Nathalie Lafortune
No. 109 – winter 2015

Bois d’Œuvre, Rendez-vous au Cœur de l’Ouvrage. The Saint-Jean-Port-Joli Biennale

The desire to hold a festive summer sculpture event is still alive and well in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli. This village, situated on the shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, hosted its first sculpture symposium in 1984. Since then, depending on the residents involved, the initiative has taken various forms. In the summer of 2014, the new team of organizers traded the usual ten days of “artists working in front of the public” for exchanges and collaborative work among the participants before the encounter with the public. These collaborations coincided with a series of activities at Parc des Trois bérets from July 24 to 27, 2014.

Planning for the event went beyond just putting together a program as serious consideration was given to the content and theme. The curator, Nicolas Mavrikakis, and the organizers were able to instill a deeper level of reflection into this popular festival. Bois d’oeuvre, rendez-vous au coeur de l’ouvrage (Lumber: a rendez-vous at the heart of the work) put wood at the core of the creative process for seven artists and businesses in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, paired with seven artists from urban areas – six from Montreal and one from Toronto. How can these pairings be described without succumbing to the pitfalls of diametrically opposed practices and, especially, creating a hierarchy between artist and artisan, urban and regional, contemporary and vernacular? The curator and the organizing committee chose, in fact, to base the event on these pairings and the possibilities for encounters and exchanges among different traditions. And since the people of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli were the hosts, the dialogue was, of course, anchored in notions of expertise, territory and memory, in the setting of a spectacular landscape.

Why choose wood as the theme for a biennale? In 2000, Mavrikakis was intrigued when he was on a jury for a work of public art, and Michel Saulnier’s proposition to install a wood sculpture in the public space provoked disapproval. There were doubts about the relevance and durability of the material. Wasn’t wood a thing of the past? These presumptions would be put to the test in 2014 with the pairings and at two roundtables: one on the use of wood for outdoor works of public art, and the other on the relationship between sculpture and digital technologies. We discovered that wood is an unpopular material, the object of aesthetic prejudices based in our contemporary imagination. We also learned that recent technological advances are changing the methods of working and using wood.

And so, what happened when Marc-Antoine K. Phaneuf went into Robert Gaudreau’s studio-store, a place where the expertise of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli is typically produced and sold, where sculptures of deer and  pipe-smoking sailors, along with bas-reliefs of rural scenes – themes popular with tourists searching for “authentic” sculptures – sit cheek by jowl? The encounter between Phaneuf and Gaudreau was highlighted by their shared interest in subjects that tell stories. Together, they created an accumulation of wooden objects, which they carried to one of the picnic tables in the park. This heterogeneous collection presented a range of the uses of wood: furniture, transport palettes, decorative objects, baskets, shavings and more. In the pile of objects were a freshly sculpted gas can, tape recorder, quart of milk – industrial references transformed by the technique of direct carving into “unique” and “authentic” pieces. This discrepancy questions the connotation of local roots, the everyday object and a portrait of daily life usually associated with direct carving.

Another pairing, made up of the construction company Art massif (Steve Desrosiers, Michel Dubé, Carol Gagnon) and Alexandre David, worked on a sculpture by the river. They had in common the use of laminated wood – the former with beams made of laminated lumber, the latter with plywood. Art massif’s framework gave the wood a vertical movement. In his architecture-sculptures, David diverts the function of plywood, which is normally used only to create finishing surfaces. Together, they produced a walkway that extends a path in the park into the distance by horizontally pivoting a large piece of arched beam. Their minimal gesture provided visual and physical access to the river and created harmony in the art, architecture and landscape.

A bit farther down the shoreline, the pair, composing the socio-environmental firm Arbre-évolution (Samuel and Dominique Pépin-Guay), and the artist Simon Bilodeau shared their concern for the future of ecosystems. Together, they erected a tall flagpole that flew a flag evoking the taking of territory or a marker for a future fossil-resource exploitation site. They transformed this menacing structure into a large pyre that, once blackened by fire, partially collapsed, like a metaphoric evocation of self-destruction. At the foot of this apocalypse, a small, green tree of hope was planted. Here, wood was both a fuel and an ecosystem, evoking an almost-metaphysical encounter between construction and destruction of the forest.

