Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Haunted house

Historic mansion goes ghostly with so-cool-it's-chilling exhibit of eerie Victorian-era image projection

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Many Winnipeggers think of Dalnavert as a sedate, starchy museum furnished with quaint Victorian relics and frequented by tea-drinking seniors.

But starting tonight for the Halloween season, a lightning bolt of hip energy is set to zap the stately red-brick home at 61 Carlton St., just south of Broadway.

A spooky seven-piece art show called Phantasmagoria has been installed in seven rooms -- from the kitchen to the conservatory -- throughout the restored 1895 mansion, once home to wealthy magistrate Sir Hugh John Macdonald and his family.

The show and is on view during regular Dalnavert hours through Nov. 7.

The theme is Victorian-era image projection. Phantasmagoria presentations of that time, which evolved from magic lantern shows, often had macabre themes.

Most of the artists -- all in their 20s and 30s -- have created eerie installations, echoing a time when photography and cinema were emerging artforms that often astounded and frightened viewers.

Not to give too much away, but you can expect a haunted rocking chair, a lightbox piece that reworks early French motion-picture experiments, and a phantasmagoria show about a ghostly woman in white, projected on a bedsheet with a chilling soundtrack.

The latter, a remarkably convincing, looped 2.5-minute recreation of period photography and primitive animation by Danishka Esterhazy and Wendy Sawatzky, is tucked -- eek! -- in a dressing room adjoining the bathroom.

"The whole show is about illusion," says Jennifer Bisch, who took over as Dalnavert's curator four months ago and conceived the exhibition. "It's not just a spookfest."

The highly creative Bisch, 32, is an anthropologist and filmmaker with strong connections to the arts community. She's passionate about the Victorian era, partly because people then were grappling with rapidly advancing technology in ways that parallel our own time.

Bisch, formerly curator of the now-closed Costume Museum of Canada, is determined to shake the cobwebs off Dalnavert's sleepy image and launch new programs and events to keep it relevant.

"Opening up to new audiences is really the future of this museum," she says.

As part of tonight's 7 p.m. opening of Phantasmagoria, there's a panel discussion on early cinema, spirit photography and Victorian history with local professors Jonah Corne, Vanessa Warne, Serena Keshavjee and Christina Penner. The panel will be held in the visitors' centre, an environmentally "green" building connected to the house.

Performances can also be held in the history-rich attic of the mansion. That's where Bisch is staging another Halloween event that she hopes will become an annual tradition: The Empty House... and other ghostly tales from the Victorian era.

From Oct. 28 to 31 at 7:30 p.m., actor Charlene van Buekenhout will don a period costume and read spine-chilling stories by Bram Stoker, Ambrose Bierce and Algernon Blackwood by candlelight. Expect a few theatrical surprises during the readings. (Only 25 people can attend each performance, so advance tickets, which are $15 and include admission to Phantasmagoria, are recommended by calling 943-2835.)

Like other artists who were at Dalnavert on Wednesday to install their works, van Buekenhout thinks the house has untapped potential for concerts, readings, art exhibitions and theatre. "It seems so alive... like someone (who lived there) could walk in at any moment," she says.

Bisch's innovative vision includes a willingness to shift furniture to accommodate events, and remove some of the ropes that usually prevent viewers from entering the elegantly appointed rooms.

Actually walking through the rooms makes visitors feel they're entering the Macdonalds' world, and inspires artists to talk excitedly about "reinterpreting the space." While it's not practical on a routine basis, Bisch says she has the support of the museum's owners, the Manitoba Historical Society, to experiment.

"I'm really looking for programs or events that allow me to open up the rooms, without putting people or artifacts at risk," she says.

For Phantasmagoria, visitors get to mingle in the grand parlour, where multi-disciplinary artist Andrew Milne has set up a giant homemade camera. Two people at a time can climb inside and sit on Victorian-style stools, while someone else poses in front of the lens. The viewers inside see an upside-down image on the white inside wall of the camera.

Having the experience in a meticulously detailed 1895 setting -- down to the ornate light fixtures and wallpaper -- is startling, making one realize how uncanny photography must have seemed in its infancy.

Fine arts student Helga Jakobson's "pre-photography" installation in the bedroom of the young-adult Daisy Macdonald resonates in a similarly haunting way. It's a lifesize shadow of a young Victorian woman seen in profile, cast on a bedsheet hung in front of the fireplace.

What's casting the shadow is not a woman at all, but a sculpture built from decaying remnants of Jakobson's great-grandparents' Interlake homestead, such as ice skates and rusty cans.

This art show in a history-charged place has a remarkable effect. Instead of standing behind a barrier imagining people of 115 years ago dressing or dining, the viewer imaginatively becomes one of those people, viewing optical wonders through their eyes.

Bisch agrees, and hopes to deliver more such experiences. "It's a historically loaded environment," she says.

Museum hours are Wednesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturaday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2010 C1

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