The Art of Navigation

9 October 2021 – More precisely: the art of using public art for personal navigation.

I’m just off my bus at the main transit hub on UBC campus, and all pleased with myself because (a) I am wearing a bright water-resistant jacket suitable for the misty day, and (b) I know exactly where I am going.

My clever little brain instructs my feet: Go there-there-there, and then I’ll be on University Blvd. and after that it’s just turn right when I reach West Mall, and after that hop across the road to the Museum of Anthropology (MOA).

So feet go there-there-there as instructed, and … ooops. Neither clever little brain, nor obedient feet, nor any bit of me in between, is now on University Blvd. Or anywhere else I recognize.

Brain meekly asks feet to take over. Feet dance another there-there-there, following some algorithm of their own inaccessible to the brain, and …

And here we are, from feet to brain and every bit in between, here we all are on University Blvd. The University posts helpful sign-maps at all the major intersections, but the campus is also dotted with public art and I find it much more rewarding to navigate with the art.

Brent Sparrow Jr’s Double-Headed Serpent Post, for example, here at the intersection with East Mall.

I border the serpent as I climb on up University Blvd, enjoying the gleam and the prickles of raindrops in the watercourse as I go.

Martha Piper Plaza, honouring the former UBC president and vice-chancellor, marks the intersection with Main Mall. The dancing fountains are not dancing, now that it’s fall, but the rain drops are definitely dropping, for the same reason.

Just across the way, my next two navigation aids. Your eye has surely already snagged on the bright yellow one, back right corner of the above photo? Now pull your focus a little more central, yes, there, to that brown triangular structure.

That’s it. And don’t I wish I could name it for you, but I can’t find signage anywhere. I circle it two-three times, not just in the interest of artist credit, but also because I really like the design.

And then I move on.

West Mall lies straight ahead, and I already know it has some kind of bright yellow artwork to mark the spot.

Very bright, very yellow, and it even has signage: Cumbria, by Robert Murray. Again I circle around, no artist mystery to solve here, just the pleasure of viewing from all angles.

Just out of frame, a student with a pile of luggage grows steadily more anxious as he awaits some promised ride that must by now be long overdue. I feel slightly callous as I step around him to admire the geometric dance between Cumbria‘s strong angles and the equally strong (and colourful) verticals of the Audain Art Centre behind it.

Good-bye University Blvd! Right turn onto West Mall and then straight on — or so my clever little brain intends — to the MOA. Except that, there at the corner of Crescent Rd., I see a sign pointing to the Belkin Art Gallery. It says, “Open.”

Sod the MOA! says my clever little brain; on to the Belkin! My feet smartly right-turn onto Crescent Rd.

I don’t remember ever visiting this Gallery, but I do remember this piece of art at the entrance: Myfanwy MacLeod’s Wood for the People. The descriptions I read about it are full of the kind of artspeak that makes me cranky, so I’m going to ignore them. I’ll just say: whatever its larger objectives as socio/eco/political commentary, this piece also perfectly depicts the way people stack a woodpile. My mind flips back to an autumn visit to Fernie, BC, a few years ago, with stack after stack next to one home after another, ready for the coming winter.

Thoughts of Fernie still in my mind, I enter the Belkin.

Where I meet Dark Matter, and Sudbury’s SNOLAB, instead.

I drift with the art …

and I emerge again into the Gallery’s own firm angles of light and space.

Back outside. The rain is now bucketing down. My merely water-resistant jacket proves more protective than I have any right to expect.

Brain, feet and all the bits in between arrive back home perfectly happy with the day.

Light & Shadow

6 December 2017 – You look at this image, and you say to yourself, “Why, that’s a 19th-c. landau carriage rejigged as a camera obscura!

And you are right. Millennial Time Machine, it is called, created by Rodney Graham in 2003. It is just one of the works of art visible on the UBC campus, showcased in an outdoor art tour under the auspices of UBC’s Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery — number 16 in the online tour guide.

The Tuesday Walking Society (Vancouver Division) is enjoying this brilliantly sunny day, the bold shadows it creates,  & the works of art. We don’t take the official tour; we’re hoofing around on our own.

“Look!” I cry, as we wheel ’round a corner and see a dramatic twined sculpture in the mid-distance. “It looks just like a tuning fork!”

I say it as a joke — but, clever-boots me, that really is the title.

Tuning Fork, 1968, by Gerhard Class (number 2 in the Belkin brochure), is located right outside the main entrance to the UBC Music Building. Well, of course it is.

Our extremely wandering path eventually takes us through the UBC Rose Garden. Nary a rose to be seen, in early December, the bushes are all cut neatly back for winter. But there is still some colour, some seasonal substitute plantings …

“Cabbages!” I say, this time not as a joke since — veteran of Toronto’s Cabbagetown — I think I know an autumnal ornamental cabbage when I see one.

“Kale…” says Frances, who is closer to the display than I am, and kale they are. And very handsome too, glowing in the midday sun.

We zigzag into another enclosure, the pond and forecourt of the University Centre.  I start to laugh. What else can you do, faced with a boat balanced on the tip of its nose?

It’s made of Carrera marble, is Glen Lewis’ 1987 Classical Toy Boat (number 12), and, though now in shade, it outshines the sun. I am mesmerized.

Later I read about its travels: first installed outside the Powerpoint Gallery in Toronto’s Harbourfront, later purchased by the Belkin and installed here.

The write-up invites you to think of it as magically defying gravity. I only realize later that one could perhaps view it tragically, as a sinking boat — but, no, somehow that interpretation never occurs. It is so obviously a happy little toy boat, having a good time.

Down the steps, across the road: Frances & I plan a lunch stop in the Museum of Anthropology. But first, a pre-stop stop, to admire Joe Becker’s Transformation sculpture in a small pool right at the MOA  entrance.

I could describe it for you, but Becker’s own words are so much better:

Even with water turned off (presumably for the season), it is still a powerful, sinuous work of art. And how the roe gleams!

Lunch as planned, and then a quick trip around the exterior of the building itself, one of architect Arthur Erickson‘s masterpieces.

As always, the great linear dynamics catch my attention, and my breath. They please from every angle.

Viewed through the trees, here at the entrance …

or along the side toward the back, with tree shadows dancing on the columns.

Erickson’s inspiration, surely, was the traditional lines of the Haida double mortuary pole. There is a magnificent example in the groupings of poles and buildings behind the Museum — this one designed by Bill Reid and then carved by Reid and Douglas Cranmer, 1960-61.

You look from it to the powerful rear façade of the MOA itself.

Yes. They belong together. They belong on this land, and to this land.

 

  • 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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