Viewing “Kaleidoscopic Animalia,” Paul Hardy’s exhibition at Glenbow, is like walking by the window displays of a high-end department store. Each of his 15 scenes is a stage for stories starring faceless mannequins clothed in beautiful gowns, coats and accessories made from luxurious fabrics, furs and feathers and set against a backdrop of animal-themed artwork and artifacts.
One window has Dumbo, King Kong and Old Yeller showing on vintage TVs. The closer you look, the more layers you find. In an Arctic-themed window, a mannequin wears a parka made from skins of eider ducks, since the region has no caribou to hunt. In a black-and-white themed window, a mannequin in a custom Paul Hardy gown of feathers from six different birds shares a window with Haida totems made of argillite. The ringmaster in a window with vintage circus posters wears a monkey jacket from the early 20th century, when monkey fur was all the rage. There’s even a portrait of Hardy’s own best friend, his loyal dog Fergus, set among the paintings of people and dogs.
The exhibition is visually stunning—not surprising, considering it was created by a designer. Hardy caught the attention of the fashion world with his first show at Toronto Fashion Week in 2002, which earned rave reviews and launched a career that has taken him to New York, Paris, Tokyo and beyond. His celebrity clients include Bette Midler, Carrie Fisher, Alanis Morissette, Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn, Chantal Kreviazuk and Paul Brandt. Locally, Hardy’s work has been seen onstage at Alberta Ballet, where he designed all the costumes for Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, a ballet choreographed to the music of Sarah McLachlan (also a client).
Hardy says he knew in Grade 6 that he wanted to be a designer, despite coming from four generations of bankers and accountants. He worked on department store window displays in high school, earned his design degree from Toronto’s Ryerson University and was recruited by Holt Renfrew to come to Calgary, where he says he fell in love with the people and the lifestyle. He eventually went into business for himself and, when he isn’t travelling, is often found at his studio in Inglewood.
In recent years Hardy has also been doing more interior design work. He was just wrapping up an animal-themed project when Glenbow invited him to participate in its artist-in-residence program. “I was really flattered to be asked, particularly because I think a lot of people don’t view fashion as an art form.”
Melanie Kjorlien, vice-president of access, collections and exhibitions, says the residency program started about five years ago as a way to encourage artists from different disciplines to engage with Glenbow’s extensive collections and produce new work. The artists are given the freedom to come up with a topic for research and study, and in return the Glenbow gains access to new audiences who are interested in those artists. The participants have been varied—poet and musician Kris Demeanor, artist Kent Monkman, poet Shane Koyczan and musician Corb Lund. Kjorlien says Hardy could have followed up his residency with a new line of clothing and that would have been fine, but instead he chose to conclude it by curating an exhibition.
Hardy’s residency began with a preliminary tour of Glenbow’s collections led by five archivists who specialize in different areas. The tour left him impressed by how vast and diverse the museum’s holdings are: “There really is no focus to it. I say this with the utmost respect, but it’s all over the map, really.” That diversity can be traced back to the origins of the collection donated to Albertans by Eric Harvie and his family, who helped launch the museum in 1966. Oil wealth enabled Harvie to pursue his passion for collecting objects important to western Canada’s history, as well as artifacts and art from around the world. Glenbow describes his eclectic vision as “Where the World Meets the West.”
Today, Glenbow’s collections, library and archives fill four floors of storage at the downtown building, not including the permanent and rotating exhibitions on view. Hardy’s tour came on the heels of his animal-themed interior design project, so animals were still top of mind. He says he noticed their influence everywhere he looked—furnishings, art, clothing. “I started to become more sensitive to the fact that we see animals in almost every area of design, our literary world, our pop culture world, our advertising and branding,” he says. “It is the common thread through every culture and it transcends every social hierarchy.” The human/animal relationship became the focus of his research and ultimately the catalyst for “Kaleidoscopic Animalia.”
The first window in the exhibition focuses on Canada, the fur trade and the role of the beaver, our national symbol, in the country’s founding and development. The popularity of beaver fur hats in Europe brought English and French fur traders here, leading to the establishment of the first colonies. As Hardy writes in the accompanying text, Canada had an estimated six million beavers before the start of the fur trade, and during its peak 100,000 pelts per year were being shipped to Europe. Another window features the “bounty” of the bison that once roamed the prairies in large herds, providing the First Nations tribes with meat for food, skins for shelter and clothing, and bones for tools. The bison were so abundant that, as Hardy notes, “Province of Buffalo” was initially proposed as the name for what would become Alberta and Saskatchewan. Horses have also played an important role in Canada’s history, for war, transportation, farming, ranching and in recreation and sport. Another window displays rocking horses, carousels and toys arranged in a steeplechase.
The exhibition touches on these topics but doesn’t delve too deep. For example, the text doesn’t include the fact that beavers were almost extinct in Canada by the mid-1800s. Or that not long afterwards, as settlers arrived on the prairies, buffalo were wiped out along with the First Nations’ traditional way of life. While the circus window is a reminder that parading elephants in front of cheering crowds is no longer considered acceptable, the ongoing controversy surrounding the use of horses and cattle in rodeos isn’t mentioned.
Society’s treatment of animals is a touchy topic. Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq’s support for the seal hunt recently caused an uproar. The backlash against cultural appropriation in fashion led to the banning of headdresses as accessories at some music festivals last summer. So it’s surprising that the potentially controversial subject matter in “Kaleidoscopic Animalia” hasn’t generated more reaction.
Hardy has no personal objections to people wearing fur, but he realizes not everyone shares that view. He tries to repurpose vintage pieces or use skins that are a by-product of the food chain. The exhibition raises the issue of animal rights without taking a stand. Hardy says he hopes it will spark discussion. “It’s part of history. You can’t pretend our country wasn’t birthed out of the fur trade, or that people didn’t wear exotic coats back in the ’40s and ’50s, because they weren’t as mindful about our social responsibility to animals as we may be now,” he says.
