A Charm Bracelet, A Chandelier and Where Public Art Turns Dark – TheTyee.ca
A few years ago, Westbank and its founder and CEO Ian Gillespie plastered the city with bright fuchsia billboards in support of something called Fight for Beauty.
The cryptic pronouncements and ads didn’t really indicate what was at the centre of all this pink sound and fury. But even the barest look revealed that Fight for Beauty was a marketing ploy from Westbank made to look like an art exhibition.
A pre-recorded narrative accompanied the show, wherein Gillespie talked about his battles to bring different projects into existence. It was wearying barrage of self-aggrandizement and aggrievement, curdling into a screed that after a while made you want to start smashing things.
The exhibition itself was weird, consisting of scale models of real estate developments like Woodward’s and Telus Gardens. Arranged amongst these models were various cultural artifacts that Gillespie had personally accrued over the years. It was a random assortment of things: a gown from the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, a Fazioli piano, a Fred Herzog photograph.
But something else was at the centre of the show. A question that continues to ripple out with each new successive public art piece bought and paid for with developer’s money. Who is this art really for and who gets to decide?
Like most people, artists need money. Who has the most money at the moment? Developers. So, logically it follows that developers pay artists to make art. But like most things to do with art, money and real estate, it gets very sticky very quickly in Vancouver.
The relationship between public art and private money goes way back. But in recent years, it’s gotten even more complex.
For your rezoning, a chandelier!
Since Fight for Beauty, there have been a number of other high-profile artist/developer pairings. Rodney Graham’s Spinning Chandelier, also a Westbank collaboration, was another lightning rod for divided opinion. Weighing in at more than three tonnes and costing $4.8 million, the chandelier was installed under the Granville Bridge, where it performs a little dance twice a day for the delectation of the punters.
You can find programs in large cities like Vancouver and Richmond that seek to squeeze developers for public art, a requirement of large rezonings. That’s what happened in the case of the chandelier.
But even in cities that don’t have such a requirement, it’s common for developers to commission art for projects they’re proud of — all the better if it’s a buzz-worthy name like Graham, Douglas Coupland or Ken Lum.
While Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart called Graham’s work “the most important piece of public art in the history of our city,” other folks weren’t so certain. The optics were not good, to put it mildly.
A big sparkly piece of art, with its embedded ideas of cost and privilege, in a city where housing and homelessness continues to be one of the most agonizing issues, was something of a headscratcher.
All of which brings us to Douglas Coupland’s sculpture at the Amazing Brentwood mall in Burnaby. Tucked in behind the mall, beside the parking lot, close to the food court, the structure, called Charm Bracelet, isn’t highly visible at first. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you might saunter on by without even noticing it.
In his artist’s statement, Coupland writes: “Burnaby is a mix of nature and industry and has largely been centreless until the arrival of the Amazing Brentwood. The idea of collecting themes central to Burnaby in the form of a necklace seemed like a relevant way of connecting retail culture to civic art and placemaking.”
I’m going to set aside the questionable construction of the work for a moment. If it’s supposed to be a charm bracelet composed of different images and symbols that relate to the history of Burnaby, but it mostly resembles a totem pole, what the hell?
Alongside generic Canadiana like hockey sticks, salmon and what kind of look like giant anal beads, one specific nod to Burnaby is the neon sign of a girl on a swing that once graced Helen’s Children’s Wear, now a landmark of the Burnaby Heights stretch of businesses on Hastings Street.
It’s the last bit in Coupland’s statement about connecting retail culture to civic art and placemaking that is the most interesting part. The idea that this mall with its amazing stores like the amazing Sephora and the amazing Suit Supply can somehow provide a cultural anchor for the city of Burnaby seems like a slight overreach.
The conflation of art and shopping and community, flattening everything into commodifiable things that can be bought and owned, gives the most pause. The piece is owned by Shape Properties, the developer behind the Brentwood mall project.
