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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

So, about that art we had …

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I was talking about that art lecture that I wrote about yesterday – and I recalled that at the time what was going through my mind, on the way home, was the difference between what Sans Façon does and what has been happening here. For a start in Calgary they are embedded as part of the project team. The art is actually part of the process from the start.

A good example was how they got involved in attaching drinking fountains to fire hydrants. These are not permanent installations, but temporary public amenities provided for events like the Stampede or the Folk Festival. It helps Calgary get across the message that there is nothing wrong with tap water – so there is no need to go to a vendor and buy bottled water, when the stuff that comes out of the tap is freely available. Originally, the water people saw a device that essentially plugged a commercial drinking fountain into a fire hydrant, and they just wanted the artist to design a label to stick on it. But Calgary has one of the largest and finest metal workshops in North America – a bunch of skilled and talented people who came up with a number of innovative ideas – and actually fabricated them. They then went and installed them where they were needed, and let them speak for themselves.


Contrast that with the public art program on the Canada Line. As regular readers know, the process by which that amenity was procured leaves a bad taste in my mouth for a number of reasons. The cycle path on the bridge is a good example. It was an afterthought – literally bolted on after the bridge itself was completed. And the ramps on either side showing a degree of contempt for users that is hard to comprehend but only too obvious to its users. The ramps zig-zag. They do not provide not a smooth transition: they do not connect properly to the “network”,  the cycle routes on either bank. The art program is even worse. A bunch of ill considered, nearly always temporary installations. Most of which need to be “explained” by signage. It is very significant, I think, that there no signs on Sans Façon’s work, like Limelight. They trust that people will “get it”. And, of course, they do because they – the public – are the art, the performers, not just a passive audience.

Sans Façon does do temporary installations as well as permanent ones. Both have their place. But what sets them apart is their understanding of the place and the people in it – and the amount of effort that they make to ensure they have that before the piece is even considered, let alone installed. Can you say the same about any of this?

Public art at Langara 49th Ave

The bright orange bears were at least striking and memorable. Can you think what is there now? Didn’t think so.

Le Banc

I heard this referred to as “a used maxi pad”

Joe Sola is Not Making Art

And that goes for the public art program in Richmond too – these are all Biennale installations all of which were controversial, none of which remain in place


“Olas de Viento” became one of my favourite pieces – far more distinguished I think than the laughing men that were kept at Davie and Denman. Garry Point seems bare and deserted after this bold red open work globe went. I still miss it. I will also admit to not really understanding it when I first saw it – but then that is probably the point of a lot of art. Guernica doesn’t mean much if you don’t know anything about who made it, when and why.

Cabeza Vainilla, Cabeza ordoba, Cabeza Chiapas

There was a glut of fibre glass giant heads, I thought, and I don’t miss any of them.

Lighting effect

The people who installed “Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the Top of Lenin’s Head” had so little understanding of the artist’s intentions, that they lined up each of the horizontal slice perfectly. So it is perhaps not surprising that is was misunderstood as some kind of tribute to Lenin – since in communist countries, dignified busts of Lenin were all too common.

Lenin's head is all over the place

Actually once misaligned, as originally intended, the joke “Lenin’s head is all over place” sprung to my mind instantly. The feminization of Mao and her nudity, and tiny stature all speak for themselves. No-one ought to have misunderstood that – but they did.

All of this is a very strong contrast to the public art program on the Sound Transit rapid transit line to their airport which opened at around the same time. We even had a presentation about that here. And it seems I chose two of the same images then to illustrate that post as I did this one. No wonder I keep thinking I am repeating myself. We did go to Seattle soon afterwards, and I considered riding the whole of the light rail line just to see the art first hand. It turned out that when we got there there was plenty to do within the fareless square. We walked and cycled too – and the LRT got forgotten.

PS  SoundTransit has an rfq out now for an artist to aid in “identifying art opportunities for multiple artists at the facilities and 10 stations along the 14-mile light rail extension being designed from downtown Seattle through Mercer Island and Bellevue to the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington.”

Written by Stephen Rees

January 25, 2013 at 8:31 am

Posted in Art

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  1. Came across this regardingart at Langara Station:

    Seems like there have installed a frame onto which reotating displays of Langara Art Students’ work will be displayed. The current one (which I didn’t notice either) will be remved tomrrow and replaced with another (pic at the link above).


    January 28, 2013 at 6:25 pm

  2. The artist partnership from Calgary is actually called Sans Façon, but you are correct — they do great work!


    February 26, 2013 at 1:21 pm

  3. Oh Good Grief! OK I have now corrected the text of the post. Thanks for pointing out my mistake.

    Stephen Rees

    February 26, 2013 at 1:26 pm

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