perfection. This exhibition marks the first time the work has been exhibited in Canada. Also on view is Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Last Breath (Último Suspiro). In this edition of the work, the artist immortalized the breath of the Quebec poet and novelist Nicole Brossard, a celebrated activist for feminist and LGBTQ+ causes. Her breath of creativity and protest will thus be preserved in the reservoir of this work, the artist’s living memorial
The exhibition concludes with a masterful immersive work by Janet Cardiff. Presented for the first time at the MMFA, Forty-part Motet is a unique creation, in which the artist reassembled a motet composed for 40 voices by individually recording each chorister’s melodic line and playing them on 40 separate speakers strategically positioned in the gallery. The work speaks volumes about the power of both individual voices and voices in unison, a coming together that demands effort on the part of each of us.
“How long does it take for one voice to reach another?”
Until February 13, 2022
Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion – Level 3
Credits and curatorial team
An exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and curated by Mary-Dailey Desmarais, Chief Curator, MMFA. The exhibition was made possible by the generous contribution of Hydro-Québec, in collaboration with Hatch and RBC. The Museum would like to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of its official sponsor, Denalt Paints. It would also like to thank the Angel Circle of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, proud supporters of the Museum’s major exhibitions, and its media partners Bell, La Presse and Montreal Gazette. The MMFA is grateful to the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications, to the Canada Council for the Arts and to the Conseil des arts de Montréal for their ongoing support.