I don’t want to pick on Coupland and imply that he is a bad person or a bad artist. Plenty of his work is ferociously insightful. His public art installations dot the city, perhaps because he’s a well-known and successful artist. More commissions beget even more, and so on. In addition to Charm Bracelet, there’s the giant pile of tires outside a Vancouver location of Canadian Tire (get it?) and the mural that coats The Berkley tower in the city’s West End (developer Reliance evicted and compensated tenants to perform a facelift that included the mural).
To employ an old phrase, don’t hate the player, hate the game. It’s easy to bang on artists for taking a commission from a developer, but everyone has to pay the rent and the bills.
To his credit, Coupland has been upfront about his motivations around commissioned pieces. On his website, he states: “Public art is like the non-fiction version of art. Instead of working in a private personal universe, public art is tethered to the real world in some way. It’s ontologically similar to writing a travel article or a historical biography. Commissioned art is also like this.”
And the real world has a lot to do with control and power: who has it and who doesn’t. Which perhaps explains the sometimes-visceral reactions that different installations or sculptures invoke in the general public.
When citizens revolt
A giant piece of poke-you-in-the-eye public art outside of a new retail or condo development is something of a flex, as the kids say. It’s as if the piece carries the voices of the people behind it: “I am putting this here, making you contend with it, because, well, I can!”
What are average citizens supposed to do if they really hate a particular piece, other than seethe? Occasionally, there’s a revolt, sometimes led by the people and other times led by artists themselves.
Many different corporations/companies have been accused of art washing, and the issue is, of course, much larger than Vancouver, as the notorious Sackler family scandal indicates.
The Sacklers, who own Purdue Pharma, were widely blamed for their role in the opioid crisis in the United States because of their approach to marketing Purdue’s opioid OxyContin. The family used part of their massive fortune to buy naming rights at major galleries around the world.
It was artists themselves who led the revolt against the company, with events like the die-in organized by photographer Nan Goldin. Other campaigns were spearheaded by artists like Ai Weiwei and Kara Walker.
Money, power and what matters to the city
To return to Vancouver, while companies like Westbank or Shape Properties might not be as overtly evil as the Sackler family business, the question of money and power is still one that demands close attention. Those who pay for public art get to dictate what it will be. In which case, it’s not likely to be highly critical of the people footing the bills.
So, as a pretty bauble about a mall, perhaps Charm Bracelet is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. So, too is The Spinning Chandelier, which a few folks maintained was in fact a commentary on the deep economic divisions that have cleaved the city in two. But this argument about subversion falls a bit flat when you look at the art itself.
What is it really saying?
Tak Pham, writing for Canadian Art Magazine, summed it up perfectly: “When an artwork draws inspiration from and presents content about communities affected by real-estate development and then frames such content as a celebration of history, the artists must try to maintain their integrity and criticality by making space for viewers to reflect on the complexity of gentrification.”
Some artists do this, and others don’t.
The hoary old phrase that art should “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” seems almost quaint in a city like Vancouver, where public art is often a means to put a pretty picture on the more complex realities of poverty and economic disparity.
Historically, the people who have commissioned paintings, sculptures and edifices to the glory of themselves and their empires haven’t been doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. They get something out of it, whether it’s a rezoning or a big old honking statue. But should the shaping of the culture of a place be left up to the folks with the most money, with the encouragement of our cities?
It’s an old story and also one to which there are no easy answers.
— With files from Christopher Cheung.
