How The Power Plant Runs

Turn on at the Power Plant! A ClearLife interview with the director, Gaëtane Verna.

By Judith Stapleton

Photos By Hasnain Dattu

Gaëtane Verna

Standing sturdy and strong on the edge of Lake Ontario, and part of Toronto’s arts and culture complex at Harbourfront Centre, is one of Canada’s leading public galleries devoted to contemporary works of art. On the verge of its annual fundraiser, the smash-hit Power Ball Gala, JS asked the gallery’s director, Gaëtane Verna, about the success of this event, and the role this non-collecting contemporary gallery plays in the life of the city.

JS How has this gala event turned into such a huge fundraising success for your gallery? It is a very hot ticket!

GV What’s extraordinary is that after 18 years, Power Ball continues to transform and reinvent itself. From one Power Ball to the other, you can never expect to see the same thing. The reason we can do this is because artists look at the work we do throughout the year, become aware of our deep passion for art, and trust us. The Power Ball is only as successful as the number of patrons who attend, together with all our sponsors and supporters. Power Ball is a success because of the community that supports it: from sponsors, co-chairs, ticket purchasers and artists. It represents a community we truly believe in, as the Power Ball gives Toronto a glimpse into the world of contemporary art.

JS The theme of this summer’s event is “the pleasure principle,” and Max Mara is its major sponsor. Can you tell us a little about the motivations for this theme?

GV It’s through our theme of the Pleasure Principle that we want to enable our guests to navigate different expressions of human pleasure, evoking all senses – whether it’s through the art of Karen Tam’s opium den installation, reliving a nostalgic time through childhood memories and games by Kempster Jamrozik Studio, delicious food by Parts and Labour, or sounds by DJs Mark Farina and CRSB and Teo Nio from the Toronto-based collective BEVSTMODE. The Power Plant itself contributes to the human need to express life and emotions. The Pleasure Principle is bringing each individual visitor through the works of different artists, in an environment that’s already in close contact with the senses. Art, coupled with music, food and drink, are the all- encompassing human pleasures in life. The chemistry of it all together reacts with our bodies, making each experience and ambiance different. This is why we chose the theme of Pleasure Principle – we all live in a fast-paced mobile world, making it easy to let pleasures go unnoticed. In a society where everyone is digitally connected, contemporary art is at the forefront of speaking to our immediate life right now.

JS The shows presently running at the gallery, Carlos Amorales’ Black Cloud, Patrick Bernatchez’ Les Temps Inachievés, Aude Moreau’s The Political Nightfall, and Leslie Hewlett’s The Collective Stance, are all multi-media, multi-materials installations. Could you describe the creative motivations that turned the Canadian art scene away from a focus on oil paintings and towards this broad spectrum of expressions you are featuring today…the transformational role of art here?

“A society with no art is one that doesn’t evolve, learn or grow.”

GV Painting, drawing and sculptures are still very important in contemporary art practices. Our winter ’16 exhibition demonstrates multi-media, but it does not necessarily represent a transformation across the country. When planning our exhibitions, we look at showcasing various forms of art that celebrate the contemporary art world. In Carlos Amorales’ work, visitors first see a “Black Cloud,” as it’s called. But you can also view it as 30,000 individual sculptures, whose sum of those create the larger installation. In the last decade or so, video art has taken a large space in the contemporary realm. It may be because video work can be viewed as a moving painting. Before, we had these very static paintings, where different characters, colours and techniques represented different codes in our society. Now, we have the ability to move outside that, using narration, sound, lighting, visual effects and more, which are all part of the tableau vivant. Moving image is important to our cultural identity and really embedded in Canadian art, especially considering how many notable film festivals we have in Canada, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the Canadian International Documentary Festival.

JS There is a perennial problem for Canadian institutions— that want to be “world class” but yet are supported by a very small population and tax base. How do you balance the scales?

GV Our mandate and vision at The Power Plant is to continue engaging audiences with contemporary visual art by Canadian artists and artists from around the world side-by- side. In balancing what we showcase from Canadian and international artists, we not only serve the artists, but also several communities, including those passionate about learning contemporary art. We are privileged to showcase the work of international artists, alongside Canadian work, as not everyone has the ability to travel and see the works of international artists abroad. Our role is two- fold, to our Toronto audiences; we provide the opportunity to experience contemporary art from international artists they may not have the chance to see otherwise, while on the other hand, we also provide the same experience to international guests who visit The Power Plant in search of viewing works by Canadian artists. Audiences can then see pieces they may have only seen on-screen or read about; however your physical reaction of an artwork can never be replaced by looking at a video or reading it in a magazine. How you project yourself in front of an artwork can only be done by being physically in front of it. A society with no art is one that doesn’t evolve, learn or grow. Just like hospitals provide health services, museums and cultural institutions feed our minds and souls, enabling us to explore our imaginations. It’s important that we live in a society that has at heart the passion to expand the horizons of our citizens.

JS How does art change or modulate the human urban experience of modern life? Do you think the Power Plant is doing this?

GV Art evokes life, and in experiencing that, you get to experience life in different perspectives. We are a contemporary non-collecting gallery that is situated in one of the most multicultural cities in North America; so the works of art that we bring forward are there to connect our audiences to the reality of contemporary art and urban life, because we live in the city. In the ever-changing exhibitions, we present the issues and experience of modern life through art. Our exhibitions present important issues that are challenging, we explore powerful ideas and are not afraid to present the most dynamic and thought-provoking artists of our time who are not afraid to continuously challenge our audience and comment on contemporary life in Canada and abroad.

JS What sort of new works are you looking for these days?

GV Coming up this summer, German-born Paris based Ulla von Brandenburg will be showcasing work, inspired by the confusion between reality and appearance. The Power Plant will also have LA- based Emily Mast, who specializes in visual and performing arts. She’ll be working with actors, costumes and theatrical staging to exhibit a summer play. I am also thrilled to have Franz Erhard Walther’s first major solo exhibition in Canada at The Power Plant. The exhibit will feature a body of his work produced from the 1950s until the present. In the fall, we’re looking forward to having artists like Maria Loboda and Yto Barrada both hailing from Berlin and New York and Toronto-based Abbas Akhevan.

JS Well, sounds like The Power Plant ought to be on everybody’s trapline! Thank you, Gaëtane.

Right at the foot of Simcoe Street, just shy of the shoreline, the Power Plant is waiting to turn you on this summer, and all year round.

Publisher’s Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.