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Humans, beasts mix in unsettling exhibit

Strange hybrids spring from artists' dark, wild imaginations

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It's an image of loving comfort and companionship.

And weirdness.

A young boy sits on a bench, protectively snuggling an ancient-looking creature -- perhaps a genetic mutant or monster. Both are asleep.

The naked, manatee-like creature has a semi-human face and a flipper tail, segmented into human toes.

Did the boy find it washed up on a beach? Is it his grotesque imaginary friend? Is it the special pet he's always dreamed of?

The title of this arresting life-size sculpture by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini is The Long Awaited.

"You kind of wonder who has long awaited whom," says Helen Delacretaz, chief curator of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. "Did genetic engineering happen on (the creature's) behalf that created the human? Or perhaps did his parents create a sibling for him through genetic engineering?"

As long as there have been human beings, there have been fantasies, nightmares and myths about creatures that are part-animal, part-human.

There have been metaphorical tales of beasts that stalk naive or sinful people.

And as technology has evolved, there have been horror and science-fiction stories about sinister blending of humans with animals, plants or machines. Today, inter-species hybrids aren't just the stuff of fantasy.

This is the unsettling -- even disturbing -- territory of Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination, this summer's major show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. It has a free public opening tonight and runs to Sept. 2.

"For the artists... the hybrid body -- imagined or potentially real -- expresses ancient fears, hidden desires and the potential for transformation," the press kit says.

The touring international exhibition of about 70 contemporary works -- paintings, photography, prints, sculpture, video works, installations -- is organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn., and curated by that gallery's Mark Scala.

The provocative show was a box-office hit in Nashville, drawing nearly 60,000 visitors during its recent run, says Delacretaz. The WAG is the second institution to show it. More than 25 artists are represented -- mostly American, British and European -- including prominent names such as Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith and Paula Rego.

Teens and young adults were especially attracted to the show in Nashville, which isn't surprising given the current popularity of vampires, zombies, re-imaginings of fairy tales like Snow White and the Huntsman and movies about alien life forms like Prometheus.

It may not be suitable for children, however. Although the artworks reference stories like Peter Pan and nursery rhymes such as Little Miss Muffett, most probe the menacing darkness, not the happily ever after.

"There are no princesses," Delacretaz says.

On the other hand, some pieces rework the power dynamics in traditional tales. Rapture, a sculpture by Smith, depicts a nude woman emerging confidently from the belly of a wolf. "Red Riding Hood has grown up. She's not a little girl anymore," says Delacretaz.

There are two Canadians in the show, both art stars who now live in New York. One is Winnipeg's Marcel Dzama, who alludes to Pinocchio in one of his installations and includes a mysterious flock of angel-like bats in the other.

The white bats hover over a dying bear. "Are they protecting him or harming him?" Delacretaz asks. "There's a lot of that kind of questioning in the exhibition."

The second Canadian is Montreal-born David Altmejd, whose sculpture of a decaying werewolf head is displayed like a freakish museum specimen. The rather pathetic head has gemstones embedded in it, hinting at a beauty-and-beast duality. "Altmejd's werewolf at once attracts and repels," Scala writes.

Blurred boundaries between humans and animals recur, whether it's a tiny man meeting giant rabbits; a strange, species-blending island where a penguin has sex with a woman; or a prepubescent girl on a diving board (about to dive into womanhood?) who confronts a predatory bear just beyond the fence of her suburban backyard.

But the creepiest works are in the last section of the show, The Genetic Imagination, exploring the implications of the hybrid body engineered by science. Look closely at the bizarre plants imagined and photographed by Janaina Tschäpe and you realize there are human body parts -- like a baby's hand -- sprouting from them.

Three eerie photographs by Aziz + Cucher depict objects -- or are they organisms? -- that seem to have human hair growing on skin, stretched over machine- or tool-like forms.

Piccinini, the creator of The Long Awaited, has another life-size sculpture called Still Life with Stem Cells. A realistic little girl plays with fleshy lumps that, in a disturbing way, are clearly human.

"It's as though she's playing with dolls, but they're organisms made from stem cells," says Delacretaz. "She's holding one like it's a little puppy or kitten."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Art Preview

Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination

Winnipeg Art Gallery

Opens tonight at 7 p.m., to Sept. 2

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2012 D3

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