Marpole’s Golden Tree

A piece of Stanley Park has uprooted to my neighbourhood of Marpole. With a bit of a colour change.

The newest public art in Vancouver is Golden Tree by Douglas Coupland, installed this past August at the corner of Marine Drive and Cambie Street, in front of Intracorp’s MC2 development.

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This artwork sure adds colour to a cloudy day. View from Marine Gateway.

It stands out alright, not just for its size (13 metres tall, the exact replica of Stanley Park’s Hollow Tree), but it also stands out for its colour—gold.

In an interview with the CBC, Coupland says, “I think its more a head-turner, a, ‘what the heck was that?’ That’s my favourite reaction.”

Just to clarify, Stanley Park’s famous 700 to 800 year-old Hollow Tree is still standing in Stanley Park. After the heavy windstorm in 2006, the tree was scheduled for removal due to safety concerns, but thanks to the efforts of the Hollow Tree Conservation Society and private donations, it is still standing (albeit with cables and steel).

Coupland’s replica is made out of steel-reinforced resin and fiberglass, encased in a gold finish.

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The gold looks a little garish to me. I tend to think I would like it better if it looked natural but then it would be like having a real tree there except you know it wouldn’t normally grow there so then it would just be weird. At least the gold makes it distinct. And better than highlighter purple or blue or pink. There’s something regal and magical about gold. Maybe it’s already “growing” on me (see what I did there?).

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But why replicating this tree in Marpole is significant, I do not know. All the CBC article mentions is that Coupland said there are a lot of memories attached to the tree, which is why he chose to imitate it: “I think it takes us from one century to the next.”

Maybe so, but what is the relationship between Stanley Park, the northernmost point of the city, and Marpole, Vancouver’s southernmost? Obviously the artist is trying to make some sort of connection here with the large image of Stanley Park in the background of the artwork.

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Does the tree reference something in Marpole’s history that not many know about? Or is it trying to say something about old and new? Nature and city? Nature and art/imitation?

I love that Marpole is getting more and impressive public art but I wish this piece spoke better to its context.

Have you seen Golden Tree yet? What are your thoughts?

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Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything

Douglas Coupland atrium

I look back at myself two decades ago, and I think of how different me and my brain were back then–and how differently I looked at the world and communicated with others. The essential “me” is still here…it just relates to the universe much differently. What will the world look like when anywhere becomes everywhere becomes everything becomes anything?

Based on this introduction to the current exhibit by Douglas Coupland at the Vancouver Art Gallery, you can imagine that technology plays a major role, as this has been one of the big influencers in what Coupland calls “the 21st century condition.”IMG_8786

The Twin Towers with images of falling humans in the works behind.

The Twin Towers with images of falling humans in the works behind.

Other themes in the exhibit, according to the program guide, are “the singularity of Canadian culture” and “the power of language.”

Having devoted half my Master’s thesis to Coupland’s dystopian novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, I was particularly keen on seeing the first ever museum survey of his career which had a strong emphasis on images as well as words (fitting since he’s an artist and a writer).

I found this exhibit fascinating and thought-provoking. There are so many different types of art to grab your attention, from the unfinished plywood basement filled with Canadiana to a Lego tower installation; abstract art renderings of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr paintings; sticky-note style memes representing the 21st century condition; pop art referencing Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Piet Mondrian; and a peek into Coupland’s brain, to name a few.

All you Piet Mondrian fans, do you get the reference?

All you Piet Mondrian fans, do you get the reference?

Lego installation. Suburbia vs. urban jungle. Utopia vs. dystopia?

Lego installation. Suburbia vs. urban jungle. Utopia vs. dystopia?

As a Canadian, it was fun to recognize the “Secret Handshake” in the Canadiana-themed rooms:

Canadiana

Canadiana

Secret HandshakeHub cap blanketCanadianaI also enjoyed identifying some familiar objects I played with as a kid in “The Brain” installation (Mousetrap, toboggans, old cash registers, etc.)

"The Brain"

“The Brain”

Details from “The Brain”:

Detail from "The Brain"Detail from "The Brain"

Based on Coupland’s inclusion of any and every sort of material (hub caps, cheerios, cleaning products, license plates, road signs, pencil crayons, lego, wooden blocks, plastic fruit, toy piano, etc), you get the sense that he is blurring the lines between high art and mass culture. Anything and everything is art, and it’s anywhere and everywhere, just like the title says.