JR’s Gigantic New Installation in Hong Kong, Unveiled Ahead of Art Basel, Has Worried the City’s Feng Shui Masters. Here’s Why – artnet News
The French artist JR has created a monumental outdoor installation for Hong Kong to celebrate the city’s art month this month. But the installation, which depicts a high jumper, has drawn criticisms from several feng shui consultants and fortune tellers, who argued that the work looks like a person who fell off from a building from afar, and hence projecting a bad omen. Titled Giants: Rising Up, the installation was unveiled this week ahead of next week’s Art Basel Hong Kong, which has its VIP days beginning March 21. Commissioned by the shopping mall Harbour City and on view until April 23 at the Ocean Terminal Deck in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, the work, which measures nearly 40-feet-tall and 40-feet-wide (12 meters high and 12 meters wide), is the famed artist’s first offering in Asia from his ongoing “Giants” series. “The gigantic art installation depicts a larger-than-life high jumper floating in mid-air adjacent to Hong Kong’s iconic Victoria Harbour, with her body bending gracefully and her head back facing the fabulous skyline,” the press release wrote. “The high-jumping athlete appears to jump off the ground and enjoys the sensation of free fall,” the press statement continued, adding that the athlete’s move represented “take off,” referencing to a “Giants” installation on view at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. JR also added “a touch of Hong Kong” by fusing the image with a bamboo scaffolding, a construction technique regarded as “safer than steel” that has been listed as the city’s intangible cultural heritage.
But JR’s artistic creation failed to appeal to some feng shui consultants, as well as practitioners and believers in the traditional art of Chinese metaphysics and divination. “Doesn’t it look like someone who fell off from a building landing on a bamboo scaffolding, and the body is pierced through by the bamboos?” asked feng shui master Po Sin in a recent video on his YouTube channel. Po Sin’s view was echoed by a recent Facebook post penned by feng shui practitioner Steve Lee, who also shared a similar impression of the work. Their views were also echod by some internet users. Feng shui is understood as the ancient Chinese study of arranging one’s surroundings in order to facilitate the positive flow of energy or bring fortune, and is widely adopted in interior design and architecture in Hong Kong. Some non-believers, however, criticized it as mere superstition. Po Sin, nevertheless, went on saying that although bamboo scaffolding was distinctively from Hong Kong, and it could be aesthetically pleasing, the depiction in this JR work was not appealing. “You can have people climbing on a bamboo scaffolding, but not having someone landing on it on a person’s back,” the master said, adding that the out-of-context jump looked like the jumper was diving into the sea, which has a bad connotation in the local cultural and lingual context. Artnet News has reached out to Harbour City for comment, but did not hear back by publishing time.
Lee, the feng shui practitioner, also compared the bad omen projected by JR’s new work with that of American artist Kaws’s Kaws:Holiday public installation in Hong Kong that was on view in March 2019. The installation saw the gigantic, crossed-eye inflatable sculpture of Companion lying flat on its back floating on Victoria Harbour, which Lee interpreted as the “fortune basin” of Hong Kong. “Call me superstitious, but placing a ‘floating dead body’ in the middle of Victoria Harbour, the sight is unbearable,” Lee wrote in a post in March 2019. Lee then followed up with another post in October 2019, when the city was rocked by pro-democracy protests that had tipped off in June, sparked by the anti-extradition law movement. “The artwork ‘dead body in Victoria Harbour’ was merely a prophecy,” he wrote, predicting that the city will continue to suffer in subsequent years, affecting all local citizens regardless of age and political orientation. Whether or not Kaws’s installation could be read as an omen, in reality, the city was nearly cut off from the rest of the world for almost three years under stringent Covid restrictions. The authorities continue to crackdown political dissents since the implementation of national security law in 2020 and the revival of the use of colonial-era sedition law, which saw hundreds of activists, pro-democracy politicians, and journalists arrested. The city’s stock market index, Hang Seng Index, plunged from its high note at over 30,000 in May 2019 to 14,863 in October 2022, its lowest since 2009. Is JR’s new artwork really a bad omen? Benson Wong, a former Hong Kong Baptist University political science professor-turned astrologer and psychic, noted that in this case, the meaning of the work is defined by viewers. If the work is associated with negative meanings, the work is seen as “a projection or manifestation of such negativity and unlucky energies,” Wong told Artnet News. “It is a reflection of collective consciousness.”
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‘A real beauty’: Gottfried Lindauer painting set to break auction record
International Art Centre/Supplied
The portrait of Harawira Te Mahikai, chief of the Ngāti Kahungunu Tribe, is the finest to come to market according to an art expert.
A rare Gottfried Lindauer painting is set to break records when it goes to market on March 29, with one art expert deeming it “the finest to ever come to market”.
