Connecting the Cougar and the Bison

I was reading E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End when the Graeme Patterson exhibit Secret Citadel opened at the Surrey Art Gallery.

I never thought these cultural artifacts would have anything in common—a classic book written about turn-of-the-century English society and a sculptural installation containing detailed miniature scenes by a contemporary Canadian artist.

But, in an odd way, they did. They both talked about the end of friendship.

I was at the artist’s tour of Secret Citadel as Patterson led the crowd around his chronological work that starts with complex miniature versions of his and his childhood friend Yuki’s homes in Saskatchewan.

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“The Mountain”

Then Patterson walked us over to two life-sized bunk beds called “Camp Wakonda.” Two boys play archery on the top level. On the bottom, a car crashes with a school bus and erupts in flames.

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“Camp Wakonda”. Installation image at Art Gallery of Hamilton. Photo by Mike Lalich.

In an interview with The Now Newspaper, Patterson says:

“It speaks about adolescence and destruction and where friendships go to die. I had a car accident with a van when I was 16. No one got hurt, but a friendship was basically ruined. It was my fault…. There was a lot of guilt and this is the semi-fictional spark that ignites those memories.”

Turns out Secret Citadel is all about Patterson’s friendships—not just with Yuki, but all his male friends at some point in his thirty-something life. That’s why he puts animal heads (a cougar and a bison) onto two human figures as a broader form of representation. You see these masked characters jumping on a trampoline as children, wrestling each other in adolescence, and drinking in bars alone as adults.

It got me thinking about the unfortunate ways that friendships die.

In Howards End, two close sisters with liberal values, Margaret and Helen, become torn apart when Margaret gets engaged to Mr. Wilcox, a rich older widower who represents a system and values so different from their own—capitalist, rational, unfeeling.

While there are multiple tragedies in the novel, the dissolution of the sisters’ friendship was the sharpest to me. Helen cannot like Mr. Wilcox and tells Margaret so. She dislikes him even more when she finds out he had a mistress in his first marriage. This mistress is now the wife of Helen and Margaret’s friend Leonard, who is impoverished due to some ill-timed business advice that Mr. Wilcox gave him.

After hearing the scandalous news, Margaret resolves to forgive her fiancé and stay with him. Helen, however, runs away to Germany and avoids Margaret, barely replying to her letters.

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“Player Piano Waltz”. Installation image at Art Gallery of Hamilton. Photo by Mike Lalich.

It was at this point in the novel where I really started to care about the characters. The sisterly affection that seemed so cemented began to crack. They became the estranged friends in Patterson’s final sculpture, “Player Piano Waltz,” shown in separate window frames drinking in a bar alone and riding an elevator up and down from their bachelor apartments as a haunting melody plays on the keys below.

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“Player Piano Waltz” (detail) via NGC Magazine.

All of us can relate to these characters even though Patterson is speaking from his own experience. Friends we once cared for are now close only in memory (or via Facebook status updates). Maybe the relationship ended over a specific disaster or it was subject to the drifting tides of time, place, and circumstances. Both are sad. But since the latter is an inevitable part of growing up, the former feels especially tragic—when two people don’t have a “natural” reason to be friends anymore.

Refreshingly, Forster takes a similarly tragic situation threatening two sisters’ friendship and offers us a different resolution. The picture closing Howards End is one of unexpected community. Two fragmented houses are reconciled under one roof thanks to Margaret and her ability to bridge the softened Mr. Wilcox with the pregnant Helen who ran away because she was carrying Leonard’s baby.

Margaret’s thoughts about marrying Mr. Wilcox strike a surprising resemblance to the anthropomorphized cougar and bison in Secret Citadel:

“Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.”

And then comes her insight that sums up the theme of the book:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

Forster’s novel shows a believable and beautiful example of what can happen when there is a willingness to connect. Margaret’s language implies we are fully human when we do this—when we choose to connect our lives with others by loving, forgiving, and showing grace, even to those who see things so differently from us. When we love, we’re building a bridge towards wholeness, offering a picture of the world as it could be.

It made me wonder what the narrative arc of Patterson’s tale would be had his friend forgiven him for the car crash. Certainly there would still be bittersweet moments, but maybe a friendship wouldn’t have been relegated to the secret citadel of memory. Maybe the cougar and the bison would take off their grudges, resentments, and hurts they wear like masks, step across the room, and drink a pint together.

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Graeme Patterson: Secret Citadel runs until March 20 at the Surrey Art Gallery.

School’s In!

One of the things I wanted to do over the Christmas holidays was explore a new part of Vancouver. I had never walked much of Broadway before, so on a sunny afternoon, I strolled the stretch from Granville Street to Bayswater, snapping pics of interesting things along the way.

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And one of those interesting things was the offices of the Vancouver School Board at 1580 West Broadway. The building itself wasn’t so interesting, but the sculptures of children playing in the park at the entrance to it were.

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It was like a game of hide and go seek, trying to find these 7 unobtrusive sculptures.

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This was the first one I saw:

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The second:

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Third:

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Fourth (and my favourite):

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Fifth:

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I love the movement, energy, and playfulness the sculptor captured in a hard medium like bronze, as well as all the realistic details: the pleats and wrinkles in the clothes, the yellow strip of tearaway pants, the girl’s barrette. The titles are fun too.