IMG_8778IMG_8769Cleaning Products

The exhibit is engaging, accurate, and timely. Afterwards, I was talking with an artist-friend about the purpose of art and whether all art strives for beauty. We concluded that not all art does or necessarily should, and that Coupland’s work would not fit into the “beautiful” category. Yet to my surprise, Coupland talks about his surprise at finding “Gumhead” and “The Brain” beautiful, albeit “weirdly beautiful.” (see video below) I think I know what he’s getting at because ordinary objects definitely can be beautiful, but overall, I would characterize Coupland’s work as “critique” more than anything else. Take a look at these “Slogans for the 21st Century” that exemplify this:

"Slogans for the 21st Century"

“Slogans for the 21st Century”

The artist-critic has an important role in society. As Coupland says in the video, “Sometimes you have to look at these things” (i.e. things that are uncomfortable or unsettling) and I’m thankful he draws our eyes to them. He makes us question and rethink how our society got here and where we’re going. But I also find that Coupland doesn’t go further than this. It’s the same with his novels. He’s great at doing the dystopia thing where the world has gone wrong, how technology is making us less human and more lonely, how we need to do something to wake up and make changes before it’s too late. But just what these ideas for change are, he doesn’t give. My friend had suggested offsetting the 21st century slogans with a different room full of slogans we haven’t heard yet—ones that speak to a different story of how we could live. Coupland affirms the power of language and creativity (as evidenced by these dark reconstructions of children’s toy blocks below), so why not create new, hope-filled language? Can the future not hold hands with hope?

"Talking Sticks" series

“Talking Sticks” series

I found the works that most embodied his critique and methodology were a series of hornets’ nests. The ones hanging from the ceiling were real, but the ones enclosed in glass were Coupland’s own nests made from the chewed up pages of his novel, Girlfriend in a Coma. I don’t think it’s an accident that the shape resembles a brain, which, in his novel, was a metaphor for a biologically and culturally comatose condition. Similarly, in this series, Coupland questions the relationship between cultural and evolutionary time, between cultural artifacts and natural objects and how long either of them last. He’s deconstructed his own language as far as it can go. It’s not words and pages anymore. It’s pulp in the mouth. It’s chewing gum. It’s biodegradable. It’s unrecognizable. Now what?

Hornet's Nest Girlfriend in a Coma

On the subject of chewing gum and unrecognizability, you can’t help but notice this 7-foot tall sculpture of the artist outside the Gallery. It’s called “Gumhead” and it’s meant to be transformed over time to the point of unrecognizability by the application of gum. Seattle’s Gum Wall, anyone? Again, Coupland’s blurring the lines between high art (bust of a head typically found in museums) and low art (chewing gum straight from the mouths of passersby). Given Coupland’s fascination with time, I wonder if he’s keeping track of how long it takes for his face to be deconstructed/defaced?

Gumhead. Can you tell I visited it on Canada Day?

Gumhead. Can you tell I visited it on Canada Day?

Back to the question of beauty, the closest works I found that edged towards this category were the abstracted depictions of the Group of Seven’s and Emily Carr’s paintings. It’s interesting that they were inspired by iconographic Canadian art which, in turn, was inspired by the Canadian landscape or, in other words, natural beauty—not pop art or technology.

Inspired paintings

This was my favourite

This was my favourite

While I am aware that I, too, have offered a critique of Coupland, I do admire him for the amount of thoughtfulness that goes into his work. For example, it’s fairly easy to have a surface-level reading of what’s happening, but then you read the description and realize, “Oh, there’s a lot more to this piece than meets the eye.” I felt that way a few times while walking around the exhibit, especially with the hornets’ nests and with the series below. My initial reaction was, “This is something about how our brains are all the same now because of technology and we’re going to explode soon,” but if you read the description, it’s actually about a lot more than that: it speaks to the formative teenage years, emotions, anonymity, influence, information, pressure, etc.

Pop headsPop explosion descriptionTurns out I had a lot more to say than I anticipated on this exhibit. I do find it exciting that the Vancouver Art Gallery took a chance in having something completely different fill its walls from now until September 1. So if you live in the Vancouver area and haven’t gone, you have 2 more months to pop in! And for those of you who have visited it, what are your thoughts on everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything? Would you call it beautiful?

 

 

 

The Library as Colosseum

Vancouver is often critiqued for its boring architecture. As a young city born in 1886, it doesn’t have the same rich architectural history, as say, places like London or Rome. Much of Vancouver’s skyline is homogenous: seafoam green and glass office buildings. Hence, the title of Douglas Coupland‘s ode to Vancouver, City of Glass.

The Vancouver Public Library is an exception to this rule.

For the city’s most important cultural building, architect Moshe Safdie takes you back to 1st century Rome, to the days of the Colosseum. The Vancouver Public Library is an oval- shaped building adjoined to a federal office tower with retail and service facilities on the ground floor. (It was mentioned here as one of the top 8 beautiful libraries in Canada). Windows flood the space with light. “Drawbridges” or walkways connect the book stacks with study carrels that line the oval perimeter, offering each seat a spacious window, much better than the library I talked about here.

