December 20, 2019

Two artworks, one artist and the judgment of the righteous

It glitters!  It spins!  It outrages!

Click here to see the Chandelier spin.  Whee!

Since it was hung under the Granville Bridge, Spinning Chandelier has appalled those who deem it an insult.  Like Melody Ma:

How did such an insensitive piece of public art come into existence? Did no one at the city of Vancouver anticipate the outrage that would follow?

… It’s like letting the McDonald’s golden arches be the emblem of a city. …

One spinning chandelier to remind us of the inequality in the city is more than enough. It’s time to review the public art process before it produces another obscene structure …

Whether it’s puritans or progressives who are condemning an artwork as obscene, watch out.  Mediocrity is waiting in the wings.

And we happen to have an ideal comparison with two works by one artist: Rodney Graham, who actually created the obscene Chandelier, chosen by the developer, and another piece you’ve probably never heard of, chosen by the kind of process that Ma favours:

It was a commission for the Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program, and it is, if I may be harsh, one of the most mediocre works on one of the most opportune sites in the city: the entrance to Stanley Park.

The work takes its title from a series of photographs … which documented a series of ‘incorrectly’ assembled toy glider kits… And the park, of course, is a place where children and adults may very well play with glider.

It would at least be appropriate next to a children’s play space.  So how about we do a switch: put Graham’s work near a playground and replace it with the statue of Lord Stanley, arms spread wide, welcoming “people of all colours, creeds and customs” at the entrance to the park.

Except, of course, this dead white male colonialist wouldn’t pass the trauma test.  Nor does the Chandelier, according to Mitch Speed in another scathing indictment in MoMus:

… the sculpture’s material is not only its phony crystal, but also its urban setting, whose social traumas cannot be divorced from the work. Those traumas, having been inflicted by the exact interests that allow this piece to shine so brightly, are both the symptom and the target of this class war taunt.

Because of the danger of trauma, whether triggered by indigenous or class-war insult, the implication is that public art should be filtered through a committee that, as suggested my Ma, needs “to involve whole communities in the creation process.”

Hence no trauma.  Nor even satire.  Again, Mitch Speed: “It seems like a logical principle that satire can’t function if it structurally supports the power supposedly being satirized.”

Only that art that is deemed worthy.  (You can guess who might be on the committee.)

Which is how we end up with “a balsa wood toy glider set; abstractly assembled as a modern sculpture” rather than, as Barrie Mowatt of the Vancouver Sculpture Biennale observed of the Chandelier: ” ‘spectacle’, an attention-getter and a good example of ‘place making’.”

Ma would argue, I presume, that such attention-getting art could emerge from her process:  “Take a stroll around the seawall and you’ll see countless pieces of public art that have served as backdrops to weddings and photos of grinning tourists and locals.” But almost all were chosen for Mowatt’s Biennale, not the City, not through the public-art committee, not even by a developer, and only allowed because they are temporary.  (At least until someone rich pays to make them permanent.)

If they had to meet the test of community review or the judgments of the righteous, many would not get mounted long enough to earn the scorn that, if they’re good enough, invariably follows.

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  1. Good points, public art is already pretty safe in Vancouver. My personal tastes tend the be pretty mainstream but art should push boundaries a bit.

  2. If art is to be designed by the community then what’s next? Music? Architecture? Transportation? This is dangerous territory where the risk isn’t just for mediocrity, but for the outrageous, the tyranny of the majority and for incompetence.

    I have been involved in project design by committee and it’s a mixed bag. What actually occurs is that beancounter managers make overruling bottom line decisions that look good in the completion reports but that affect the long term operations, or that represent one’s biases over the common good. In that light, things like energy conservation measures, better quality HVAC, higher quality regionally-referenced architecture or a superior activity program get cut to keep tbhe capital budget skinny. Ergo mediocre design where a public building would fit comfortably in a suburban business park while its mechanical equipment breaks down within five years, the energy efficiency retrofits are onerous, and the operating budgets are bloated.

    Another one is Design Build, a process that eludes public expert oversight in favour of private control and profit. SNC Lavelin and the Canada Line come to mind; the private proponent had design control and the provincial overseer, one Gordon Campbell with not a lick of transportation expertise, thought the cheaper SNC proposal was a good deal compared to the Bombardier bid which, for $500 million more, would have had longer station platforms and no thought whatsoever given to the Dark Ages of engineering manifested in the disruptive cut and cover method of tunnelling in urban areas. In another project a school gymnasium was shorted by the general contractor by five metres (17 feet), therein rendering the room nearly unusable for the intended purpose. One can rightfully blame the particular school board staff who were snoozing instead of overseeing the interior programming before the permits were applied for, but in this case the power was almost exclusively in the hands of the builder.

    All of these methods are risky. But one thing is certain: design or art competitions in the public realm are only as good (or bad) as their evaluation processes. If one individual or a faction within a group does not have any expertise in the field being judged, then there is the very real possibility you’ll get poodles on a pole, a library with a facade that emulates the Roman Coliseum, art that unravels in the wind, or a subway with inadequate station design.

    When evaluating art — and anything, for that matter — it’s crucial that judges and decision makers are at least capable of intelligent discourse in the field at hand.

  3. …designed ‘by the community’. Like the neighbourhoods that have kept out more housing that has caused the housing crisis in the first place.

  4. I guess I should start by declaring my biases: when I heard Jean Swanson state she thought the chandelier was disgusting I knew I was going to like it.

