By Paul Gessell
This is absolutely the most spectacular zoo ever created by mankind. The animals are the most exotic on the planet. They are positively breathtaking.
Superlatives flow endlessly during a visit to the new summer-long exhibition titled Zoo at the Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal (Note: the show is closed this week but reopens June 12 after the museum was flooded in a late-May storm). The exhibition is all about animals and their relationship to us humans. At least that’s the thesis behind the show. Like most multi-artist exhibitions, some of the artworks stray from the topic. But who cares? All these animals still dazzle, although Mark Dion’s real, dried rats (roadkill, actually) hanging from a tree might be too much for the squeamish.
The zoo was largely assembled by Montreal-based Marie Fraser, one of the country’s top curators of contemporary art and, in this case, a canny circus ringmaster supervising the world’s strangest menagerie. (In Ottawa you might fondly remember the eye-popping, multi-artist extravaganza Fraser organized in an abandoned Sparks Street bank for the National Arts Centre’s Quebec Scene in 2007.)
Typically, David Altmejd steals the show at Zoo; in this instance, with a room-sized assemblage called “Le Spectre et la Main.” A glass case the size of a department-store display window contains hand-crafted, life-sized zebras seemingly in motion, running, leaping, and flying. The Montreal-born artist — who now lives in New York — has become one of Canada’s most celebrated artists, having won the Sobey Award in 2009 and having served as Canada’s representative in 2007 to the Venice Biennale (the Olympics of the art world).
Altmejd is not the only superstar in Zoo. There is Chinese artist Ai Weiwei with a collection of giant bronzed animal heads. There is Toronto’s Shary Boyle, with her cheeky ceramic creations of human-animal interaction and her eerie painting simply called “Beast,” which shows an anthropomorphic creature — both hideous and humorous — licking its lips. And there is the very celebrated Kiki Smith, the German-American sculptor of a bronze goat and a girl, bound together in an uncomfortable embrace. This piece is called “Tied to Her Nature.”
One of the most disturbing works in the exhibition is an armchair covered in form-fitting slabs of dried meat that are stitched together. This is, of course, a creation by Jana Sterbak, the Montreal artist of meat-dress fame (not Lady GaGa’s, but the infamous piece from an exhibit that ran at the National Gallery of Canada in 1991). With this work, “Chair Apollinaire,” it is as if the leather cover of the chair has been removed to reveal, just like a live “leather” covered animal, a layer of meat below. Unlike the rotting flesh of the meat dress, the dried meat on the chair does not have to be replaced periodically.
This is an art exhibition for the whole family, despite the dead rats and meat chair. Kids will definitely squeal with delight over David Shrigley’s room of oversized insects and Trevor Gould’s site-specific sculpture of a peeing monkey, with the world’s longest neck, strategically built atop a fountain in a museum courtyard.
Zoo continues at Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal until Sept. 3. For information visit www.macm.org.