A Dance With the City

12 October 2015 – Just me & more Nuit Blanche extended-viewing sites, that was the plan. Then — perhaps because I was now walking around town — then, the city itself got in on the act.

First up, a bat.

detail, fence mural at Sherbourne & Gerrard

I’m heading for my first Nuit Blanche target as I pass a brownfield street corner, long since securely chained off & desolate.

But, sha-zaam, it’s not desolate any more — a great long (unsigned) mural has turned the fence into an art gallery. The people running a street-corner yard sale pay it no mind, but I’m delighted — and so is a passing child, whose patient mother follows her from bat to hummingbird to giant tropical bloom and on & on, one sequence after another.

It’s a happy surprise, especially since the promised NB installation on a Jarvis St. vacant lot is no longer there. Or if it is, I sure can’t find it. Oh well, never mind, down-down Jarvis I go to King St. and the tiny, beguiling Sculpture Garden just opposite St. James Cathedral.

Six pieces in An Te Lieu’s Solid States installation, each one created from found objects, manipulated & cast in bronze. I do a little shimmy with “Animal Vegetable” and its companion “Vegetable Mineral” but respond most strongly to “Tourist.”

"Tourist" piece in Solid States, Sculpture Garden

The perfect tourist (and in a tourist area of town) — great sturdy legs (a third one thrown in, bonus) and great searching eyes. I giggle, move around to align the strongly vertical sculpture with the cathedral steeple across the street, imagine this tourist visiting that church …

So I have a good time, without feeling the need for a single profound thought. (OK, only this one. “Tourist” is made from recycled materials, and that’s what we humans are — every cell, every molecule replaced over time, in an endless dance with the universe.)

Into Union Station next, looking for Amanda McCavour’s Pattern Study. The restored train station is art in itself, I always think, in constant interaction with its visitors.

A porter points me to the archway leading down-ramp to the departures level. “Pattern study” indeed, layer on layer of textiles dance in the top third of the arch.

detail, "Pattern Study," Union Station

The accompanying signage talks about the way this installation is “expanding the scale of textile structures to the scale of architecture.” The reverse is also true: the architecture of this building is detailed to the scale of textiles. The project is perfectly placed.

archway & "Pattern Study" detail, Union Station

I walk west in the Station, through a semi-restored corridor. To my delight, the Pan Am Games “Play Me” piano is still here. No longer in the main concourse, just tucked away here & probably about to disappear. But the invitation is still magic. I watch a young woman veer over to it, drop her backpack, sit down, bend her head to the keys … and play.

"Play Me" piano, still in Union Station

The dance continues.

At the waterfront, I double back east along the lake edge, en route to my next NB installation. I’m one of many people down here, all of us enjoying the warmth, the sight of the Toronto islands across the bay, the ducks & geese, the still-lush vegetation, the rocks.

lakeside in Harbourfront area

Suddenly I start to laugh. This is Solid States brought to life! Animal … vegetable … mineral … and tourist. Oh yes, it’s all here.

Once before I played with the idea that the city itself is one huge art installation. Now I’m playing with it again. (Not seriously, you understand it’s just a game. But it’s good fun.)

City-as-art-installation seems even more plausible when, over by Yonge St., I reach Beaufort 10: Frío Estudio del Desastre, by the Havana/Madrid artists Los Carpinteros.

"Beaufort 10" at Westin Harbour Castle

Fine, it’s art. But if you’ve lived with years of waterfront destruction/construction, as Torontonians have, it also looks like daily reality. So I laugh again. Artists create something and the city says, “Yeah? Well, I can do that too.”

Or maybe it’s the reverse.

Anyway, I like this dance à trois of city, art & me. I’m in high good humour as I head west again along the waterfront, alert for more urban tableaux. Right on cue: a wedding couple fussing into position for post-ceremony photography, cheered on by friends & family.

wedding party, Harbour Square area

I remember a moment once at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I am on shift, standing just south of the open Walker Court area where a wedding planner (with AGO staff in attendance) is discreetly putting the bridal party through its choreography for the event itself, which will take place in the Court. A visitor tugs my sleeve & whispers respectfully: “Please, ma’am, is that art?”

(I suspect this art-or-reality / what-is-art? issue could get very deep & serious. Personally, I’d rather just enjoy the game and whatever flashes it might throw my way.)

Into Power Plant next, a terrific little art gallery within the Harbourfront complex that originally really was a power plant. I’m here for Carlos Morales’ Black Cloud.

