The Royal Military College of Canada Museum is housed in an 1846 Martello tower in Kingston, Ont., on a grassy spit of land reaching out into Lake Ontario. The tower is a striking sculptural presence, sited in a wide field strewn with wildflowers beside the water, and as you walk across the gangplank that bridges the moat, you hear on the breeze the hearty shouts of soldiers going through their routines on the adjacent training grounds.
Built when the city was braced for the threat of invading Americans (during the Oregon border dispute), the tower was almost immediately made obsolete by the invention of the rifle and was used instead as a barracks until it was assigned to its current detail as tourist attraction. Today, the cramped, stone-walled exhibition spaces yield the predictable booty -- displays of antique weaponry, military decorations and archival maps. But it is in the subterranean depths that you will find a display to stop you in your tracks.
There, nestled into the former munitions magazine, is an arrangement of little knitted sculptures, each one replicating a different type of land mine, that most evil fruit of war. But rather than cold metal, these are made of pink wool and look like the kind of homemade knitting one might find in a superfluity shop.
The objects are not part of the permanent display. Rather, they are an intervention into the museum by Kingston artist Barbara Hunt, a participant in the city-wide exhibition Museopathy. Organized by Montreal artists and curators Jennifer Fisher and Jim Drobnick at the behest of Jan Allen, curator of contemporary art at Kingston's Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the project has brought together a group of Canadian and international artists to work with the holdings of 10 small museums and heritage sites in the quiet university town. Surprising and endearing, Hunt's knitted land mines cast a glow of feminist subversiveness across the rest of the museum and its patriotic glorification of the instruments of war. And like the best works in this project, her woolly confections subtly provoke us to question the institutional frame of the museum itself.
While this kind of project may seem like a novelty to the general gallery-goer, in the art world the tradition of artistic intervention into the museum has a noble and transgressive history stretching back to the early 20th century. Most curators trace the roots of the phenomenon back to Marcel Duchamp, and his "Readymades." (What does it mean when you put a urinal in a gallery and call it art?)
In Canada today, 37-year-old artist and curator Andrew Hunter says he has come to think of Duchamp as a curator as much as an artist, adept at assembling objects and shifting their meanings through context. Hunter himself is developing a reputation for his idiosyncratic installations, which involve gathering works of Canadian historical art into curatorial tableaux, often suggesting subjective narratives. His quirky touring exhibition Stand By Your Man, currently at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, couples Tom Thomson paintings with abstract paintings made by Hunter, and other found materials from popular culture, to present a faux history of Thomson's secret later years as a West Coast abstractionist. (The display explores Thomson's mythic stature in our cultural imagination -- not to mention confounding the museum's narrowly imagined truth-telling role.)
The trend seems to be gathering steam, particularly over the past decade. For a celebratory event to mark the Art Gallery of Ontario's 100th anniversary in September, contemporary art curator Jessica Bradley has invited seven artists to make site-specific work in the Grange, the gallery's historic epicentre, a project that will undoubtedly disrupt the comfortable conventions of period-house display.
Even the Royal Ontario Museum, has gotten in on the act this summer, giving Toronto artist Spring Hurlbut the run of the place, and presenting the results of her investigations -- a compelling exhibition of objects in vitrines drawn from the various collections of the museum, including everything from dead swans to mummified Egyptian cats. It's a show organized around poetic, rather than scientific, truths.
In Museopathy, a number of works exemplify these strategies at their most evocative. The central exhibition Collectioneering, organized by Drobnik and Fisher for the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, is an instant classic of the genre. (No strangers to curatorial subversion, the couple two years ago performed a tableau vivant at historic Eldon House in London, Ont., dressed as a "security guard" and an 1880s scullery maid.)
For Collectioneering, they have drawn on the holdings of all the participating institutions, putting the displays together in ways that are always amusing and sometimes fascinating. Not surprisingly, given the number of prisons in and around Kingston, the culture of incarceration comes in for special scrutiny. Five improvised escape ladders are hung along one wall, including the jerrybuilt amalgam of metal ladders used by bank robber Tyrone Conn in his notorious 1999 Kingston jail break, and stuffed decoy heads made for their beds by would-be escapees to fool guards are shown alongside a 19th-century plaster bust.
In its best moments, Collectioneering tempts us to abandon the rigid taxonomies that hold our imaginations captive. It also piques our curiosity about all things criminal, serving as the perfect teaser for Brian Jungen's work at the Correctional Services of Canada Museum, steps from Kingston Pen.
One display, a hideout made of stacks of lunch trays hollowed out to conceal a convict, served as the impetus for Jungen's room-sized installation of multicoloured trays -- each representing a different aboriginal male currently incarcerated in the Canadian penal system. Inside this block of trays, a concealed television plays the news, reminding us of the ennui of prison life. The piece reads as a homage to the creative criminal mind, clearly suggesting a parallel with the artist, who sees possibilities where others cannot.
Texan Mel Ziegler made another of Museopathy's strongest works, staged in historic Bellevue House. Ziegler has slyly undermined the authority of the period-room displays by inserting objects acquired from contemporary mail-order catalogues. Thus we discover an electric guitar propped in the drawing room amidst the musty clutter. But most of Ziegler's additions are more subtle, consisting of contemporary reproductions of household goods. One becomes absorbed in the treasure hunt, searching for inauthenticity even as ones comes to see the museum itself as an elaborate period fiction.
Intriguing as these sorts of exhibitions can be, though, their subtlety can sometimes become problematic. Vancouver Art Gallery senior curator Bruce Grenville is a fan of the Museopathy experiment, but he cautions that the surreptitious nature of of the Ziegler piece can, if taken too far, become a pitfall. "These shows are ostensibly about opening things up for the public, but so much of this can be about curators having a dialogue with other people in their field. You don't want to have the general museum visitor to be baffled."
As well, some artists' projects can feel subjective to the point of solipsism. In Museopathy, Jamelie Hassan's project for the Museum of Health Care, which featured a homemade birth video, falls into this category, as does Fastwurms' display about their transcontinental rock-hunting road trip, installed in the foyer of the Miller Museum of Geology and Minerology.
Others can be playful to the point of utter silliness, like Mitch Robertson's intervention into the International Ice Hockey Federation Museum, although it's impossible not to be charmed by his heroic efforts to produce the world's largest ball of hockey tape.
At their best, such acts of creative vandalism can reignite our sense of curiosity, and, as Grenville says, "derationalize our sense of the world so that other narratives can come into play." Perhaps, he adds, we are seeing the pendulum swing away from the Protestant, utilitarian attitudes to art, away from the notion that the museum must always be teaching us in a linear, didactic way about the past and the present.
These projects expose other possibilities. Instead of a classroom, the museum can become for a spell a cabinet of curiosities, and a place of wonder. Museopathy continues in Kingston, Ont., at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at University Ave. and Queen's Crescent, Queen's University, and at participating museums and heritage sites until Sept. 9. For information, (613) 533-2190 or .