The Balancing Act

1 October 2021 – Balance. That’s our daily context, isn’t it? Leonard Cohen pointed this out back in 1966, when (in Beautiful Losers) he praised those who achieve “balance in the chaos of existence.” But never mind grand philosophical abstractions, just consider the balancing act involved in putting one foot in front of the other. Some 6-3 million years ago our ancestors decided to get up off all fours and walk upright. We’ve been dancing with gravity ever since. (And our backs, so beautifully shaped for horizontal life, have been complaining ever since.)

I must add that absolutely none of this is in my mind as we stand at Denman & Davie streets, just off English Bay. We are entirely focused on the building in front of us, with its display of Douglas Coupland’s latest contribution to his home town.

Berkley Tower is being comprehensively renovated, all 16 storeys of it, and author/artist Coupland was commissioned to create the murals now being applied to all four sides. They’re bright & sassy & up-energy and we decide we like them. They hold their own, we agree, in an area already rich with public art — new Mural Festival additions all around, and the A-maze-ing Laughter collection of Vancouver Biennale sculptures right across the street in Morton Park.

The Coupland work gave us a starting point for our walk; now we’ll wing it, as we head east along the False Creek north shore Seawall, from English Bay Beach on past Sunset Beach near the Burrard Bridge, and on down to Granville.

There’s been lots of rain lately; we’re both wearing Seriously Waterproof jackets. With hoods. Without umbrellas. (Vancouverites tend to divide on the subject of umbrellas, pro/con.) No rain at the moment, just mist dancing in the air, creating a depth of mystery and potential beyond anything blatant sunshine can offer.

On we walk, now just east of the giant Inukshuk monument whose setting curves into English Bay right at the end of Bidwell Street. “Here,” says my friend, sweeping an arm to pull my attention forward. “Look.”

I look, I blink. How have I never noticed all this before?

More inukshuks, all of them unofficial, uncommissioned, but look at them. One after another, more sizes & shapes (& quantity) than the eye can register.

Later, hunting around online, trying to find names to credit for all this beauty, I discover they are examples of a global phenomenon known variously as rock balancing or rock stacking. I’m happy to adopt this language: these creations certainly are feats of balance, and they are not truly inukshuks, which tend to have humanoid structure. (I never do find current names of local rock balancers, alas, so cannot give the credit so richly due.)

We keep hanging over the Seawall, admiring one subset of rock stacks after another.

Sometimes imposing towers …

sometimes just a few tiny pieces, in perfect relation to each other.

By the time we reach Sunset Beach, the great sweep of rock stacks has finally ended. But look… there is compensation.

One of my enduring favourites of all the Vancouver Biennale sculptures: 217.5 Arc X 13. Bernar Venet’s work is exactly what its title promises — 13 arcs of steel, each curved to 217.5°. (It’s not a balancing act in the sense of the stone stacks we have just been admiring, but it does still have to contend with the laws of gravity…)

Close to the Burrard St. Bridge, we cock our heads at the astoundingly large, perfectly vertical cones poised like chandeliers on the branches of this enormous evergreen.

And then later, under the Granville St. Bridge, we see an even more improbable chandelier.

“And… why???” you ask. I can tell you it’s 7.7 m X 4.2 m of stainless steel, bedecked with polyurethene “crystals” and weighing more than 3,000 kilos, and you’ll wave away all those factoids, won’t you. You’ll ask again: “Why???”

Here’s why. Vancouver bylaws require that the developers of any building over 100,000 sq. ft. must contribute some piece of public art to the City. The developers of Vancouver House were simply meeting a legal obligation.

But they did it with panache, didn’t they? So I’m willing to be grateful.

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9 Comments

  1. Some fascinating facts and sights from Vancouver. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Thanks for the link about rock stacking. I’ve noticed a lot of it recently as well. I agree that it’s meditative but I’m otherwise not sure what I think of all these stacks stacked in various locations. And the chandelier! Quirky but I like it.

    Reply
    • Yes, my own blanket approval for ‘inukshuk’ e.g. has now muted to a more wary interest in rock balancing — an idea taken to excess (as tends to happen!) and, in excess, all about the show-off artist and not about honouring or even respecting nature. Still, if only because of the specific locale, I think the English Bay stacks do no harm, and offer great charm. (Ick. I didn’t mean to rhyme)

      Reply
  3. Great photos – I love looking at Vancouver through your eyes. It’s refreshing to know that stones are balanced everywhere.

    Reply
  4. Yes, this rock balancing thing is a big trend. I’ve seen it done almost as a magic trick, with big boulders. The Coupland has a totem pole feel.

    Reply
    • There’s a point at which the rock balancing is no longer a tribute to nature, but a big fat show-off stunt by the builder; boo hiss, a magic trick all about the artist not nature.

      Reply
  5. Coupland’s mural is just what an overcast day in Vancouver needed! 😉 On the subject of umbrellas, I didn’t know that some Vancouverites are pro-umbrella. We were shocked when we moved out here and saw that no one used them in Seattle. Everyone does in Manhattan! So we purchased Seriously Waterproof rain jackets with hoods and waterproof footwear. But I’m not going to wear sandals in the snow, which I’ve seen in Seattle more than once.
    I like the arc sculpture very much – thanks for introducing us to it. And I love the chandelier in that setting! Perfect. Rock balancing has gotten a very negative reputation among environmentalists because when done to excess it can alter the environment in ways that are deleterious to life, i. e. when left in place, rocks provide shelter to creatures so it’s better not to stack them. I used to enjoy seeing them but in the last 5 years or so the stacks have become too much of a “thing.” And inukshuks? That one I had to look up! That’s a whole other intention. 😉

    Reply
    • I was on UBC campus today, with many umbrellas in use — perhaps because of so many non-Vancouverites in the campus population? I’ve personally shifted away from brolly-land; so much easier not to be encumbered. I agree with your muted enthusiasm for rock balancing, and saw more about those issues online; I think these particular stacks do no damage, but that’s luck of the locality. And yes, how great is that — an underpass with its very own chandelier! (Thnx for looking up inuksuk: worth knowing.)

      Reply

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