MONTREAL — Musee d’Art Contemporain has gone to the dogs.
And to the zebras, snakes, birds, mice and insects, too.
Currently on display is “Zoo,” a collection of 50 works by 20 artists that offers a unique look at the relationships between people and animals. No, visitors won’t see cute and fuzzy YouTube videos of cuddly bunnies, puppies and kitties. Instead, this exhibition is at times a bit unnerving and perhaps somewhat perplexing, but it’s always visually adept and no doubt thought provoking. The messages here not only offer how humans treat animals, but in many cases how we treat each other.
It opens with Mona Hatoum’s “Impenetrable,” a minimalist cube made of hundreds of strands of barbed wire that hover in midair. The optical illusion is the distraction; do those strands dangle from the ceiling, or are they mounted on some sort of invisible base? After the distraction, the real impact of the collective sharp barbs sinks in: This is a cage.
The gallery space fills up quickly with creatures of all sizes in a variety of disciplines. Haim Steinbach’s large-format vinyl lettering declares “And to Think it All Started with a Mouse” and “No Elephants.” David Shrigley’s collection of 76 black metal foot-sized “Insects” begs the viewer to be careful where they stand; and Jana Sterbak’s “Chair Apollinaire” club chair is sculptural, beautiful and inviting — as long as the visitor doesn’t mind sitting on a chair made of meat.
Matthew Day Jackson uses a simple flag to convey his message. In his “Don’t Tread on Me,” Jackson
combines two iconic sentiments — an Earth Day flag paired with a U.S. navy jack motto. His aim: “paradoxically alluding to the military in order to broach the issue of the danger that hangs over the natural world,” according to the exhibit text.
Two series of works offered a decidedly North Country flair. Mark Dion catches deer in headlights — or at least a flashbulb — in his 20 “Bureau of Remote Wildlife Surveillance” black and white photos. After the hunt, Brian Jungen leaves a variety of hides out to dry atop a collection of household freezers in a trio of works titled “Tomorrow, Repeated,” “The Men of my Family” and “Eye.”
Finally, two major works make their way into this menagerie.
Making its Canadian premiere is “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold” by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. If the name sounds familiar, Weiwei was also the artistic design consultant for Beijing National Stadium, dubbed the “Bird’s Nest,” built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. More recently last year, Weiwei made international headlines after being detained by the Chinese government for three months.
Weiwei’s 12 Chinese zodiac animal-head sculptures, which ooze with detailed gold-plated opulence, were inspired by the gardens of Yuanming Yuan, a hub of Chinese-Western relations since the Ming Dynasty, according to the exhibit’s accompanying text. The relationship soured when the British and French burned down the site’s summer palace in 1860.
“Zoo” saves its best for last with David Altmejd’s “Le Spectre et la Main.” Created specifically for the exhibition, the installation provides a jaw-dropping study of movement and motion — a room-sized installation of a zebra made of resin and clay enclosed in a Plexiglas structure accented with rainbow-colored filaments and an array of coconuts. It’s captivating, spellbinding and kaleidoscopic with every turn.
Rounding out the visit, the museum displays more than 100 works by 60 artists from their permanent collection that highlight Quebec and Canadian abstract art from the 1940s and on with “A Matter of Abstraction.”
Steven Howell is the author of Montreal Essential Guide, a Sutro Media iPhone travel app available at iTunes.com.
IF YOU GO
WHERE: Musee d’Art Contemporain, 185 Ste. Catherine St. W., (Metro station Place des Arts), Montreal.
WHEN: Exhibit runs through Sept. 3. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday.
ADMISSION: $12 adults, $10 seniors, $8 students up to 30 years old with ID and free for children 12 and under. Free admission for all from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays.
CONTACT: To learn more, call (514) 847-6226 or visit www.macm.org.