    So much of the criticism of the piece is based on the false assumption the five million dollars spent on it would otherwise have been available for social housing, completely ignoring the fact the money to both create and maintain it is provided privately.

    My own take on it is that it is delightfully whimsical. It’s not the Sistine Chapel but it does engage on many levels including political, but also that simple human impulse of delight. Each person brings something of their own to it.

    It also joins two previously disconnected and relatively isolated neighbourhoods: Beach Crescent and what the developers are now calling “The Beach District” between the bridges. When the pedestrian space with restaurants and stores opens in a couple of months it’s going to not only join them but create a human space where there was nothing but darkness and emptiness before.

    Great cities like Paris, London and even New York occasionally engage in whimsy when it comes to artwork. and the result benefits all who encounter it. I’m delighted Vancouver has decided to do so too.

  5. It’s interesting that the only negative reactions I’ve heard are on line. In real life everybody I’ve talked to loves the spinning chandelier.

  6. Ah, the scandelier… now that the gloves are off and the turds are flying, some inevitable misconceptions are surfacing about the public art process, how budgets work and how public (and private) art selection juries go about their assignments. I’m a public artist and have also been on selection panels and served on a local area public art advisory committee for the past two years. There are benefits to juried public art and contrary to some assumptions, panels -though often comprising a few non-experts (which can be a problem), do not determine or even edit submissions. They pick from a large pool (in the case of an open submission) and whittle it down without meddling. That happens later, once a work is selected and the (usually set-in-stone) budget is realistically faced. The idea is still the artist’s, albeit circumscribed by thoughtful consideration of the limits of public taste. Some, especially big name artists, don’t need to curtail their schemes since they are elected without civic or curatorial interference of any kind. Case in point. I’m guessing there was a jury of developer and perhaps architect here. This is far worse than a civically recommended
    selection panel and the disappointing results (vis-a-vis the budget) betray that.
    Having a committee to hash out options means many points of view can argue over merit and even location, not the case where a Ltd private cadre foists it’s taste upon a city-full of random art viewers (and upstart underemployed art critics).
    It’s good for public sculpture to elicit a sense of awe but for 4M+ the awe had better be off the scales- which this isn’t. Rodney Graham is a purveyor of the meta, the in-joke, the ironic, even academic, though not rigorously so. The problem is he is, here at least, also up to mixing his iconic in with his ironic, which is very hard to pull off. Unless the art is very visually impressive and layered in meaning, ironic tends to fall flat and feel thin, especially if it’s a one liner – so people feel ripped off at some gut level by million $-plus one liners, because it feels like public artists can say anything they want in a BIG way, where the message is really pretty disposable and Zeitgeisty (temporary by definition). Few others besides architects get such a platform to make statements on that scale. So other artists, critics and concerned cultural folks get angry at the house of cards that this art racket perpetuates. And avoiding addressing the art head-on, they start pulling the outrage cards, like how it insults the poor, or arguing for more social housing, services and such. That’s another budget, as others have stated, and in this case private money does what private developers say it should. Not saying it’s right or wrong, but developers have always run this town. It’s in their power and influence to set agendas -and dictate our sight-lines. That is annoying.
    Speaking of houses of cards, that Bjarke Ingels tower (of which the chandelier is in the “crypt” of – hence the crypticism of the piece perhaps) is not his best work either. Show-offy and also a one liner, teetering on its own “podium” of cleverness -and very bad Feng Shui to boot. This entire hollow design
    masquerading hubristically as “gesamtkunstwerk” is what happens when developers start to become curators of public taste- which is exactly how Ian Gillespie (Westbank) quite self-consciously promotes his role.
    It’s all a clever ruse and the joke’s on us for thinking that there is something deep and aspirational in all this clever “enlightened” urban design.
    The aristocrats of old built architectural follies (often classically-referenced ruins) in their private pleasure gardens to ponder life’s ironies in their spare time, just because they could. Now the nouveau riche self-described “city makers” emulate this practice but with the rest of us plebs having to gaze at it too. The chandelier is a folly for bourgeois fools with the artist standing in for the king’s fool, clown makeup smudged from rubbing his face in too much snake oil.
    If an artist is to be the innocent fool, mocking his proud lord without penalty, Graham’s job was executed imperfectly, but if he is to keep his position in the court, still collecting his wage from his master, he must tread a delicate path indeed, complicated in modern life by his need to serve cake to the disgruntled masses.

  7. I like Glen’s comment, esp. the part about irony. The problem with irony is that is now has about as much power as swearing on TV. Overdone and out of gas. Sincerity is the new cool attitude to have. I thought we all knew this by now, but what do I know?

    “It’s like letting the McDonald’s golden arches be the emblem of a city.”

    I’d have to see the $$ on offer before I would say this is a terrible idea. 🙂 If you can get some money out of visual pollution that we will endure regardless, why the hell not?

  8. Another of Ms Ma’s assertions in the Star article:
    “Further, the public should be consulted more widely for public art commissions.”

    You need look no further than Disneyland for art determined by public taste. Zero offense, zero insight.

    If your art doesn’t piss someone off or make a redneck snort in derision, you might not be doing it right IMO.

  9. ‘Aerodynamic Forms in Space’ reminds me of my own balsa planes as a kid, makes me think about my dad, and thereby invites a host of memories and thoughts w/r/t same, some good, some not. It makes me think and reflect, surely the only real task we can demand an artwork deliver. So I like it, but I can sure see some people having a WTF? moment looking at it. Haven’t seen the chandelier yet, but it would be cool if a bunch of people shone lights on it as it spun at night. That would be right pretty.

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