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Montreal's New Frida Kahlo Exhibit Is Deeply Emotional & Wondrously Technological (FIRST LOOK)

It's as weird and whimsical as the artist herself.

MTL Blog, Staff Writer
​A projection of Frida Kahlo peers through rows of colourful Mexican 'papel picado' cutout paper banners. Right: Someone stands in a room with vibrant projections of day of the dead skulls, flowers, and pineapples.

A projection of Frida Kahlo peers through rows of colourful Mexican 'papel picado' cutout paper banners. Right: Someone stands in a room with vibrant projections of day of the dead skulls, flowers, and pineapples.

Montreal's new exhibition Frida Kahlo: An Immersive Biography uses interactive technology to paint a dazzling and intimate picture of the icon. From June 10 to July 24, visitors can explore seven massive installations at Arsenal Contemporary Art featuring virtual reality, 360-degree projections, and participatory elements that plunge visitors into Kahlo's world.

Each installation explores her identity as a disabled, bisexual Mexican woman who challenged the beauty paradigm, putting visitors in her shoes and humanizing her along the way.

Stepping into the dimly lit exhibition space, visitors are immediately greeted with a burst of colour at the Día de los Muertos altar dedicated to Kahlo. Bright orange marigold flowers frame a large black and white portrait of the artist with candles, dried blossoms, and decorated skulls lining three shelves underneath. A plaque on the opposite wall asks "We can say we know Frida Kahlo. But, do we understand her?"

An illumuniated Dia de los Muertos altar dedicated to Frida Kahlo is stacked with candles, marigold flowers, decorated skulls and frames with her photo. An illumuniated Día de los Muertos altar dedicated to Frida Kahlo is stacked with candles, marigold flowers, decorated skulls and frames with her photo.@sofsilva.mtl | Instagram

A hallway of rainbow-coloured information cards written in French and English gives an overview of Kahlo's life detailing major events that give context to the symbolism in her work. For instance, a near-fatal car crash when she was young resulted in severe injuries that rendered the artist infertile. She adopted animals to mother, like monkeys and parrots, many of which show up on her shoulder in her self-portraits.

One evocative installation layers multiple transparent screens of breaking glass, with a floating white figure in the background, to represent the impact of Kahlo's early accident. Glass fragments glint around the figure, who hangs in suspended animation before disintegrating in a flash and resetting in a different position. Coupled with sounds of grinding glass and haunting chimes, the installation creates an uncanny ambiance that carries through most of the rooms.

A projection of Frida Kahlo lying on a bed connected to six panels with different images: a pair of breasts, a pelvis with a rose, an anatomical heart, a baby, a lotus flower, and a snail. A projection of Frida Kahlo lying on a bed connected to six panels with different images: a pair of breasts, a pelvis with a rose, an anatomical heart, a baby, a lotus flower, and a snail.@sofsilva.mtl | Instagram

One projection mapping installation captures the surrealist iconography in Kahlo's work. A three-dimensional bed hangs vertically at the centre of the piece. It starts out empty until the artist appears in a dreaming state and greenery springs forth to reveal six circles. Each one is connected to the artist by a rope and centres a strange object, like a hip bone and spine covered in roses or a baby holding a flower. The images seem to represent the artist's desire for motherhood, while others focus on her chronic pain.

While it's uncomfortable to watch as the artist writhes in discomfort as the piece continues, and the plants burn away, the artistry and sound design make her seem more human.

In fact, the exhibition never shies from the often tragic and troubled parts of her story.

Someone sits on a bench in a large room with projections of Frida Kahlo's black and white portrait on a wall and colourful flowers on the floor. Someone sits on a bench in a large room with projections of Frida Kahlo's black and white portrait on a wall and colourful flowers on the floor. @sofsilva.mtl | Instagram

Beds show up in multiple parts of the exhibition, as Kahlo herself was often bedridden. She was diagnosed with polio as a child, which impacted the development of her right leg, causing her ongoing discomfort and impairing her movement in adulthood.

In one room you can wear a virtual reality headset that places you on her bed in her bedroom. The setting is so realistic that you start to see what the artist might have seen. The VR experience becomes an exercise in empathy.

The bed starts moving and you're taken on a trip through a Mexican villa and then a town. It's a bit disconcerting, but also remarkable to be able to turn your head in any direction and feel like you're fully in the scene.

Each part of the exhibit manages to evoke that feeling through different technology.

In the largest room, a visually-striking 30-minute floor-to-ceiling show transports viewers around the world — from the foot of a giant waterfall to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge — all places that held significance for the artist. The massive digital collage juxtaposes black and white photos with illustrations to tell an abstract story about major moments in Kahlo's life. An immersive soundtrack accompanies seamless transitions between the scenes.

All rooms in the exhibit are so large that visitors won't feel crowded as they move through. There's also a refreshing amount of space to take photos because photography isn't only allowed, it's encouraged. There are creative selfie stations at the end of the exhibit, along with a photo booth that transforms your face into a flowering portrait.

For the price of your ticket, you can even get in on the art-making with one room dedicated to colouring portraits of the artist that can then be projected on the wall.

"Frida had three great passions: painting, activism, and love," reads one plaque at the start of the exhibit. Even if you don't share those by the end of the exhibit, you'll at least appreciate the artist a whole lot more.

Frida Kahlo: An Immersive Biography

When: June 10 - 24

Where: Arsenal Contemporary Art, 2020 rue William, Montreal, QC

Cost: $40+ for adults, $33+ for students

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