Lindauer was a man who, along with C F Goldie, excelled in painting important Māori subjects throughout his life, as well as depictions of Māori life during this time period.
He also produced many pieces of little-known or ordinary Māori people, most of them wearing European dress, as would have been the case in their daily life.
Richard Thomson, the director of the International Art Centre, said the Lindauer up for auction was a “real beauty”.
The painting is a portrait of Harawira Te Mahikai, chief of the Ngāti Kahungunu Tribe, and a signatory of the Treaty of Waitangi.
At the time of his death in 1886, Te Mahikai was the last tattooed chief of Waimarama.
“It has all the hallmarks of a Lindauer, you don’t see them that often in this kind of quality,” Thomon said.
A Gottfried Lindauer portrait of Huru Te Hiaro was repaired and moved from Te Papa to Aratoi Museum in Masterton for a Lindauer exhibition (first published June 2017).
The piece was painted in 1883, and Thomson thinks Lindauer perhaps painted it when his son Hector was born and saved to gift to him when he turned 21.
“This one is a real masterpiece, and I think it’s one of the best to come to market ever,” Thomson said.
“It’s in pristine condition, and it was owned by Lindauer himself until he gifted it to his son Hector in 1908.”
The piece was held by descendants of the Lindauers until 1988, when it was bought by a private collector who it has been with ever since.
Lindauer pieces have had a high profile as of late due to the brazen heist of two of the pieces from the International Art Centre in April 2017.
The paintings, which were of Māori elders Chief Ngātai-Raure and Chieftainess Ngātai-Raure, were finally recovered and returned to their rightful owner in December 2022, over five years after they were stolen.
Although the Lindauer up for auction is not one of the stolen paintings, it is the first one to come up for sale since the paintings were recovered.
Thomson said despite “the heightened awareness”, the story of the stolen Lindauers won’t “add fuel to the value of it”.
“It’s probably going to be a record price, and I would be surprised if it wasn’t – it’s almost a certainty,” Thomson said.
The director believes the piece could hit the million dollar mark, and wouldn’t drop below $500,000.
The auction is taking place at the International Art Centre on March 29, and you can register your interest here.
Museums Rename Artworks and Artists as Ukrainian, Not Russian
A year into the war, institutions face pressure to note the Ukrainian roots of artworks and artists long described as Russian. It’s not always simple to write a wall label.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York changed the name of one of its Edgar Degas pastels Friday morning from “Russian Dancers” to “Dancers in Ukrainian Dress,” the second Degas it has reclassified since Russia invaded Ukraine.
The National Gallery in London renamed one of its Degas pastels “Ukrainian Dancers” from “Russian Dancers” last year. And the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles updated an old item on its website to note that Degas’s dancers were Ukrainian, not Russian.
The adjustments reflect a movement that is currently underway at museums all over the world, spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many are re-examining — and, in a growing number of cases, relabeling — artworks and artists from the former Russian Empire and the former Soviet Union to better reflect their Ukrainian origins.
“Scholarly thinking is evolving quickly,” Max Hollein, the Met’s director, said in a statement, “because of the increased awareness of and attention to Ukrainian culture and history since the Russian invasion started in 2022.”
But the process is not always straightforward, particularly when museums try to reflect the nationality of artists, and not just where they were born. The Met recently revised how it classifies three 19th-century painters previously described as Russian — Illia Repin, Arkhyp Kuindzhi and Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky — to draw attention to their Ukrainian roots.
It updated two of the names with their Ukrainian transliteration, followed by the Russian name: Illia Repin (Ilia Efimovich Repin) and Arkhyp Kuindzhi (Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi).
But after the Met changed the description of Aivazovsky from “Russian” to “Ukrainian” on its website, some critics pounced, pointing out that he was in fact Armenian. (“The Met Shouldn’t Have Reclassified Ivan Aivazovsky as ‘Ukrainian,’” an essay in Hyperallergic argued.) So the Met re-reclassified him: Aivazovsky is now described as “Armenian, born Russian Empire [now Ukraine].”