It is stunning.  I have never seen the gallery’s clerestory used to such effect.

"Black Cloud," looking into the gallery space

Thirty-six types of moth, I read, replicated in thousands of life-size cutouts & hand-installed, one by one. The art dramatizes one example of man’s impact on nature. Pre-Industrial Revolution, moths in England were all light in colour. With coal-fired industry came soot & air pollution, & the local emergence of dark moths. Later, when those industries declined and the skies grew light again, so did the local moths.

detal, "Black Cloud"

An English specific, but with Toronto resonance. We, too, dance with Black Cloud. Its moths are installed where the power plant once stored its coal — and our waterfront grows “lighter” as it moves into its own post-industrial life.

Go see it: Black Cloud will be there until spring 2016.

But maybe go before February, which means you can take in the other two current shows as well. I’m particularly struck by Mark Lewis’ Invention — very short films, each one recording a few minutes at a particular icon of 1960s modernist architecture. I know why I am fascinated: his vision seems to support my game of city-as-art-installation.

All you have to do is just … look. And see.

One film catches a snowstorm, viewed from inside the U of T Robarts Library, the window angles framing the art and the snow creating it.

Robarts Library detail, "Invention," Power Plant

Another film contemplates the forecourt of our City Hall, looking east across the pond/rink to the old City Hall.

detail of City Hall, "Invention," Power Plant

This is terrific! City Hall is my own next target! I will be visiting more NB art installations, in what — here at Power Plant  — is itself an art installation.

Once at City Hall, I climb the encircling catwalk & line up Lewis’ shot. Yes, I’ve got it, though still with summer water, not his winter ice. A mental “click” to honour it, and I walk on, now angling for a panoramic view of the NB installation, Inside Out, by JR.

City Hall, with "Inside Out" in the forecourt & up the ramp

There’s Henry Moore’s The Archer in the lower right, an icon of this city’s sudden jump from Victoriana to then-contemporary (1960s) culture. And there too, is Inside Out, a great spiral on the ground and a swoosh up the ramp. Art doesn’t get more contemporary than this, or more interactive: in September 2015 passers-by were invited to step into a booth & have their pictures taken for the project. In October, they are the art.

Two more installations on-site. Inside, Time of the Empress by Aziz + Cucher, with mesmerizing glowing images of urban towers endlessly & simultaneously being created and destroyed.

"Time of the Empress" inside City Hall rotunda

Any urbanite knows this reality. Our cities dance with this art form, all the time.

Back outside, on to the final installation and, oh yes, we are all deeply involved in this one as well.

There Is No Away, say Sean Martindale & JP King; every day, we create more garbage.

"There Is No Away, " 2015

I walk between its towering walls, knowing this art is real garbage, thinking I may personally be one of the participating “artists,” with my fingerprints still on one of those cans or bags. Usually I bounce right off advocacy disguised as art (song, dance, play, whatever). This piece, for all its sledgehammer message, is also weirdly compelling as art.

Unexpected light relief on the way home.

on Yonge, outside the Eaton Centre

Rebel art. Ironic art. Bike art.

See? It’s all there, all around us. Just go walkies in your own city or town, and curate your own exhibit.

A Dance With The Sphinx – the book that inspired me

WordPress blogger RuthsArc commented on that post. She too struggles with contemporary art & therefore liked my saying I’ve been told it’s not about the stuff, it’s about what the stuff evokes in the viewer.

I still struggle, but I’m having a happier & more resonant time of it ever since receiving that guidance. It came from several sources, most powerfully from a 2012 book: What Are You Looking At? (The Surprising, Shocking and Sometimes Strange Story of Modern Art). It is by Will Gompertz, formerly with the Tate and now (or at time of writing the book) BBC Arts Editor. I found it well-informed, highly readable (no Art-Speak) and entirely non-patronizing.

The book was dismissed from a great height in a review by The Guardian, snottily observing that Gomperz wrote as if there were still people who did not already understand & know how to approach contemporary art. Pfui on The Guardian is what I say; I shall instead encourage you to read the review in The Telegraph.

Plus, if you too want to struggle more happily with this stuff, check your local library; they probably have the book.




Leave a comment


  1. Wouldn’t it be great if we could walk together every day, then visit over a cup of tea?

  2. The moths are cool and the piano is lovely another wonderful walk ☺️


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    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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