Today’s session of Walking Home Projects was exciting because we started in a new neighbourhood for the program, the West End! It was also a special day because we had two guests from the Vancouver Biennale, Gillian Wood (Biennale Coordinator) and Dan Fairchild (Biennale Photographer); both of them generously offered to join us and share their firsthand knowledge of the organization and its artwork.
The Vancouver Biennale is a NPO that seeks to bring international world-class sculpture to all Vancouverites. It all started when local gallery owner Barry Mowatt (of Buschlen Mowatt Galleries), who after travelling around the world and seeing an abundance of great public art in the world’s great cities, felt Vancouver was lacking by comparison, and decided that something had to be done! Through a joint agreement with the Vancouver Parks Board Mowatt established a fifteen-year contract, enabling him to have public park space to install sculpture for his organization. Thus the Biennale was born with the first festival taking place from 2005-2007.
Mowatt decided that the sculptures for the exhibition would be selected by a panel of judges made up of artists and curators who would choose the work of important and up-and-coming international artists. We quickly noticed during our walk that nearly all of the work was international – only two of the thirty-eight sculptures coming from Canadian artists. For me, this raised concerns; was this was a benefit or detriment to the Canadian public and Canadian artists? On the one hand, this mandate for bringing international sculpture to Vancouver helps expose the public to artwork from other cultures, but on the other hand, it reduces the opportunity to showcase and support local talent. For Biennale, the benefits outweighed the negatives, but as Gillian later explained, the organization is still relatively new (they’re currently in their second run) and they’re still learning and growing, so it’s possible that an international focus over the first two runs may yield to a focus on local artists in the future.
For this year’s Biennale, the theme of the exhibition is “Asia,” and our first piece of the day “A-maze-ing Laughter” by Yue Minjun was a good start. This sculpture, on the corner of Denman and Davie was where we first met our visitors. Unlike some of the artworks we had previously visited, this piece seemed to attract a lot of attention. There was a constant flow of people coming up to inspect, snap a photo, or even mimic the work for a laugh. The work consists of fourteen massive identical cartoonish figures in the artist’s likeness, cast in bronze and standing nearly 9 feet tall. They all share the same overwhelmingly caricaturized laughing smile, but are differently posed and scattered in a circular formation, creating a maze for the viewer to walk through. I think it’s this seemingly playful expression that encourages this immediate participation, and the maze seems to induce viewers into an inspection of each individual statue. As one approaches the figures they can’t help but smile, the figures seem silly compared to the typical stoic statue to which we are accustomed to. Yet, as the viewer moves through the work a growing sense of apprehension begins to intrude; the smiles are perhaps too unnatural, and could accurately be described as intense, manic, even forced.
Gillian shared that this piece is intended to be a sarcastic work and the artist is a leader of the Cynical Realism movement in China. Minjun used this exaggerated expression to subtly comment on his native country - China - and its oppressive political history. The intensity of the smiles are suggestive of the facade that he and other Chinese have had to participate in out of fear for official retaliation.
Interpreting and observing the artworks was an important part of our day, as we looked at many different sculptures including: “217.5 Arc x 13” by Bernar Venet, “The Inukshuk” by Alvin Kanak, “Engagement” by Dennis Oppenheim and “We” by Jaume Plensa. But perhaps the most valuable information shared was with regard to the processes and procedures involved in implementing the sculptures. It didn’t take long to discover that this was often more complicated and time-consuming than the art itself!
Gillian explained that before any artwork is installed, it must go through a long series of checks with city officials, engineers, lawyers, and even residents. This is an arduous process, which requires one to be persistent and passionate about the artwork because there are often many obstacles to overcome before any piece is approved.
For instance, “A-maze-ing Laughter” was originally en titled “The Path of God”. The figures were to be in two rows facing each other, an overt reference to Chinese after-life traditions. But this title and set-up did not sit well with many people, including the Biennale’s Chinese curator, so Minjun was asked to re-organize the sculpture. When it was time for the actual installation, another series of checks and adaptations were to be had to ensure the safety of observers. Dan Fairchild put it bluntly when he said that the artwork must pass the “two a.m. six-pack test”; in other words, would the work withstand a group of drunks coming home from the bar? For “A-maze-ing Laughter” the supports required to pass this test are nearly 4 meters into the ground and are anchored by large concrete slabs – they are not moving anywhere!
One of the most fascinating things about the Biennale is that much of the engineering, installation, transportation and even photography – complements of Dan – are done almost entirely pro-bono or for very minimal cost. Gillian expressed that this is ultimately what makes the Biennale possible. The number of passionate and giving people it requires to bring artwork to the city is truly astonishing. It was an important revelation that it’s not just the artist who’s responsible for producing public artwork, but instead, the artist in conjunction with a large group of talented individuals working furiously behind the scenes to make this city a better place.
Sam – the notepad kid