I couldn’t find the 6th and 7th ones, but stumbled across these letters in the ground, which immediately made me think of the Jackson 5 song:

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In the spirit of these sculptures, I thought this Raymond Carver poem fit well:

Happiness

So early it’s almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm. It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

Let’s (TED)Talk About Art

As many of you know, the TED2014 conference just wrapped up here in Vancouver, the first time this conference has ever happened in our city. It was TED’s 30th anniversary, so they wanted to try a new space. The conference was held at the Vancouver Convention Centre from March 17-21, and while most human beings could not afford the ludicrous $7500 entrance ticket, thankfully, they live streamed the talks at a number of universities, community centers, and non-profit groups so everyone could get a slice of these “ideas worth spreading.”

TED2014 at the Vancouver Convention Centre

One of the presenters this year was Boston artist Janet Echelman, whose aerial sculpture titled “Skies Painted With Unnumbered Sparks” was installed specifically for the conference. This 745-foot wide installation, which Echelman calls “a custom-knitted sweater for the city” is made of soft netting and hangs between the roof of the 24-storey Fairmont Waterfront Hotel and the Vancouver Convention Centre. It’s only up for one more day before it travels to other cities, so I made sure to stop by one rainy Tuesday evening and catch some pictures of her biggest sculpture to date.

Skies Painted With Unnumbered Sparks by Janet Echelman. 2014

The word “amoeba” immediately came to mind when I beheld this breathtaking sculpture because it never looks the same: 1) it moves with the wind, forming new shapes against the sky, 2) it looks different depending which angle you view it from, and 3) it’s installed with interactive lighting, which means anyone with a cellphone can sign in with the wifi password (indicated on a plaque nearby) and choose which colours and shapes will dance across its sinewy arms. My friend is responsible for the yellow spiral on the bottom right:

I love the interactiveness and playfulness of this sculpture. Not only can the everyday passerby contribute to the beauty of this piece, but we can do so with other strangers—all experimenting with the same thing as we experience a marriage of technology and art.

If you watch Echelman’s TEDTalk below, it’s absolutely fascinating how she started working with nets in the first place. I love how she describes what she’s trying to do with her aerial artworks that have spanned skies in Sydney (Australia), Porto (Portugal), Amsterdam, Seattle, Phoenix, and Denver. As she says in her kickstarter campaign, she wants to bring an “experience of softness as a counterpoint to hard-edge cities” and a “symbol of resiliency through the ability to adapt to a changing environment.”

I have never seen anything like it before. And she’s right—the softness and whimsicality it carries, like a parachute or a kite, serves as a welcome change from the angular edges of our cities and of our own lives, reminding us that soft, gentle, and transparent can be just as powerful as hard, strong, and sharp.

Wheeling around Art

You know how I talked here about encountering art in places other than museums and art galleries?

The other day, my sister and I had a chance to do this by going on the Art Wheelers bike tour in Vancouver. It was a 2 ½ hour ride stopping at about 15 works of art, beginning in Coal Harbour, passing through Stanley Park, going along English Bay and False Creek, and then ending up in the Olympic Village.

I won’t list all 15 but I’ll share with you some of my favourite pieces.

1. Lightshed. Liz Magor

Location plays a big part in this piece. This ‘wooden’ shed sitting on log pilings in Coal Harbour recalls the area’s maritime history since freight sheds once sat here on wharves. I say ‘wooden’ in quotation marks because although that’s what the material looks like, if you go up to touch it, you’ll find it’s actually made of aluminum – including the barnacles crawling up the posts. According to this article, the artist likes to challenge our assumption of the familiar, not just through an unexpected material but also through the precarious angle of the shed, as if it’s about to collapse. I would love to see this piece at night because apparently a silver light shines from inside it, lighting up the windows. It gives the illusion of habitation even though the out-of-reach doorway means whoever or whatever’s inside remains inaccessible to us.

2. Engagement. Dennis Oppenheim

It’s hard not to notice these gigantic engagement rings standing about 30 feet high in Sunset Beach Park. American sculptor Dennis Oppenheim made them, who also designed this interesting bus station in California. Oppenheim likes to leave his works open to interpretation, and many have interpreted this piece as a political message about same-sex marriage given that both rings are ladies’ rings and they’re situated in the West End, Vancouver’s gay community. The angle of the rings tilting away from each other also speaks to the precarious balance in marriage, but also in any relationship. This piece would be another great one to see illuminated at night, where the ‘diamond’ part of the rings shine.

3. Khenko. Doug Taylor

This kinetic sculpture hanging over the False Creek pathway gets its name from the Coast Salish mythical term for Great Blue Heron. Addressing sustainability, this piece celebrates the return of this bird to the False Creek waterway, which was a main industrial site in the city’s early history. Notice the combination of man-made, heavy mechanical elements and the grace and lightness of the bird that actually flies through this wind-powered device.

4. King and Queen. Sorel Etrog

King and Queen highlights the relationship between man and machinery. King is on the left; Queen is on the right—a regal looking pair sitting in Harbour Green Park. Despite their rigid steel parts, Etrog makes these figures inviting through the curvature of their multiple laps (a favourite for children to climb on) and their humanized features like rivets for eyes. I like the play between the forms’ formality and casualness, just sitting in the park like all the other Vancouverites enjoying the sunny evening.

5. Time Top. Jerry Pethick

This 1940s-style spaceship standing along the False Creek shoreline evokes time travel, as if it just washed up from another world. We saw it at low tide, but depending on the time of day, its bulbous feet can be completely submerged, changing the way we interact with the piece. I’d imagine it could also look like a spinning top bobbing along in the water. This piece literally underwent some ‘time travel’ itself. It was submerged for two years in the ocean by Gibsons, BC, where it was also given a low-level electrical charge to attract sea life to its bronze surface. I love how the colours of Time Top echoed the colour of the water when we were viewing it, blending it with its ‘natural’ environment. Unfortunately the artist passed away before he saw the completed work.

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: