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Ambitious exhibition of antiquities impressive, but historical scope hard to grasp

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/8/2015 (733 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

IF you’ve been downtown at any point this year, you’ve probably caught a stony glance or two from Zeus or Aphrodite. Since the spring, colossal marble faces have been everywhere, staring blankly out from across the centuries and down from vinyl banners and bus ads for Olympus, the WAG’s current flagship exhibition.

Media saturation and a cultivated sense of "monumentality" set lofty expectations for the show, but its actual accomplishments, though considerable, are more down-to-earth.

Head in the style of "Hera Farnese" at the Olympus exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Head in the style of "Hera Farnese" at the Olympus exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Weaving between school groups on a return visit earlier this week, I eavesdropped as an older visitor revealed to a security guard, in her most conspiratorial stage whisper, "My sister’s from Nova Scotia — she’s never seen anything like this!" And that, I suspect, gets to the heart of the show’s appeal.

"The first major exhibition of classical antiquities in Manitoba in over half a century," Olympus overflows with Greek and Roman objects on loan from three Berlin museums. It’s true: to see anything like it, you’d have to make the trek to much larger institutions in Ontario, the States, or further afield.

Each of the 160-plus artifacts, which range from jewelry and personal items to imposing marble busts and terra-cotta vessels clad in complex mythological scenes, is fascinating in its own right. Together they span a thousand years of history, during which philosophies, technologies and cultural institutions that we still observe — much of what we might consider "modern" human mentality — first took shape.

Unfortunately, if for reasons beyond anyone’s control, the scope and direction of that history can be hard to perceive. Collected before contemporary archeological protocols were in place, it’s not known exactly when and where many of the objects were made, so they’re largely grouped by type and subject matter. The sculptures skew smaller than you might expect, with no intact, full-size figures and quite a few of the first- and second-century Italian marbles hacked together from multiple sources, once a common practice among European collectors.

The installation is elaborate and engaging — one portrait gallery occupies a slick, circular colonnade; there’s a digital, Tyndallstone-lined mock reflecting pool, and child-height alcoves feature Lego displays and animated vase paintings — but at a certain point this starts to feel like oversell. I’d gladly trade a few of the bells and whistles (and more easily forgive the inevitable en-suite gift shop) for reduced cost of entry.

Olympus will run a full year, all told. If it weren’t for the surcharge, I’d probably pop in every few months, no doubt uncovering new details each time. As it is, it’s a fine show that, like 100 Masters in 2013 and last winter’s Dalí Up Close, can’t quite live up to its "blockbuster" billing. (Admission ranges from $8 for members to $22 for non-member adults. A comparable fee would get you into all five institutions on Berlin’s Museum Island, including the three that loaned out work for this show).

While you have until April to plan a visit, aim to go before Oct. 4, when the concurrent exhibition of works by Australian sculptor Ron Mueck comes down. Mueck is known internationally for making oddly sized but ultra-realistic human figures; a third-floor gallery features a terrifyingly large baby (still bloody from birth) and an unnervingly small, elderly woman tucked into a miniature bed.

With their idealized proportions and white marble features, size is a secondary concern in Olympus. By contrast, scale shifts magnify the all-too-human imperfections of Mueck’s figures: the effect is both viscerally upsetting and strangely poignant

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist-writer and educator.

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