The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal’s summer blockbuster exhibition is here, and it’s wild. Zoo was organized to address the theme of animality in international art today. Or did I just let the cat out of the bag?
When you walk into a show called Zoo, you wouldn’t expect to be greeted by a giant cube of interspersed barbed wires suspended from the ceiling. What on earth does it have to do with animals? In fact, that work by Mona Hatoum, titled Impénétrable, is typical of the show: the curators, Marie Fraser and François LeTourneux, chose to address the theme, shall we say, obliquely. But you’ll see some great work nonetheless.
Animals have been an inspiration in art since its birth, from the cave paintings through mythology through 18th century French painting to today. And today’s context is loaded: ecology, the food industry, biochemistry, politics – these are all spheres through which the relationship between humans and other animals could be examined in a really fruitful way. Though the wall panels and descriptive labels in Zoo do hint at some of this, the info is hard to come by; so here are four works not to miss, and why, in our humble opinion, they’re mega-cool.
1) Le spectre et la Main, by David Altmejd: Altmejd’s monumental, room-sized piece is the exhibition’s pièce de résistance. Three zebras made of epoxy modeling clay and colourful thread are encased in a Plexiglass universe peopled with floating coconuts. Altmejd’s vernacular centres on ideas of deformity, perversions of nature and suprahuman planes of existence – with this work, he hints at the dual role of zoos as pedestals for the exotic and prisons for the wild.
2) God’s Window, by Trevor Gould: Gould is one of Montreal’s coolest creators, and he has a whole personal bestiary. He has two works in this show, but God’s Window, an in situ piece built for the museum’s sculpture garden, is a stunner that depicts an unusually long-necked chimp sitting on a log above a pool, into which he’s peeing. Apes and monkeys are one of Gould’s favourite subjects – they recur at many instances in his work, which metaphysically questions the division between the human animal and other animals.
3) Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, by Ai Weiwei: This in an incredibly famous work by the international art star and it’s the first time it’s being shown in Canada. It’s a reinterpretation by the artist of one of Beijing’s most famous public works: sculptures representing the 12 animals of the traditional Chinese zodiac built in the 18th century by two Jesuits for the fountain-clock of the Yuanming Yuan, in Beijing. They were pillaged in 1860 by French and British troops, so Ai Weiwei decided to recreate them in large-scale bronze for the same site. He also made a smaller, gold-plated copy – the one here – in keeping with his ongoing exploration of the fake and the copy in relation to the original.
4) Zoodram5, by Pierre Huyghe: How many times have living things been exhibited in a museum? This is an incredibly atmospheric work: an aquarium, exhibited alone in a dark room, featuring creepy crawlies of various sorts, including a crab that lives in a mask by Brancusi. Huyghe, who loves to question zones of comfort, has been into creating live landscapes over the last few years, whether it’s gardens or seascapes. In this work, he seeks to reflect viewers’ expectations, projections, fears and fantasies.
Isa Tousignant is contributing editor for Canadian Art, Montreal correspondent for Akimbo, and a freelance writer on art, culture, travel, design and shoes for everyone from enRoute to Canadian Business to herself.