Ironically, the Vancouver Public Library alludes to the past and yet its form is decidedly postmodern. Built in 1995, it plays with history divorced from context, as postmodernist architecture often does. What does a Colosseum and a public library have in common?

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy answers “shameless populism” in the book Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City.

Yet is populism so bad, especially for a civic institution designed to serve the public? And considering the public library was the result of a rare competition where the public had a say in the winner, this building was democratic from the start.

Regular public events and art installations happen in and around the building, contributing to an engaged civic and cultural space. The human installation, “Sometimes I think, I can see you” was presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival earlier this year. Writers were set up in the atrium of the library with laptops connected to a large projection screen where passersby could read the spontaneous fictions the writers created about their surroundings – fictions that might include you or I or whoever happened to be in that space at that particular time. Public spaces like library atriums are great places for people watching as it is. Argentinian artist Mariano Pensotti amplifies their voyeuristic quality by recording the thoughts of strangers as public text for all to see. I spy with my little eye . . .

Here’s a sample of what this poetry/prose in motion looks like, performed in a Buenos Aires subway station:

Given the 21st century context where traditional publishing companies battle with e-books, closing prominent presses (most recently Douglas & McIntyre in Canada) and threatening the future of libraries, the Colosseum reference is not so out of context. The printed word is struggling to survive, to find a place to call home. Maybe Moshe Safdie’s vision for the building was more prescient than he knew: futuristic more than historical. Maybe the texts do fit the context. Maybe the words do fit the picture.

public art

The Night I Slept in an Art Gallery

I took a quick trip to Victoria the other day and slept in an art gallery. Ok, it wasn’t really an art gallery but it might as well have been. I fell asleep on a friend’s couch surrounded by fabulous walls of art. Most of the paintings were by her brother.

This one in the entrance way is my favourite. I like the movement, the bold colours, especially the bursts of black.

The one on the left reminds me a bit of Cubist paintings, except not as cubish and not as disturbing. Imagine sleeping in a room full of Picasso’s paintings, especially Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Guernica. I wouldn’t get much sleep.

That middle square painting is absolutely huge. And so colourful. It makes you want to sit and stare at it for hours, trying to figure out if there’s a pattern or if it’s all just random. I think there’s a pattern, but I haven’t figured it out yet. In person, it looks like a picnic blanket or a quilt. Seeing it photographed, however, makes it look more digital as well – like pixels on a camera or computer screen, reminiscent of Douglas Coupland’s Digital Orca along Vancouver’s waterfront.

Digital Orca

Digital Orca. Douglas Coupland. Vancouver.

I gravitate towards geometric shapes, especially squares and rectangles. I like the lines they create, like a city grid. The right painting below reminds me of an upside-down treble clef, and music itself, which is and isn’t linear.

Here’s one of my attempts at an abstract geometric painting I did about a year ago with the acrylic paints I got for Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas, it’s coming soon. 3 days soon! Time for me to wish you a Merry Christmas and to leave you with one of my favourite modern Christmas songs. Enjoy!

A New Face on Terry

In between visiting some friends from out-of-town in Vancouver this weekend, I hopped over to BC Place to see the new Terry Fox monument (new as in September 2011).

New Terry Fox memorial designed by Douglas Coupland. 2011.

“Monument” seems like the wrong word to describe these Terry Fox statues. Yes, there are statues plural — four of them actually, each showing a separate stage of Terry’s distinct step-hop gait. The figures become progressively larger as he runs westward (his final destination was to be Stanley Park), indicating Terry’s growing legacy since 1980, when he started his Marathon of Hope run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.

The old Vancouver monument for Terry Fox more accurately reflects the characteristics I associate with a monument: weighty, grand, symbolic, a structure of heroic proportions. The old classical triumphal arch designed by Franklin Allen surely is all that. I never saw this monument in real life (I tried once but it was covered up with a big white tarp while construction was being done on BC Place’s new roof), but apparently it received a lot of criticism and many people considered it an eyesore, which is not hard to see why.

Old Terry Fox monument designed by Franklin Allen. 1984.

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy marks the old Terry Fox monument as the beginning of the postmodern era in Vancouver architecture in his essay “Plastic Lion’s Gate: A Short History of the Post Modern in Vancouver Architecture.”

Franklin Allen’s 1980s postmodern monument has all the signature moves of its time – a polychromed structure in the latest colours as well as a poly-textured structure with tile, brick, and steel. Four fibreglass lions sit atop the arch, symbolizing Terry’s heroism. All these elements combine to make this modern pastiche of a classical triumphal arch.

Pastiche is one characteristic of the postmodern architectural style — another is the irony of attempting to set in stone and make permanent something that is not permanent. How do you monumentalize a fleeting, short life such as Terry’s?

