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I have to admit that when I went to see the current exhibition in Shawinigan, Noah's Ark, I was in a bit of a snit. I had read the catalogue -- a slender and largely content-free interpretation of some 64 works of animal art -- and had come to the conclusion that the show would be nothing more than a grab bag of works from Canada and abroad, gathered together by the National Gallery of Canada's director Pierre Théberge into one big, vacuous super-spectacle. Taking as its subject the theme of animals in art, the exhibition had been pitched as the perfect family-friendly art experience, sidestepping the complex realities of how we human beings coexist with animals in the 21st century. The phenomenon of the factory farm, the politics of radical veganism, the ethics of genetic engineering -- how could a subject so vexed be simplified into crowd-pleasing Pablum for busloads of foot-weary tourists? It seemed impossible.

Then there was the whole Shawinigan thing. The 3,000-square-metre former Alcan aluminum smelter, now called La Cité de l'énergie, was renovated between 2001 and 2003 for a total cost of $10.3-million, of which $6.2-million was provided by the Chrétien federal government, with the National Gallery of Canada signing a five-year agreement to mount exhibitions in the space. Chrétien's birthplace as the wannabe Bilbao, a derelict industrial outpost reconfigured through culture? It seemed preposterous.

That was before I got there. But standing at the entrance to the show, confronting the vast hall of sculptures assembled there, I was shocked into silence. Among the menagerie: dancing rabbits by Welsh artist Barry Flanagan, two suspended whale skeletons ingeniously made from white plastic cut-up garden furniture by Vancouver's Brian Jungen, an Edgar Degas bronze horse, a Pablo Picasso baboon, a prize bull by Saskatchewan's Joe Fafard, exotic French 19th-century bronze tigers and elephants and crocodiles by Antoine-Louis Barye, a woman holding a doe by American sculptor Kiki Smith, and more and more and more, the installation mimicking the trophy halls of the world's great natural-history museums.

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A celebration of the wonders of the animal world (and of human creativity), this opening volley also evokes the threat of extinction. Facing the throng, at the entrance, Théberge has positioned a sculpture by Australian contemporary sculptor Ron Mueck, a rough wooden rowboat without oars in which sits a shockingly lifelike naked man. His arms are crossed and his head is cocked to one side in quizzical contemplation of the menagerie before him. The positioning of the Mueck piece here -- an animal among animals -- charges the whole assembly of beasts, setting up, in a poetic way, the question of our affinity and our custodial rapport with these kindred spirits.

Other galleries open off this great room, revealing some truly astonishing creatures -- like Louise Bourgeois's 10-metre-high Maman, a giant spider in bronze and stainless steel. In her belly, high above our heads, she holds a cache of white marble eggs, and standing beneath the architecture of her body, you feel at the same time sheltered by her strength and intimidated by her overwhelming scale.

There are other marvels. A film room was showing, when I visited, Joyce Wieland's Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968), a hilarious and pithy commentary on Canadian subservience to the U.S. (We get the crumbs.) Nancy Graves's trio of life-sized camels (1968-69) surprise you as you round a corner. Tom Friedman's delicate insects (a dragonfly, a tarantula, something that looks like a fur-bearing leech) are exquisitely fashioned from materials such as human hair, nylon fishing line, and little bits of clay and paper. They perch on pedestals or crawl on the wall, easy to miss but delightful to find.

In another quiet corner, Francis Alys's video projection Sleepers II presents a sequence of still images of sleeping homeless people and dogs on the streets of Mexico City, partners in survival who share the same fundamental, animal needs for comfort and respite. A room full of penguins on plinths, crudely sculpted from wood by German artist Stephan Balkenhol, runs the gamut of anthropomorphic suggestion, prompting thoughts of how we see ourselves in animals (particularly those who seem to wear gentlemen's evening clothes). And photographs from the archive of the London art dealer Anthony d'Offay, displayed in vitrines, record trophy displays of tusks and pelts, exposing our relentless compulsion to order and dominate the natural world.

Spectacle is key to the show's appeal. A large video projection and single-monitor installation by Glaswegian Douglas Gordon, titled Play Dead: Real Time (2003), continues the theme of elegy and awe found in other works, but on a grand scale. On the three screens (two huge, one small) arranged in a cavernous darkened space, Gordon presents the image of an elephant struggling to its feet, walking with its infinitely heavy, liquid gait, and then lying down again -- "playing dead," as the title indicates.

The piece stirs up a range of emotions; the elephant at rest seems almost dead, conjuring up notions of the animal as human prey, and its large, scarcely blinking eye has a beseeching look, inviting our intervention. Its colossal party trick -- lying its great body down and then getting up again -- demonstrates both our exploitation of animals for our amusement and their innocent, endearing desire to please us. Tenderness and guilt are provoked in equal measure.

The prevailing tone of the show is one of wonder, but a darker and more complex note is added through the inclusion of Toronto art collector Ydessa Hendeles's collection of archival photographs of people with their teddy bears, as well as her collection of vintage textile bears dating back to the early years of the 20th century. This collection has been shown in earlier incarnations in both Toronto and Munich, but it continues to grow. Examining this archive, which takes several hours to explore fully, you see teddies with babies, with tourists, with families, with teams, with invalids, with soldiers -- the permutations are endless, and the implications profound, pointing to our need for magical talismans to ward off the darkness.

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The show is a great success, but it's a success of a very particular kind. This is not an exhibition underpinned with research and critical thought. The catalogue is fluff. Instead, it is an exhibition grounded in a sense of play, exceedingly fresh and unpretentious, and it will provide untold delight to the very broad audience that will no doubt come to see it. Yes, there are works here the show could do without and, yes, some of the selections are, in a way, obvious to those for whom the art world is natural habitat. But what a discovery some of these piece will be to the vast majority of visitors who will see them here for the first time.

Last year, 60,000 people showed up to see the National Gallery's exhibition The Body Transformed at La Cité de l'énergie, a similarly wide-ranging inaugural exhibition that explored the representation of the human body in art. This year, the numbers are already better. The Gallery should jump on the precedent it has established here -- populism without pandering -- and pursue the idea in other parts of the country. The rumour is that sites are being contemplated near Toronto, and in Vancouver, and that is all to the good. If this experiment starts and ends in Shawinigan, we will all be the poorer for it.

Noah's Ark continues at La Cité de l'énergie in Shawinigan, Que., until Oct. 3 (819-537-5300 or http://www.national.gallery.ca.

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