To speak of wood, Mathieu Latulippe, with the assistance of Michel Robitaille, produced a gigantic splinter planted in a square of skin on the ground, playing with the scale of an object that is so small and yet so irritating. In their pairing, Robitaille’s expertise as sculptor and turner made it possible to faithfully produce Latulippe’s plan without creating either a shift or amalgam of their practices. The result raised the question of the relationship between the conception and the production of a large-scale project. How can the other be convinced to produce one’s project? How can the interdependence of one on the other, often obscured in large-scale projects, be taken into account?

Chantal Caron and Stéphane Gilot came together by using a cubic structure, which became the stage for a dance in which a rather wild woman, performed by Marie-Eve Demers, visited a devil puppet. Playing on contrasts, Gilot’s stiff, smooth, red-painted puppet was imposed upon by this woman, who carried a bundle of driftwood on her head. Caron is not a sculptor, but with the bundle of wood she evoked the action of the river on wood. Gilot, who integrates performers into his installations, left a diabolical figure to receive the embrace of a temptress in this space open to the four winds.

Mireille Lavoie drew her materials from the inventory of Berthier Guay’s firm Matériauthèques. Concerned with preserving buildings that are crumbling or slated for destruction, Guay salvages what otherwise would be burned or buried; this recovery operation is a useful bulwark against the rapid disappearance of barns and other old buildings. Lavoie used this wood to make a large platform on which she placed flowers made of wood, relating her memories of big family dinners. For his part during the biennale, Guay demonstrated his special expertise by building birdhouses made of logs, which he skilfully shapes with a chain saw. Matériauthèques, like Arbre-Évolution, has a conception of the wood’s global use that includes considering its ecological footprint.

In his pairing with Dean Baldwin, Pierre Bourgault was undoubtedly the Saint-Jean-Port-Joli side of the duo. Heir to the École de sculpture de Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, which he also directed, he certainly has stirred up traditions with his art practice and his critiques of commercialization of the sculptor’s craft. For the biennale, he revisited a work from 1969 that has been a foundation for his practice: a cabin-sculpture that can be pivoted in order to choose one’s point of view of the surroundings. An instrument for navigating the landscape of sculpture, the piece is still relevant. One can sit inside it and see Baldwin’s raft, a design for a cocktail party that was both festive and nightmarish. A picnic table was anchored at a good distance from the shore and subjected to the daily tides. Tested by these forces and repaired a number of times, the table  finally found its true form. The most courageous were drawn to it to raise a toast and break bread with their feet dangling in the water. Both works together evoke the extension of sculpture into the landscape.

In parallel with the biennale, the artists in residence at Est-Nord-Est installed wooden letters spelling the word “boutique” on the riverbank near the quay. The installation was precarious, delicate and evoked the disappearance of the boutique as well as that of the sculptor’s craft as it has been taught since the 1940s at the École de sculpture. This artist’s residency is the historical extension of the former sculpture school. Less factual but just as committed, the residencies enables artists who have “come from elsewhere” to work in a context in which issues about sculpture, wood and the tensions between the contemporary and the timeless, research and commercialization are also raised. The research that takes place there seems to have finally found a place within the festive aspect of the biennale.

The curator’s commitment to changing things, such as reintroducing wood into the sculptors’ practices, has energized the biennale. Now that the time has come for reflection, the event will certainly still raise meaningful questions about sculpture, territory and space.

Translated by Käthe Roth


Artist Natalie Lafortune lives and works in Montreal. Interested in probing the context in which she works, she earned a master’s degree in arts at the Université du Québec à Montréal (2013) on the subject of the utopian foundations of architectural projects and the shifts that occur when they are applied. Her work has been presented in Korea, Japan, France, Germany, and Quebec. Coordinator of residencies at Est-Nord-Est from 1997 to 2007, she is interested in issues linked to working context, artistic process and landscape space.


  1. The organizing committee was composed of Marie-Claude Gamache, Michel Saulnier, Christiane Hardy, Dominique Boileau, François Garon, and Alexandre Piral.