WHAT IT IS: Marcel Dzama's Untitled (Winnipeg Map) from 2007, now on view at Plug In ICA as part of the massive multi-artist exhibition My Winnipeg: There's No Place Like Home.
WHAT IT MEANS: The title for the show, My Winnipeg, is taken from Guy Maddin's 2007 docu-fantasia, which portrays our burg as a dreamy, snowbound landscape wrapped in occult history and perverse psychodrama. Plug In wants to underline the idea that Winnipeg isn't one fixed reality but an overlapping multiplicity of subjective, often subversive histories and geographies.
No surprise, then, that the vision of Winnipeg offered up by the 38-year-old Dzama is sublimely screwy. Maps are usually associated with objective, rational description, bolstered with scientific stuff like grids and scales and topographical features. But this is mapping gone haywire, loaded with Dzama's characteristic mix of innocence and menace, muted colours and wonderfully wayward content.
A founding member of the hugely influential Winnipeg collective the Royal Art Lodge, Dzama puts many recognizable features into his city map. The Red River looms large. There's Portage and Main ("-50 below") and Sal's and the Forks.
But Dzama also tweaks the medieval practice of putting mythical beasts into the uncharted territories of maps: He brings them right into the city limits and lets them loose on well-known landmarks. Creatures gnaw on the Royal Canadian Mint and the Legislature. A sea serpent is implicated in "The great MS paddlewheel disaster of 1984."
There are signs of the artist's own personal history --- the Dzama household, aceart and Plug In, the FitzGerald Building at the U of M, the record store Into the Music ("good vinyl"). There are also recurring artistic obsessions -- bats, bears, cats, cowboys, pointy hats, forlorn snowmen.
Landscapes are always a fusion of the real and ideal, but Dzama goes wildly beyond that, into a mythic mix of the good (the buffalo diorama at the Manitoba Museum), the bad ("Hells Angels club house"), and the downright bizarre ("THE GIANT SQUID OF THE RED").
WHY IT MATTERS: Winnipeg is a much-mythologized city. To outsiders, it can seem like a place of almost unimaginable arctic exoticism. Since Dzama moved to New York in 2004 and made it big on the international scene, his Winnipeg origins have added to his mystique. A 2005 article in The New York Times Magazine states that Dzama was "born in 1974 in the isolated Canadian wilds of Winnipeg." (!!?) Sometimes he plays with these misconceptions. His map entry for the Winnipeg International Airport reads: "Large jets now land regularly."
But something about his work also encourages us to make our own myths. Plug In's show encourages us to look at our city anew, to see it as a place of grit and beauty, of storied pasts and possible futures -- a place of dreams, memories and imaginings.
This is Dzama's Winnipeg. What's yours?