Dispatches from the Montréal Biennial: Aging Communities Contemplate the Future

In two single-channel video installations — “Postcard from Bexhill-on-Sea” and “La Providence” — Montréal-based artist Emmanuelle Léonard visited two aging communities: Montréal’s Grey Nuns and a British seaside retirement community. As individuals in both works talk about their expectations for the future, a stark difference in attitude becomes clear. We sat down with Léonard at Tuesday’s press preview to discuss the works.

Did you create this work after you knew the theme of this biennial?

I don’t remember. I wanted to work with old people. I do different pieces in different communities. I worked In Finland with the students of the police school asking them, “Why do you want to be a policeman?” and I made a piece with teenagers. I just wanted to work with old people.

In the video from Bexhill-on-Sea, it was interesting that only one interviewee had a positive outlook on the future.

Well when it’s positive, it’s more like, “I’m going day to day. My daily life is okay.”

It’s pretty gloomy.

Yeah, I didn’t really expect something specific. I simply asked — running up to them on the boardwalk — “What do you think about the future?” I wasn’t expecting something very specific, but it’s true that there is something very sad and anxious. Maybe if you asked the same question in 20 years you will have that same thing happening linking to the fact that the body is less and less powerful.

But then the nuns didn’t have that sense of malaise.

It’s very different. The question with the nuns was linked to fact that they believe in something so strongly. There is something more confident because they will meet God. The Grey Nuns, they have the same apartments. They moved from a huge convent and for the first time in their lives they are living in small apartments individually. All of them have the same sofa, the same furniture, same plates, radio, etc.

How did you find these aging communities?

I was in a residency in London and I was looking for a place where there was a lot of old people. It’s like Florida. I tried to get into a retirement house, but it didn’t work so I did it by myself and went up to people. I wanted to find this kind of place, where there are a lot of retirement houses. The main activity is just walking on the boardwalk along the sea. This anxiety about the future — is it linked to a specific political, economical situation or is it linked to the fact that they are old?

— Ashton Cooper (ashton_cooper)

(Top Photo: Emmanuelle Léonard, “La Providence,” 2014; courtesy of the artist; Bottom: Emmanuelle Léonard, “Postcard from Bexhill-on-Sea,” 2014; courtesy of the artist)