Last year, Winnipeg art student Chantal DeGagné spent three months in Paris as a bilingual tour guide for My Winnipeg.
The large exhibition at La Maison Rouge, a contemporary gallery, showcased 71 artists whose visions have been shaped by our cold, isolated, economically challenged city -- a place that seems to exert a mythical pull on those who try to escape it.
Europeans arrived at the show with only the vaguest notion that Winnipeg was an exotic outpost in the untamed wilderness.
"It seemed like Timbuktu to them," says DeGagné, 29.
Yet they proved extremely curious about Winnipeggers' sense of identity. The guide found herself giving crash courses in geography, history, colonization and immigration. She explained, for instance, the significance of The Forks to provide context for Wanda Koop's huge painting Native Fires, based on seeing aboriginal people gathered around open fires on the riverbank.
Some droll Winnipeg wit required interpretation. Diana Thorneycroft's snowy diorama depicting hoser characters Bob and Doug McKenzie surrounded by hungry wolves was a puzzler to Parisians.
"(They asked), 'Is this real? Is this a joke?'" recalls DeGagné.
She tried to explain, "It's kind of a joke to us, but it's kind of real, seeing two dudes in parkas drinking beer in the middle of winter."
After the Paris run, My Winnipeg was shown for more than six months in the French city of Sète. In the two cities combined, more than 35,000 people viewed it. A critic in Artforum, an international magazine, said the show "lays bare the ingenuity of Winnipeg's artists, who counter their frosty environs with rare piquancy."
Now it's our turn to experience My Winnipeg, which takes its name from Guy Maddin's mythologizing film. Of course, we'll get all the in-jokes and untruths, from Daniel Barrow's video tribute to eccentric community-access TV to Marcel Dzama's 2007 city map, a quirky dreamscape in which wild animals chew on the Royal Canadian Mint building and a giant squid inhabits the Red River.
The show is so big that it will roll out in three chapters at the free-admission Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, which co-produced it. A fourth chapter will be added, bringing the total number of artists to more than 100 and extending the roll-out to mid-March.
The first chapter, There's No Place Like Home, opens Friday night and runs to Oct. 7, taking over the entire Plug In space. It includes a room-filling "image essay" by curator Sigrid Dahle that immerses the viewer in the Peg's history and culture. It's a collage of archival photos, ephemera such as postcards and posters, and artworks both historical and contemporary.
Noting the strong vein of surrealism in local art, Dahle points out that European surrealism arose in a period of great turmoil between the two world wars. She invites viewers to ponder whether Winnipeg surrealism might be a response to it being "a place in which the traumatic effects of colonialism, economic inequality and class warfare haunt the present."
In spite of trauma and hardship, though, "Winnipeg surrealism, to me, is shot through with humour," Dahle says. It's often playful and hopeful, like Métis artist Rosalie Favell's take on the ending of The Wizard of Oz, with Favell waking up in Dorothy's place to find Louis Riel at her window.
Besides Maddin, the most renowned local practitioners of surrealism are Dzama and the other members of the Royal Art Lodge, a collective that was active from 1996 to 2008, producing naïve-looking works. Dzama, says Plug In director Anthony Kiendl, now lives in New York and is probably the most commercially successful artist ever to come out of Winnipeg.
He and other Art Lodge members, including Jon Pylypchuk, Neil Farber and Michael Dumontier, are featured prominently in There's No Place Like Home. They have supplied new or little-seen works to the show so that its Winnipeg incarnation is fresh. (Many artists in My Winnipeg as a whole, including Thorneycroft, Kent Monkman, Eleanor Bond and Robert Houle, have "switched out" the works that went to France for newer works.)
The works by the famed Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporation (also known as the Indian Group of Seven) that went to France have been replaced by nine works chosen by Métis curator Cathy Mattes. That groundbreaking 1970s collective (Kiendl wonders if there's something unique about Winnipeg that fosters collectives) included Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy, Norval Morrisseau and Eddy Cobiness.
A large, haunting 2008 diorama by Dzama dominates Plug In's largest gallery. It depicts a historical-looking hunting party armed with rifles, surrounded by many dead animals and disembodied human heads. Its title is On the Banks of the Red River.
Kiendl notes that My Winnipeg is "by no means meant to be an objective survey" of the history of local art. Rather, it attempts to illuminate a shared esthetic approach -- a sort of Winnipeg vocabulary.
In general, he says, this signature Winnipeg style tends to be figurative (not abstract), vernacular and fantastical/fictional. It often has a kind of first-person narrative and is interested in dreams, visions, myths or the unknown. Some works have a gothic or haunted quality.
"It's notable that it's called My Winnipeg," Kiendl adds. "The 'My' implies that it's subjective and personal."