Artspeak

8 May 2022 – “Artspeak” is the term that I (and some equally snippy friends) use to disparage gallery signage we consider unduly precious about the art they are describing.

This Japanese camellia blossom, recently dropped into this bronze hand, made me think about that term another way ’round.

Restore ‘speak’ to verb form, I say to myself: the power of art to communicate with the viewer.

More specifically, the power of some public art pieces to speak so powerfully to passers-by — everyday, you-and-me passers-by — that they become part of their community, adopted by that community, beloved.

My mind jumps a few kilometres east to my own neighbourhood park, officially Guelph Park, unofficially and pervasively Dude Chilling Park. Because of this bronze statue by Michael Dennis…

officially Reclining Figure, but unofficially The Dude who — just look at him — is chilling. We chill with him. We hang with him from our favourite park bench…

and we cuddle up to him with our picnic lunches.

The fact I enjoy seeing this kind of familiarity is… extraordinary. I respect art work! It is art, dammit, so admire with your eyes and keep your hands (and other bodily bits) safely out of range! And yet…

With the onset of the pandemic, The Dude became not only beloved, but comforting. The park was a safe place to visit, everybody carefully distanced, and, for the first time, I saw people sit on the plinth, creep into the Dude’s embrace. He is now regularly visited this way. He has never been vandalized.

Very similar story for another bronze sculpture, this one by Henry Moore: Large Two Forms, which for a very long time sat by the sidewalk at the north-east corner of the Art Gallery of Ontario, owner of the sculpture (and much more by Moore as well). Not fenced off, fully accessible, right there by a street car stop. Torontonians have a history of loving works by Henry Moore — this one more physically than the rest. Of course it featured in endless selfies! And of course people sat in its convenient curves, or boosted their children to slide through those curves, while waiting for a street car!

I took this photo in 2015, when the statue had already become seriously weathered — except for that bright patch in the middle, constantly burnished by hands and backsides.

More recently, the AGO has had the statue restored and moved into the equally refurbished (and public) Grange Park to the south of the art gallery. A recent AGO communiqué shows it sparkling bright — but, apparently, still accessible to loving hands.

Back to that camellia, dropped into a local bronze hand, right here at Main and East 24th.

The blossom caught my eye, as I walked past. How could it not?

A child offering a flower to a fire fighter… I read the plaque, later go online. This statue honours the BC Professional Fire Fighters Burn Fund, a charitable organization that does exactly what the name suggests — offers help to burn victims. My guess is that the flower is a very personal tribute, to one instance of that help and the difference it has made in someone’s life.

Statues and floral tributes. My mind jumps years and continents to land in Havana, Cuba, in 2009. I’m revisiting Habana Vieja to write a story for Outpost about the places that my habanero friends love best in their city. One example: the Plaza de San Francisco in general, and this bronze statue in particular.

This is sculptor José Villa’s representation of a much loved local street person, nicknamed El Caballero de París for his insistence (unlikely) that he came of aristocratic French origins. One friend remembered him, still a familiar figure in her childhood: “He was a love! He refused to go into an institution, so everybody fed him and looked after him.” She then sang for me a local ballad, composed in his honour, about the way he greeted his community: “… con una flor tan linda para tí / y un saludo para mí.”

The pretty flowers are now being offered to him, not by him, and on a regular basis. I just happen to pass by when the offering is an Ostrich Plume (aka Red Ginger, or Alpinia purpurata, and thank you to my generous Master Gardener friend, who identified it for me).

I remember lingering across the street, watching the community greet their Caballero. Again and again, passers-by of all ages slowed for a moment, trailed their fingers across his hand or stroked his beard.

Or even…

threw their toddler arms around his legs.

Art that speaks.

Snow‼️

26 December 2021 – Snow in Canada in late December? Hardly worth comment. Let alone even one exclamation mark, not to mention two of them, and in punch-your-eyeball-red at that…

True, but. This is Vancouver’s first snowy Christmas since 2008, and only the fourth in the last 25 years. I know the stats thanks to a news report, but I only have to look out my window for confirmation.

No need to climb 300 metres up the Coast Range mountains today, to catch some snow! It’s right here at sea level. So I go play snow-tourist around False Creek.

Icicles. A given, in my Toronto winter days, but a rarity here, so I pay attention.

The Chai Wagon is open for business as usual, just off Science World, but the chai-wallah is more bundled up than usual …

and the nearby palm trees have their own winter adornment.

The little footbridge at Olympic Village was upgraded this summer, with — they promised — an improved anti-slip texture underfoot. Hmmm. The sign doesn’t know about that promise. Or doesn’t trust it.

Or perhaps is just a neurotic worrywart by nature.

These women are not worrywarts. They stride onto the bridge full-tilt, and cross without incident.

The welcoming chairs at Spyglass Dock are embracing snow at the moment, not Creek-side flâneurs …

but someone has cleared one of the blossoms in the artwork by Emily Gray that makes this dock so appealing.

I double back under the Cambie bridge ramps, here on the south side. This location — like Toronto’s innovative Underpass Park — is an encouraging example of what we can do with places that are more typically written off as wastelands.

Butterflies on the ramp supports, picnic and table-tennis tables on the ground below — a bright, inviting space where you feel it’s safe to linger.

At my back, the False Creek Energy Centre , hub for the Neighbourhood Energy Utility.

It uses waste thermal energy captured from sewage to provide space heating and hot water to a surprisingly large local area: Southeast False Creek, plus parts of Mount Pleasant, False Creek Flats and Northeast False Creek. “This recycled energy eliminates more than 60% of the greenhouse gas pollution associated with heating buildings,” says a City website. It adds: “The utility is self-funded.”

