A young boy pauses outside the Glenbow Museum on Stephen Avenue Mall and stares at what some may consider a grotesque image on the outside of the building.
“What is that, dad?” he asks his father, puzzling over the picture that shows a large, wrinkly, hairless creature sporting the tail of a fish, a humanesque arm and a face that seems the hybrid of a gorilla and a man, stretched out along a bench with its head in the lap of a sleeping boy.
It’s actually a picture of a sculpture created by Patricia Piccinini entitled The Long Awaited, the creature in question inspired by a manatee — a sea cow endangered by human activity.
However, the boy’s confusion, mixed with wonder, is what the Museum’s current exhibition — Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination, which includes Piccinini’s sculpture — is meant to evoke.
Its curator, Mark Scala of Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts, says concepts of identity, hybridity and the blurring of boundaries underlie the 60 works he has assembled.
Scala explains how scientific advances, particularly concerning genetics, DNA manipulation and prosthetics, have produced the concept of “the hybrid body.”
“All these things are science’s way of saying the body is a machine, that you are not yourself,” he says.
Combine the idea of the “hybrid body” with an artist’s imagination, and you have the resulting exhibition, which has travelled from Nashville to Winnipeg and, now, to Calgary.
As Scala points out, many of these artistic fantasies involve anthropomorphism (attributing human qualities to animals) and zoomorphism (attributing animalistic qualities to humans).
“We have this whole huge history of imagining combinations of the human and the animal,” he says, referencing the minotaur and centaur from ancient Greek mythology as two examples.
“Any number of folk tales, across all cultures, use human-animal combinations as a way of representing the animalistic and irrational side of humanity,” he adds. “It occurred to me that there’s a relationship between a hybrid creature, a fairy tale and a monster like the creature in Frankenstein — who is also a hybrid — and science fiction and actual science.”
Despite the historical depth of these artistic portrayals, Scala says he chose to focus only on contemporary art — the body of historical work being too vast and culturally varied to do it sufficient justice within the confines of this exhibition. He divided the pieces in the show — which include paintings, drawings, sculptures and multimedia presentations — into three sections: fairy tales, monsters and the genetic imagination.
While he admits the divisions are somewhat arbitrary, he says the fairy tale section and the monster section explore the two sides of the “folkloric imagination” — one side being the narrative that is often meant for children and the other side, the monster side, being the creation of often grotesque creatures to symbolize something more fearsome.
“I think there is an implied shift from the narrative, to the single body of the monster, and then, when you get into genetics, the genetic imagination really ties it all together,” he explains.
Scala says the exhibition’s “bottom line” is “how this idea of the hybrid body is really a reflection of our cultural hybridity. We’re no longer necessarily easily divisible by race.... We aren’t human or animal, we are both. Artists are seeing this notion of the recombinant figure of being symbolic of a larger passage towards the reduction of boundaries, the end of tribalism and the notion you can easily be divided by one thing.”
While Scala says genetic engineering is often portrayed in films and literature as something to be feared, he says the work in this exhibition offers a more positive spin on its possibilities, though, admittedly, that is the section of the exhibition in which some of the most peculiar and abstract art will be found. (A large grouping of photos of preserved fetuses, anyone?)
“They (the artists) are excited about the prospect of designing new life forms that humanity can spur evolution to something better than we can ever imagine,” Scala says. “The artists ask, ‘What if, instead of fearing the things we create, we love them?’”
Despite the rather heady nature of the ideas underlying the exhibition, Scala says that artwork inspired by fairy tales and monsters is accessible for all ages.
“It speaks to people on a very immediate level,” he says.