Anyplace that's home evokes nostalgia, scorn, longing. Even a desolate prairie. And often that nostalgia is coupled with a self-mockery at the heart's willingness to believe in falsehood. Artists from Winnipeg, a city smack-dab center in Canada's Manitoba, are like kids who, returning to the childhood neighborhoods that once seemed so large, are struck by their ordinariness, their feeble quaintness. They mock themselves for wanting to return to a place that their memories betrayed. And they turn a mocking eye toward the follies of remembering. "My Winnipeg," a large show at La Maison Rouge in Paris, is part of a new series of exhibitions there that focuses on art from major provincial cities. Artists are often drawn to provincial cities for their lower rents; a byproduct of Winnipeg's long, harsh winters is that artists huddle together there not only for warmth but also in a collaborative spirit.
That means that you'll see a certain attitude among several of the dozen Winnipeg artists represented in this show. It's a distancing tone that's comic and a little cynical, one that plays with historical perspective and, in the case of Canada, colonialism and suppression. And commerce. Winnipeg lies at the fork of the Red River and Assiniboine River and has long been an important trading center.
The show is divided into several sections that explore different aspects of the city. It begins with snapshots from Noam Gonick taken as he prepared a film, Stryker, which, at least according to the photographs displayed on the wall as you enter, depicts a bleak and heartless heartland. As a work of art, these photos have the flat affect of location shots, which they are, and as an introduction to what turns out later to be a vibrant exploration of place, attitude and self-awareness; they depict in an almost cruelly calculating way a place of dreary houses too close to each other, lone pizza joints and tattoo parlors devoid of patrons, gray snow-covered yards with little vegetation, empty roads and aimless youth, a place you'd never want to visit, let alone live in. On the other hand, a curatorial project, "There's no place like home," with its direct reference to The Wizard of Oz film, captures more winningly a Winnipeg seen in the eyes of early inhabitants and those of a newer generation of artists, including videographers and painters. It's a collection of archival photographs, old paintings, postcards and newer works.
One recent work that begins this section, I Woke to Find My Spirit Had Returned, recreates the famous scene from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy awakes in her Kansas bed after her dream of the Emerald City and its magical inhabitants. Here, among several of the well-known personages from the film, is a contemporary character (presumably the artist, Rosalie Favell), waking in shock to her surroundings and the harsh return to reality. Looking down on her from the wall is not only a portrait of Louis Riel, a politician who led two revolts against the Canadian government, but Lucy Lawless in her Xena warrior goddess guise. Fantasy, reality, dreams, politics: Winnipeg in a nutshell.
In the series Group of Seven Awkward Moments, Diana Thorneycroft "investigates the relationship between the Canadian landscape and national identity. Reproductions of paintings by the famous Canadian collective The Group of Seven are used as backdrops to the dioramas [Thorneycroft] photographs..." Marcel Dzama’s On the Banks of the Red River, part of another section of the show, has a clammy humor. Here, he creates a diorama of men from the 1950s shooting animals from the sky. You see dropping (and often dismembered) birds, wounded or dead animals, wounded or dead men. The brutality of man is obvious here, of course, but the work is compelling in the way of dawning horror: doll-like figures perpetrating cruel and remorseless acts. One of the wittiest works is by filmmaker Guy Maddin, whose My Winnipeg, an eighty-minute film, explores the myths of his hometown, using reenactments from his life and the lives of others. It includes fables of the city, such as a law that requires someone to house a sleepwalker, in a city known for its plague of sleepwalking (whether this is true or false is somehow irrelevant). It examines the subject of nostalgia, reverie, the hopes of a better life, and the history of a town founded on a pioneer's dream where dreams were battered by the reality of weather, misfortune and man's own ridiculousness.
"My Winnipeg," the exhibition, is filled with art that caricaturizes, characterizes and even cauterizes the expectations and presuppositions of a city few have visited but whose many talented artists have actually memorialized.
--Robert J. Hughes, writer living in Paris
(Images: Shawna Dempsey, Lorri Millan, Forrest guards, 1997,photographie, 50.8x40.64cm, crédit Donald Lee :The Banff Centre; Noam Gonick, stills from the film "Strycker" (2007); Diana Thorneycroft, from series "Group of Seven Awkward Moments," photograph. All images courtesy of artists and La Maison Rouge, Paris)
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