For historian Susan Nance the exhibition falls into the same trap as most discussions about animals. “The intrinsic value of animals is missing from the conversation,” she says. “People believe they’re talking about animals, writing about animals, thinking about animals, and they’re not. They’re actually talking, writing and thinking about human ideas about and uses of animals.”
An author and associate professor affiliated with the Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, Nance is researching the use of animals for entertainment and what that says about our relationships with them today. She viewed the exhibition when she was invited by Glenbow to take part in a panel discussion last December about the powerful connections between humans and animals. Nance does not direct her criticism at Glenbow or Hardy, but at a self-involved society that fails to recognize that animals have value independent of their usefulness to human beings. “The whole exhibition was from a human perspective, really. It was about what we find beautiful, what we find useful, what we find interesting,” she says. “It was all about us and a celebration of us. The other lives I saw represented in all those feathers and fur and skin—those beings just weren’t a factor. I think this is a very common human habit.”
Nance agrees with Hardy that people can decide for themselves about whether the different ways society uses animals are acceptable, but suggests that to really have that conversation, the lives of the animals need to be represented as well. For example, she says the exhibition could have included stories of how famous broncs end up in rodeos and what happens to them afterwards, or displayed photos of the animals whose skins are used in the windows, or included information about how some animals are skinned alive to keep the pelt intact. “All of these skins and pelts are evidence of a horrific moment of human cruelty, and that is as much a part of the story of how animals inspire fashion and other kinds of creative art as the finished project,” she says.
Kjorlien says Glenbow doesn’t take any position on the issue of animal rights, but hopes the exhibition will prompt people to think about how animals have played a role in our lives throughout history. “Kaleidoscopic Animalia” drew animal-related artifacts from every area of the collections—artwork, military history, indigenous studies, world cultures and more—and includes many different cultures and time periods. “All of our collections were somehow touched or relevant to the theme that Paul chose for his exhibition,” says Kjorlien. “There are artifacts in Paul’s exhibition that have never been exhibited before…. It is a good opportunity for people to see some of that material presented in a unique format with an engaging theme.”
Kaleidoscopic Animalia” veered away from the more usual practice of displaying artifacts according to time period, region, material or culture. Instead, the objects in the windows tell stories—viewers who want details can find them in the exhibition guide available in print and online. This is the largest exhibition to result from the artist-in-residence program so far in terms of the number of artifacts involved. Hardy says he started with 24 window ideas, and it was a challenge to edit it down to 15. For each he developed storyboards with rough illustrations of how he wanted the installation laid out and lists of key artifacts that he wanted included. After that, repeat visits to the collection helped narrow down which hat or shoe to use here, which chair or artwork to use there.
Independent Calgary-based curator Wayne Baerwaldt calls the show an “amazing culling” of all kinds of material from the collections and archives, representing the world of high art, fashion and pop culture as well as different ethnic groups. “I thought it was illustrative of how a democratic curatorial eye can operate in the Glenbow vaults and archives and really mix what we would consider high art objects, such as a painting by a renowned artist, with commonplace things like stuffed animals,” he says.
“Paul has brought them out of their traditional place in the cultural valuation system and made one virtually equal to the other… Fashion is the making of that common space where Andy Warhol’s soup cans are suddenly transformed into a beaded section of a dress, and taken out of their original context and made playful… instead of representing certain ideas in a white cube gallery at a particular time in art history.”
The experience was a learning curve for Hardy, who discovered that every artifact had to be approved by conservation experts prior to its use, and some could not be used without special permission. In one case, he wanted to use a large totem pole, an object traditionally considered sacred, in a tongue-in-cheek display showing two mannequins in tool belts, as if chiselling the pole, with one of them wearing an evening gown embroidered with art inspired by the totem. When the museum checked with the tribe that created the totem pole, they didn’t approve.
Hardy, who keeps track of social media comments about the exhibition, says he wanted the show not only to be a way of learning but also to be relatable and commercially successful. For example, putting Joseph Francis Kernan’s paintings from the ’30s and ’50s in rococo frames in pop art colours helps make them “cool and relevant,” he says, to a younger demographic that normally wouldn’t give them a second look.
When people go through museums they often “just buzz through and don’t really have an appreciation for the craftsmanship or the history of a lot of these things,” Hardy says. “And that was one of the intentions of these windows—to create rich, layered visualizations that got people to pause and actually spend time to look at all the different artifacts and details…. They would probably just pass by them if they were under glass in a traditional exhibition.”
This approach, combined with Hardy’s name recognition, has been good for attendance. More than 1,100 people came out to the public launch of the exhibition in October 2015, which was more than at the opening of the massive “Oh, Canada” exhibition. When Glenbow held its inaugural monthly Free First Thursday Night in January, more than 3,000 people showed up. Later that month Glenbow announced the exhibition had been extended to September 4, more than three months beyond its scheduled run. “We’ve had good feedback from people,” Kjorlien says.
In his introduction to “Kaleidoscopic Animalia,” Hardy says as Glenbow’s artist-in-residence he opted to “gleefully examine the historic influence animals have had on design and culture.” Baerwaldt says “mission accomplished.” He adds that Hardy’s theme of looking at how animals are used and interpreted in toys, paintings, music or fashion makes for a light, carefree and interesting tour through the artifacts—and there’s nothing wrong with that. “It’s a humanizing approach to his playful curatorial process. Maybe we need more of that.”
Maureen McNamee is associate editor at Alberta Views and a long-time journalist with the former FFWD Weekly in Calgary.