My Winnipeg

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

Marcel Dzama’s “Banks of the Red River.”

Do isolation and frigid winters breed good art? Apparently so, judging from the just-opened “My Winnipeg” exhibition at the Maison Rouge. Living in the world’s coldest


Marcel Dzama’s “Banks of the Red River.”

Do isolation and frigid winters breed good art? Apparently so, judging from the just-opened “My Winnipeg” exhibition at the Maison Rouge. Living in the world’s coldest city, deep in the Canadian prairies, also seems to breed a strong sense of ironic humor and a taste for the macabre.

Winnipeg is well known for its vibrant art scene, which has been packed up and moved to Paris for this show, along with many of the artists, who came to town for the opening. One of them, filmmaker Guy Maddin, noted with typical Winnipegger humor that living in the Manitoba capital had always been “a heavy burden of shame” he carried around with him and that the exhibition had finally given him a reason to be proud of being from Winnipeg. “The city is a disaster,” he said, “but the arts community is great.”

To introduce the show, the curators found it necessary to set the scene and explain Winnipeg to the French. The exhibition starts with snapshots made by Noam Gonick when researching locations for his film Stryker, offering a grim view of a depressed, decaying northern city. (Gonick admits that there are some pretty places in Winnipeg, but you won’t see them here.)

Next comes a room presenting a sort of ethnological portrait of the city through photos, postcards, engravings, documents, videos and more, all of which help to confirm Maddin’s description of Winnipeg as a “rich and strange place.” Archival photos show such scenes as a house being moved by horses, a lineup of taxidermied bulls’ heads on a sidewalk and a train stuck in the snow, while a funny short film, “The Long Wooden Tobogganist” (2008), a spoof wildlife documentary by Andrew Wall, shows us what the natives might get up to. We are also introduced to Thomas Glendenning Hamilton, a doctor who famously photographed séances held in his home, an inspiration for many of the artists in the show.

One of the best-known Winnipeg artists, Marcel Dzama (who no longer lives in his hometown), once a member of the now-disbanded Royal Art Lodge collective, is well represented by a number of works, including the installation “Banks of the Red River” (2008), a kitschy diorama featuring soldiers shooting blindly into the sky and lots of bats, red flowers, decapitated heads and various animal bodies.

A life-sized installation by Kent Monkman, “The Collapse of Time and Space in an Ever-Expanding Universe” (2011) shows a transvestite Indian, seen from the back, living as an expatriate in Paris. A taxidermied beaver chews away at the leg of a desk, while a wolf lurks among the period French furniture in the character’s salon. Walk around the room and you’ll see her staring through a window at a painting of her lost Canadian wilderness paradise, mascara running down her tear-stained face.

Sarah Anne Johnson’s wonderful room-sized installation, “House on Fire,” explores the effects of a series of mind-control experiments that were conducted on her unwitting grandmother,


Sarah Anne Johnson’s “House on Fire.”

who was being treated for depression, as part of a secret CIA research program in the 1950s. It incorporates small bronze statues of a woman showing the various effects of such “treatments” as extreme shock therapy and the administration of LSD mixed with speed – an exploding head, sinking, being turned inside-out, blackouts, etc. – as well as a pretty, carefully furnished yellow dollhouse that is being destroyed from within.

A whole room is devoted to the Royal Art Lodge collective – don’t miss the funny “Unidenticals” by Neil Farber and Michael Dumontier – and another to Maddin, who has contributed “Hauntings,” a group of short films, all being


“Hauntings” by Guy Maddin.

shown simultaneously. Haunted by the knowledge that many of his favorite directors had made films that are now lost, he has re-created them so he can watch them himself.

Hidden away in a red-painted room in the basement is an X-rated show of erotica and otherwise kinky art by Winnipeg artists, dating from 1928 to the present, curated by Gonick.

One video in the show, “Winnipeg Babysitter” (2006) by Daniel Barrow, offers a piece of advice that seems to sum up the surrealistic, slightly twisted spirit of both the city of Winnipeg and its artists: “If you’re ever in need of food, you can eat your pet.”

I have a feeling that the Surrealism-loving French will fall in love with Winnipeg, as did French artist Hervé Di Rosa, who instigated the exhibition and will take it to his gallery in Sète, France, later this year. This fresh, funny, fascinating show almost made me want to go to Winnipeg myself.

La Maison Rouge: 10, boulevard de la Bastille, 75012 Paris. Métro: Quai de la Rapée or Bastille. Tel.: 40 01 08 81. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (until 9 p.m. on Thursday. Admission: €7. Through September 25.

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