New Brunswick

'Strange carnival' brings eerie spectacle to uptown Saint John

Humanorium — a one-of-a-kind travelling art fair — is in town until Aug. 6. With strange, dark overtones and unusual exhibits, it's a far cry from the Ex.

Postmorterm photography, 'mermaid,' freak show and other fabulous attractions

Carnival tout Mathieu Fecteau stands at the foot of King Street with a megaphone, rounding up passers-by for the Humanorium, a strange Quebecois art carnival visiting Saint John from Aug. 1 -6. (Julia Wright / CBC)

A sideshow tout with a Quebecois accent paces at the foot of King Street, shouting to passers-by through a megaphone.

"Come one, come all, to the strange carnival!"

The Humanorium is a far cry from the Ex. It's a motley collection of tents, trailers and shacks housing exhibitions of strange photographs, taxidermy, weird short films, a fake mermaid, and other curiosities. There's a merry-go-round — but instead of a cheery band of painted horses, it's an unusual, human-powered contraption with seats made of shopping carts.

Humanorium — either deliciously eerie, or totally unnerving, depending on your point of view — is a free travelling art installation in Saint John from Aug. 1-6. Inspired by the carnivals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, said creator Vincent Roy, the aim is to celebrate humanity in all its forms.

"The carnival gives us the opportunity to speak about humans in strange ways, weird ways, some darker sides of the humans ... but in a playful way," he said. "It's the line between the funny and the strange, and maybe a little shocking."

The CBC's Julia Wright joined the circus for an afternoon and captured these photos.

A hand-painted red-and-white sign advertises the entrance to Humanorium on the Market Square Boardwalk. Inside the gates are 10 tents and trailers which house "ten fabulous attractions."

"We don't charge anything for the people so it's free for everybody," Roy said. The carnival takes four days to set up, and two days to tear down.

On its first day in Saint John, the installation attracted 2,000 visitors.

"Everyone can have something to like here," Roy said.

Among Humanorium's most popular attractions is Le Carousel: a weird metal merry-go-round made of found materials by the Quebec art collective BGL.

Le Carousel is constructed from shopping carts, security fences and city lights.

"You get in shopping carts, Roy said. "People are invited to get in, but also to push. It's a man-powered carousel and very popular."

Carnival workers — all paid professional artists — invite visitors to take a seat, then push the carousel by hand until it reaches top speed. After the ride, visitors are invited to take a turn powering the machine.

The carousel is a creation of the trio BGL — Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère, and Nicolas Laverdière — whose work has been presented at international events including the 2015 Venice Biennale, where they represented Canada.

"Rare specimen in the window! A truly sublime beauty! Brace yourself for an unsettling encounter with a one-of-a kind creature!" reads the promotional brochure for "Sirenomena," a sculptural work by Dgino Cantin.

Cantin, whose work has been shown widely in Quebec and France, aims to "bring together a wide range of forms and materials create universes - poetic, unusual spaces that interrogate how we apprehend our surroundings."

While some of the art in Humanorium is lighthearted and amusing, "it's not just for fun," Roy said.

"There's something maybe deeper to catch."

In a tiny, pitch-dark trailer, illuminated screens display artistic portraits of human remains: skeletons decked in mouldering finery, disembodied heads floating in a glass vessel.

The photo series, thirty years in the making, was created by photographer Jack Berman. While postmortem images can be unnerving to some, Roy said Berman's work is both respectful and "poetic."

"It's not just gore, or disgusting," he said. "A couple of times … we had a few negative reactions, but one or two in 10,000."

Sometimes, he said, "parents are afraid that the child is going to be shocked, but the child is not. The child can take much more than the adults."

A wall of screens showcases curated images of tattooed, pierced, and otherwise unusual bodies.

The photo series curated by Joan Fontcuberta showcases images of those "unafraid to delve deep into the world of body modification and fearlessly join the massive freak show the interview sometimes becomes."

Fontcubera's work has been shown at solo exhibitions including at New York's MOMA, the Chicago Art Institute, and Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.

Most works of art invite the gaze of the audience — but this work by Sculptor Louis Fortier stares directly back.

The viewer stands in the centre of a semi-circular arrangement of twisted, gaping faces.

It's intended, according to Fortier, to "pose a series of questions about identity and the passage of time."

A purple room lined with low shelves showcases taxidermy, sculptures, and other oddities.

The Chamber of Curiosities - a "faraway land of Siamese sculptures and imaginary beasts" — are the work of Dgino Cantin, who also created "Sirenomena," the mermaid installation also featured in the carnival.

The Chamber is a "self-contained parallel universe where you're surrounded by objects at once familiar and exotic," according to Cantin.

"The faraway has never been so near."

Part of the goal of the temporary carnival, Roy said, is to "create a new public space in the city," drawing in audiences who don't usually go to galleries and museums.

After Humanorium ends its visit to Saint John on Mon., Aug. 6, the carnival heads back to Quebec City. Saint John and Summerside, P.E.I. are the only two Atlantic Canadian stops on its tour, which will permanently conclude in Quebec next summer.