Originating from the First Museum of Art in Nashville, Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination is the type of show I didn't realize I've been wanting to see. More honestly, it is the type of show I didn't expect to see at Winnipeg's largest and most well endowed institution of art. I duly acknowledge my scepticism takes root in the well-worn fact that when major sites roll out a summer blockbuster it is typically in a manner that checkmarks all tropes and clichés. But this blockbuster is different—and thus actually worth seeing—because while the popular subject matter is resonant enough to draw audiences not necessarily actively interested in contemporary art, the exhibition proves to be a genuinely contemporary project without compromise.
Patricia Piccinini, Big Mother, 2005,silicon, fibreglass, human hair, leather, studs, diaper
The function of fairy tales and monster stories is revealed as an unflattering yet truthful mirror against which we may study our relationships with nature and other humans. With challenging form and content from a fairly diverse range of artists, the show is topical without being overly didactic. For example, the exhibition addresses the extent to which fairy tales frequently sought to concretize class and gender roles through gruesome narratives aimed at teaching subordinates (i.e. women, people of colour, peasants) to learn their place if they hoped to survive a cruel, cruel world rife with male violence. Many works, particularly those by Kiki Smith and Amy Stein, demonstrate a much needed feminist response by rendering provocative depictions of strong girls and women*.
Yinka Shonibare, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (America), 2008, C-print mounted on aluminum
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (America), Yinka Shonibare's re-working of a famous Francisco Goya etching, pushes the definition of "monster" to include the distinctly human-spawned horrors of imperialism, colonization, and slavery, among other Western activities unchallenged in the philosophical discourses of the so-called Enlightenment. Compelling social and political commentary aside, I enjoyed immersing myself in the full range of all things delightfully dark and weird. I furthermore appreciate that many of the selections must, like any genuine encounter with a supernatural creature, be experienced in person to be believed. For example, no photograph of sculptures by Patricia Piccinini can ever capture their unnerving aura—the expression of sheer exhaustion and perhaps defeat worn by Big Mother was heart wrenchingly tragic. Kate Clark's taxidermied wonders, It Depends, comprised of two stags with humanoid faces, are likewise startling. They will surely haunt my memory for years to come. Inka Essenhigh's whimsical painting, Green Goddess I, generates a surprisingly tactile presence via a protagonist seeming to push from her world right into ours, transforming the large canvas into some kind of inter-dimensional portal in the process.
I am interested in the suggestion of contemporary genetic manipulation in science as a space through which we may realize worlds previously relegated to myth, but if I am emphasizing the fairy tale and monster element of the exhibition, it is only because I happened to find the artwork presented in these sections more intriguing. Still, all in all, this is a solid exhibition and well worth the visit.
*While I appreciate the generally progressive tone of the exhibition, I can't dismiss the unusual choice of works from Charlie White's 2001 series, Understanding Joshua, and their accompanying text panel. The series has been edited to make a point not actually present in the work itself and I feel this act, in various ways, reverses the otherwise positive rebuttal to conventional female victimization. I welcome readers to explore Understanding Joshua in its entirety, which is readily available online.
Winnipeg Art Gallery: http://wag.ca/
Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination continues until September 2.
Milena Placentile is a curator and writer living in Winnipeg. She co-runs Atomic Centre and is Akimblog's Winnipeg correspondent.
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