To the east, on my left, the John McBride Community Garden.

It is low on garden activity at the moment but still a magnet for this mother and child, heads bent in mutual fascination with something they see either before them or in the mind’s eye.

Straight ahead, directly beneath the Cambie Bridge, the Voxel Bridge — a Vancouver Biennale installation this past summer. Not just physical reality, but blockchain-based augmented reality.

Still dazzling on the side pillars and overhead, but surprisingly scuffed and worn underfoot.

This new sign may explain why.

I have to read up about bicycle drifting later, to appreciate the power that goes into the technique, and the problem it could therefore create for artwork.

Fortunately, human feet can safely drift all they want! Mine lead me eastward along West 5th Avenue.

Where, approaching Alberta Street, I pause at this mini-installation along the side wall of Beaumont Studios (“a supportive environment for a wide variety of creative professionals”). She’s your basic Noble Lady in Flowing Robes, isn’t she? But enlivened with colour up & down her body, and very bright turquoise sneakers by her sandalled feet.

Catty-corner at Alberta, a gleaming new facility devoted to butchering beans.

Oh. Got it. Vegan “meat.” I’m amused by the cheeky reassurance of the wall slogan (“Don’t worry, Mount Pleasant…”) …

and, while not about to order any product myself, impressed by the reach of this BC success story.

In just a few years, The Very Good Butchers has gone from Denman Island farmers’ markets, to a Victoria plant-based butchery, to this gleaming new facility and major online activity. Plus a presence in co-ops and markets north/south/east/west Canada and the USA.

Meanwhile, back here in Vancouver, physical me walks on. On east to Manitoba (street, not province — though that would also work). South on Manitoba with a pause at the alley entrance that houses one of my favourite murals.

But it’s not just the mural. Not just William Lam’s skill. It’s the context. Street art, in street context.

After that, I drift on home.

(No artwork is damaged in the drift.)

Animal Flow

9 August 2020 – That’s where it starts. Sheer visual reference.

I see Paige Bowman’s canine prowling a street corner opposite Jonathan Rogers Park.

It flips my mind back to Brian Jungen’s whale, which I saw last week at the VAG (Vancouver Art Gallery) …

and farther back than that, back to 2013, when Ai Weiwei’s snake coiled across the ceiling at the AGO.

Three works, connected by subject matter — an animal — but, above all, by flow.

Flow. The sheer pulsing energy that the artist has infused into each element of each creature.

The rib cage & attendant structures …

the head …

the vertebrae.

But the flow transcends physical form, as I realize when I look up Paige Bowman and re-acquaint myself with these specific works by Brian Jungen and Ai Weiwei.

The works, like the artists, also flow across identity, voice, appropriation and meaning.

Paige Bowman is a Vancouver illustrator who self-identifies as “human dog,” chooses the pronoun references of “they/them,” and — like the art they create, lives “on the unceded territory of the musqueam, squamish and tseil-watuth, or so called vancouver.”

Brian Jungen, born in northern BC of Swiss/ Dane-Zaa heritage, has built up a rich body of work in which he repurposes running shoes, golf bags, hockey masks, car fenders and plastic chairs into representations of indigenous masks and war bonnets, furniture, and  living creatures. Cetology, shown here, a complete whale skeleton created from patio chairs, is owned by the VAG and was on loan last year to the AGO for its 2019 retrospective of Jungen’s work, “Friendship Centre.” Jungen has cheerfully pointed out how suitable it is that he appropriate sports equipment for his sculptures, given how freely sports organizations have appropriated native terminology for team names. (A practice that now appears to be in sharp reversal, at least here in North America.)

In Snake Ceiling, Ai Weiwei uses a favourite Jungen material, backpacks, to give voice to those literally buried by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and buried again by Chinese official silence about the disaster. Some 5,000 of the est. 90,000 victims were schoolchildren, killed when their shoddy schools collapsed around them. Each segment of that snake is a child’s backpack: as an AGO volunteer at the time, I watched visiting schoolchildren listen to the story, their faces changing from polite semi-attention to focused shock and empathy. Every element of that exhibition (“Ai Weiwei: According to What?”) flowed across the boundaries of its material; told stories; pulsed its connection with a viewer willing to flow with it, and connect.

Shape-shifting works, shape-shifting concepts, in our shape-shifting times.

 

 

 

 

Stealth Art

17 April 2020 – Borrowing a brand name, and it’s one I’m about to promote, but not just yet. Meanwhile, “stealth art” in the generic sense, something that sneaks up on you. You’re not in a gallery (impossible right now anyway), you’re just going about the day that current local regulations leave open for you — and then, boom, there it is.

Art.

As long as you have a cheerfully open attitude about what constitutes “art.”

It can be an arrangement of spring blossoms, as curated by mother nature. (Blossom festivals cancelled, so what, they bloom anyway.)

Or an arrangement of caution tape, as woven by a Canadian who just can’t do without hockey, even though the season is on hold. (The crow was apparently less impressed than I was.)

Or a whole evolving Little City of rock and clean fill and other found materials out the Leslie Spit in Toronto — as arranged, or at least as initially arranged, by The Stealth Art Collective, but with other appreciative hands ever since.  Here’s one image to start with … (I am such a fan of their work out the Spit – I stood wide-eyed again and again, in the years I cycled or walked out there myself.)

Or street art on your very own table! Just download this colouring book of designs created by some of Toronto’s best-known names, all for you to enjoy in your physical isolation.

“Such a lovely, local, timely, engaging response to the times,” wrote the friend who sent me the link. Yes, it is.
I think we are all experiencing a good many lovely, local responses to the times, and feel a resulting surge of joy and energy and courage. Let’s keep it up…
  • WALKING… & SEEING

    "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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