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Remembrance of times past: This is Montreal!

There’s something tragic about monuments built to an optimism that faded decades ago.

The Soviet Union’s contribution to Expo ‘67, for instance: a large, concrete hammer and sickle inscribed with the proud slogan, Everything in the name of man, for the benefit of man. The image is one of six enlarged snapshots spread across one wall of Andrew Hunter’s exhibition, “This is Montreal!” Casually taken by a family friend, the pictures mainly show the backs of people’s heads against the grand architecture of Montreal’s World’s Fair, all tinged a burnt-sienna shade of rose – a funny mix between the murky glaze of old photographs and that adage about seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses.

They make for an interesting contrast positioned next to the aggressively upbeat, dynamic version of modern life circa 1960 – that today look impossibly dated – present in most of the images around the gallery. Between Technicolor scenes of the Expo’s futuristic architecture, modernist paintings, hockey memorabilia and various Expo souvenirs, Hunter recreates the imperfect picture of Montreal he first got as a kid growing up in small-town Ontario. The exhibition looks into the places where personal history and art history collide. Memory and its failures are on display as much as the city is.

In order to evoke this particular Montreal, Hunter draws on the sources that formed his first visions of the city as a futuristic utopian metropolis: a National Geographic special issue and two souvenir books on Expo ‘67, a tourist brochure from the 1950s, an NFB wrestling film, and two Andy Brian books on the Montreal Canadiens. The title of the exhibition – “This is Montreal!” – has an ironic edge to it, echoing the forceful, cheery self-assurance of the Expo itself, where The Way of the Future seems to have been rolled out with an exclamation point on its heels.

Alongside the items making up the exhibition, Hunter tracks how these sources contributed to shaping his sense of Canadian identity, asserting that a sense of place is necessarily a construction. He investigates the conceptions of the world that develop when you’re a kid, and the haphazard, bizarre sources those sometimes come from – in his case, whatever paraphernalia his extended family left lying around the house.

In the program accompanying the exhibit, Hunter comments on the promotional booklet Tell Me About the Expo! The guide, produced four years before the event, was designed to explain the fair to a young audience. Along with a character named Danny, young readers were presented with “concepts of the future, progress and a new world order of peace and cooperation (largely made possible through technology and innovative design).”

Looking back with a mixture of nostalgia and critical hindsight, Hunter points to the sinister undertones implicit in this projection of the future. He tellingly cites the section introducing that bold new invention, the computer. “They are wonderful machines but they can be used for good things or for bad things,” Danny’s mother explains. “Let’s hope they’ll be used only to make life better and happier for people everywhere.” These words, he points out, have an eerie resonance, when seen from the vantage point of 2008.

At the same time, he’s not single-mindedly critical of the visions of progress that the fair presents. There’s also some affection in his look at this “vision of the future that was so much of the past,” even by the time he got to it. Hunter was four when the Expo happened; he experienced it all secondhand through the souvenirs his older siblings brought back. When he finally got to visit the site himself, years later, most of the buildings were already gone. The place was practically deserted.

“Was it fake? Artificial? Unreal?” Hunter asks, “Or just fleeting, as concrete as our culture will allow and as unstable as my immature imaginings of Montreal? I wonder: what does Danny think of it all now?”

“This is Montreal!” is on display at Concordia’s Ellen Gallery (1400 Maisonneuve O.) through April 19.