A FINE ART LINE BETWEEN FRISKY AND FARCICAL

By Geoff Olson

In mid-August, a statue of a naked and pregnant she-devil appeared briefly atop a building at the intersection of Main and Kingsway. It was reminiscent of the mysterious installation last September of a statue of a nine-foot tall red demon with an erection, near the VCC/Clark Drive SkyTrain station.

Photo by Dan Toulgoet, The Courier

Perhaps the preggo devil and her horny associate were guerrilla art responses to Mount Pleasant’s dog on a stick. I’m referring to the seven-foot tall, aluminum-cast white poodle erected on a 25-foot pole at Main and 18th. The city, federal government, and TransLink were involved this 2013 canine-by-committee installation piece by Montreal artist Gisele Amantea. Taxpayers shelled out $62,000 for it, according to The Vancouver Sun.

“Definitely not a fan of the Main St. poodle but public art is important and at times provocative!” Mayor Robertson helpfully tweeted at the time.

Yep, the first thing I think of when I visit Mount Pleasant is poodles. At least now I do. When I gaze up at this thing, which looks like a scaled-up bauble from a dollar store, a line from media guru Marshall McLuhan comes to mind: “art is whatever you can get away with.”

But that’s not quite right. Art doesn’t get to be public in the Lower Mainland without meeting some tight parameters. In the long alimentary process of municipal approval, bureaucrats must find the proposed project palatable, or at least digestible, before the finished work is excreted out into the streets. It must not challenge any viewers’ beliefs or be hurtful in any manner, up to and including structural collapse.

That brings me to sturdiness. The art work must be able to survive years of inclement weather, along with potential earthquakes, hockey riots, and attacks by vandals. (That’s probably why Main street’s poodle is affixed on a 25-foot poll: to protect it from the neighbourhood it’s theoretically mean to represent.)

Also, the assigned artist should either be from outside the province or be Douglas Coupland.

Occasionally even the art itself hails from elsewhere, like the set of rusty metal legs with oversized feet temporarily placed along North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Avenue as part of the 2014-2016 Biennale. Based on a sculptural installation in Chicago by Polish artist Magdalea Abakanowicz, they look like a Play-Doh megaproject abandoned by a Godzilla-sized four-year old.

As for Mr. Coupland, his Terry Fox monument at BC Place is a big improvement on the mystifying construction that preceded it: a pagoda topped with little lion sculptures but with nothing on the exterior to indicate it had anything to do with the running hero. The new installation consists of four sculptures of Fox in motion. The only problem is their placement, next to a three-story LED screen displaying ads for mobile phones and pop drinks. The figures are facing away from the screen, as if the one-legged athlete is trying to outrun a wormhole of consumerism. I doubt this was intentional on Mr. Coupland’s part.

The Emily Carr School of Art graduate has become the go-to guy for public pop art in Vancouver. Hopefully his creative contributions will balance out a number of postmodern puzzle dispensers scattered across Vancouver, including the huge engagement rings eyesore at Sunset Beach, and the Mr. Potato Head “Flame of Peace” at Seaforth Park, a work which tourists have successfully bypassed since 1986.
“The TransAm Totem” on False Creek has had better reviews. Marcus Bowman’s playful structure, consisting of a stack of five muscle cars resting on a trunk of old-growth cedar, might be seen as a religious monument to Vision Vancouver’s bicycle-mad bureaucracy.  (I have no problem with that, but as they say in auto ads, “your mileage may vary.” One person’s “TransAm Totem” is another person’s “Trying Too Hard.”)

After years of humdrum public art, I say bring on the playfulness. “The Drop” by German artist collective Inges Idee at the Vancouver Convention Centre? Yes, thank you. “Digital Orca” on the opposite side of the Convention Centre, by the inescapable Coupland? Why not. “The Birds”, those two mammoth sparrows by Myfanwy MacLeod at Olympic Village? For sure.

But please, Vancouver: no more poodles. It’s a fine line between frisky and farcical.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 20

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