Activists and art historians have been pressuring museums to rethink how they label art and artists, arguing that given Ukraine’s history of subjugation under the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, its culture should not be conflated with that of its rulers. Museums in the United States and Europe are complicit in its colonization, the critics argue, if they don’t honor the artistic contributions of Ukrainians.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has changed the way it labels works by Degas, Illia Repin and Arkhyp Kuindzhi. Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
“It’s like stealing heritage,” said Oksana Semenik, an art historian in Kyiv who has been pressing for change. “How you can find your identity? How you can find your culture?”
The failure to distinguish Ukrainian artists and artworks has been particularly painful, activists say, at a time when so much of Ukraine’s cultural heritage has been damaged or destroyed in the current conflict, including museums, monuments, universities, libraries, churches and mosaics.
Many museums are reconsidering the identification of holdings that have long been lumped in the general category of Russian art. Among the museums that Semenik has sought to change have been the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum and the Jewish Museum.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York described artists as “born in present-day Ukraine” in its recent exhibition “In Solidarity.”
“Nationality descriptions can be very complex, especially when making posthumous attributions,” Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the museum, said in a statement to The Times. “We do rigorous research and approach the descriptions with sensitivity to the recorded nationality of the artist at death and birth, emigration and immigration dynamics, and changing geopolitical boundaries.”
The Met has been considering such updates since last summer in consultation with its curators and outside scholars. “The changes align with The Met’s efforts to continually research and examine objects in its collection,” the museum said in a statement, “to determine the most appropriate and accurate way to catalog and present them.”
The subject of what the Met now calls “Dancer in Ukrainian Dress” was initially identified as “women in Russian costumes” in a journal entry in 1899, the museum explains on its website. “However, several scholars demonstrated that the costumes are, in fact, traditional Ukrainian folk dress, although it has not been established if the dancers were themselves from Ukraine.”
The Met has revised its wall text for artworks such as Kuindzhi’s painting, “Red Sunset” (circa 1905-08), which was put on display last spring following a statement of support for Ukraine from Max Hollein, the Met’s director, and Daniel H. Weiss, the president and chief executive.
The Met’s European Paintings department currently describes Kuindzhi as “Ukrainian, born Russian Empire,” the website explains, “to reflect the dual, intersecting nationalities identified in scholarship on the artist.
“He was descended from Greeks who moved to Mariupol from the southern coast of Crimea in the 18th century,” it continues. “Greeks from Crimea are classed among the Pontic Greeks, who originated in what is now northeastern Turkey and migrated widely through the surrounding region.”
While “Red Sunset” is safe in the Met’s collection, the Kuindzhi Museum in Mariupol, devoted to the artist’s life and work, was badly damaged by Russian airstrikes.
Asked whether it was revising the identification of works in the Jewish Museum’s collection, Claudia Gould, the director, said that her institution tried to take a nuanced approach to classification. “For artists born in the Russian Empire or former Soviet Union, as well as many other regions with ever-changing borders, we use the historical regions at the time the work was made and/or their present-day equivalent,” she said in an email.
Semenik, the art historian from Kyiv, has been pressing her case with museums.
“Ukraine is not the former Russian Empire,” Semenik wrote in a January letter to the Brooklyn Museum. “It was colonized by Russia centuries ago.”
Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, said that since last summer, the European Art department has been revising the way it presents biographical information relating to nationality for objects in its collection, “precisely in response to the urgent and complex legacies of empire, colonization, and displacement that the war on Ukraine has thrown into relief.”
The museum has been expanding its wall labels so that they describe an artist’s place of birth and death, noting any change in national borders. For instance, the artist Repin’s biographical line now reads: “Chuhuiv, Ukraine (former Russian Empire), 1844 — 1930, Repino, Saint Petersburg (former Kuokkala, Finland).”
Though it may be a challenge to satisfy everybody, “we believe that this approach better highlights the histories of war, colonization, and independence,” Pasternak said, “that may be obscured when classifying by nationality.”
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