Trevor Boddy writes, “This sense of monumentalising the pungently ephemeral, of reconciling emotions with visuals, of rendering permanent a patter in the social electron flow of a few months duration, was crucial to the winning scheme’s selection by a jury not otherwise committed to postmodernism as theory or style” (Allen’s monument was the winner of a design competition).

How do we attempt to remember a significant person or event in history? Monuments surely are one way. Yet why did the old statue get so much criticism? Boddy explains because it didn’t include any visual representation of Terry, the person it attempted to remember. Boddy goes on to say that in order to appease the public outcry over this monument, etched steel plates bearing larger-than-lifesize photographs of Terry were placed inside the arch, much to the architect’s chagrin. I guess the symbolic fibreglass lions weren’t enough — we like to see images that resemble the person we are remembering.

Coupland's memorial from the back

So it’s interesting that over two decades later, a new memorial (I hesitate to say “monument” for the above reasons) of Terry Fox has replaced the old one, and the differences couldn’t be more obvious. In Douglas Coupland’s Terry Fox sculptures, the public doesn’t just get one, but four images or motions of Terry, broken down into a four-frame cycle. They are open, life-like. You can walk around them. You might not even notice them from a distance because on a busy day around BC Place, Terry blends right into the crowd.

Can you see the statues?

Allen’s arch was ostentatious, noticeable, built to match a national hero; Coupland’s statues are subtle, built to commemorate a national hero but also to remember an individual whose single act of determination inspired hope, rallied the country, and changed lives — a determination meant to inspire and challenge us us on a personal level. It is this humanness and point of connection between Terry and ourselves that I come away with from the new memorial.

Coupland leaves us with these words:

To remember or not to remember?

Battery Park City, Times Square, and South Street Seaport – fake or real history?

M. Christine Boyer, an urban historian at Princeton, argues for the former in “Cities for Sale: Merchandising History at South Street Seaport”:

“Places like Battery Park City, Times Square, and South Street Seaport are sustained not only by the pleasures of picture-writing, but by the expansion of historical tourism, the desire to ‘just look’ at the replicated and revalued artifacts and architecture of another time. Yet to historicize is to estrange, to make different, so that a gap continually widens between now and then, between an authentic and a simulated experience.”

South Street Seaport lighthouse

Her main argument in the article is that the historicized architectural forms cropping up everywhere in cities aren’t actually historic – they’re bite-sized, easily consumed freeze-framed pictures of the past intended for tourists who don’t know how little relation they actually bear to the city’s past.

“City after city discovers that its abandoned industrial waterfront or outmoded city center contains enormous tourist potential and refurbishes it as a leisure-time spectacles and sightseeing promenade.” Other examples of this recycled, clichéd waterfront tableaux: Quincy Market in Boston, Harbor Place in Baltimore, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and the Riverwalk in New Orleans.

Fulton Market in South Street Seaport

There’s no doubt that city planners recognize the cash value in building or preserving relics of the past in today’s cities. And this undoubtedly leads to a fine line between representing the past and commodifying it. While I agree with many of the points the author makes, I find myself resisting her critique against any attempt to historicize or represent the past. There are dangers in recreating the past in the present (out of which an inevitable gap occurs that Boyer talks about in the first quotation), but still I wonder: Isn’t there also a gap if we don’t even try to preserve a memory of the past in our cities, through such means as heritage buildings and historicized architectural forms? There’s a gap either way, and I think the risk of entirely forgetting a city’s past because there’s no visual stimuli is greater than the risk of remembering it and not necessarily getting it completely accurate.

My backlash largely stems from the fact that in my master’s essay, I argued for the importance of remembering a city’s past – Vancouver’s past, actually. Vancouver, you ask? A city that’s only been around 126 years? Yes, especially a young city like Vancouver that’s praised so much by people like Douglas Coupland as the bright and shining city of the future. This kind of rhetoric strongly risks forgetting Vancouver’s past, which happens to be not-so-shining (particularly towards Asian immigrants). I think architecture and literature about the city – historic fiction specifically – play a vital role in helping remember the diverse layers and peoples of a city. Literature has perhaps an even greater potential as a tool to remember because books last longer than buildings, which are constantly getting demolished and replaced with new ones, thereby building over and erasing the past. Literary and architectural representation are two ways that come to mind when I reflect on ways to remember the city’s past in the present – perhaps we need to brainstorm others that would lessen the historicizing gap even more.

I appreciate buildings like Woodward’s in Vancouver (left) or yes, even the South Street Seaport museum (right) where something as simple as the material or words of the building visually indicate a previous past for the site that I would not even be aware of had they not been there. I guess I’d rather remember a little than not remember at all.