July 15th, 2010 Getting up close with the Vancouver Biennale

Walking Home Yaletown Public Art  July 152010  – West End and English Bay Biennale Tour with Gillian Wood and Dan Fairchild

By Samantha Knopp

Today’s session of Walking Home Projects was quite exciting because we started in a new neighbourhood for the program, the West End and English Bay!  It was also a special day because we had two guests from the Vancouver International Sculpture Biennale – Gillian Wood (Biennale  Exhibition Coordinator) and Dan Fairchild (Biennale Photographer) – who both generously offered to join us and share their firsthand knowledge of the organization, its practices and its artwork.

Vancouver Biennale signage/ Photo by WHYPA Participant Laura Lam

The Vancouver Biennale is an NPO that seeks to bring international world-class sculpture to all Vancouverites, by placing it in public spaces.  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 comparatively lacking and decided something had to be done!  Through a joint agreement with the Vancouver Parks Board, Mowatt established a 15 year contract, enabling the Biennale to have access to public park space to install sculpture for the organization, and 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, in fact, nearly all the work was international, with only 2 (of the 38) 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 one hand, this mandate of bringing international sculpture to Vancouver helps expose the public to artwork from other cultures (which they normally may not see) but on the other hand, it reduces the opportunity to showcase and support local talent.  For the Biennale, the benefit (in their minds) outweighs the negative but as Gillian later explained the organization is still relatively new (as this is only their 2nd run) and they are still learning and growing.

For this year’s Biennale, the theme of the exhibition is “Asia,” and thus our visit to the first piece of the day  A-maze-ing Laughter by Yue Minjun was a good start.

A-maze-ing Laughter by Yue Minjun / Photo by Audio facilitator Laurie Dawson

This sculpture, on the corner of Denman and Davie, was where we first met our visitors who were just as excited (and surprised) as us to see the public’s interaction with this piece.  Unlike some of the artworks we had previously visited, this piece seemed to attract a lot of attention, with people continuously coming up to inspect, snap a photo and even mimic the work for a laugh.  I think it is the seemingly playful expression of the identifiable subject matter that encourages this immediate participation, for the work consists of 14 massive identical cartoon-like 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 to inspect each individual statue.  As one approaches the figures they can’t help but smile, the figures seem silly compared to the typical stoic statues we are accustomed to.  Yet, as viewers moves through the work a growing sense of apprehension begins to develop; the smiles are perhaps too unnatural, and can easily be described as intense, manic and even forced.

A-maze-ing Laughter by Yue Minjun/ Photo by Audio Facilitator Laurie Dawson

A-maze-ing Laughter by Yue Minjun/ Photo by Audio Facilitator Laurie Dawson

Gillian talked about how this piece is intended to be a sarcastic work and that the artist is a leader of the Cynical Realism movement in China.  Here, MinJun has used this extreme exaggeration to subtly comment on his native country – China – and its oppressive political history.  The intensity of the smiles are suggestive of the fake facade he and other Chinese people have had to wear, for fear of official retaliation.

Interpretating and observing the artworks was an important part of our day, as we looked 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 with us was with regard to all the processes and procedures involved in implementing the Biennale as a whole including negotiations and shipping and finally the installation of the sculptures in Vancouver and Richmond, which as we discovered, are often more complicated and time consuming than creating the art itself!

217.5 Arc X 13 by Bernar Venet/ Photo by WHYPA Participant Laura Lam

Gillian explained that before any artwork can be installed in the city, 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, as there are often many obstacles to overcome, negotiations and changes to be made before any piece is approved and installed.

217.5 Arc X 13 by Bernar Venet/ Photo by Artist Bali Singh

For instance, A-maze-ing Laughter was originally titled The Path of God and the figures to be installed in two lines facing each other, as an overt reference to Chinese after-life traditions.  This did not go over well with the Biennale organizers, and even the Biennale’s Chinese curator was opposed to this title and set-up, so the MinJun was asked to re-organize the sculpture for installation in Vancouver – which he was willing to do!

When it came to actually installation, again a series of checks and adaptations were to be had, because perhaps the largest hurdle in any public artwork is ensuring public safety in public spaces.  It takes a large team of planners, engineers, lawyers, and installers as well as artists and Biennale organizers to scout out appropriate locations, develop the proper infrastructure and supports and figure out installation methods.  The artwork, as Dan Fairchild so bluntly put it, must pass the “2 o’clock AM, 6-pack test” – which basically asks:  would the work withstand a group of inebriated individuals coming home from the bar?  For A-maze-ing Laughter the physical supports required to pass this test are set nearly 4 meters into the ground and are anchored by large concrete slabs – they are not moving anywhere!

A-maze-ing Laughter by Yue Minjun/ Photo by Audio Facilitator Laurie Dawson

A-maze-ing Laughter by Yue Minjun/ Photo by Audio Facilitator Laurie Dawson

Probably the most fascinating fact about the Biennale is that much of the engineering, installation, transportation and even photography (compliments of Dan) is done almost entirely pro-bono or for very minimal cost.  Gillian expressed that this is ultimately what makes the Biennale possible, as these types of partnerships are essential for any non-profit organization (NPO).  To me it’s incredible how many passionate people it requires, who are willing to give their time, energy and expertise to bring artwork to the city.  It was an important revelation that it is not just the artist responsible for any public artwork but a large group of talented individuals who work behind the scenes.

-Sam Knopp

OH! So, that’s what THOSE are! – Walking Home with the Vancouver Biennale

by Hiiro Prince

On Thursday the 15th, the Exhibition Coordinator of the Vancouver Biennalé gave us a tour and in-depth history of the English Bay sculptures. The main photographer for the Biennalé was with us also and he informed everyone about each piece’s background and step-by-step process leading up to its unveiling for the public. I personally hadn’t researched anything about what we saw even though I of their existence beforehand; it was fabulous to be given the real depth of their importance and meaning to Vancouver and its public art movement. Can you believe it’s already the end of Walking Home Yaletown’s 3rd week?!?! I can’t, Catherine Pulkinghorn, Laurie Dawson and Bali have been literally the most dedicated and loyal, hardworking women you could dream to lead, guide and educate us about their fields of specialty.

I found there was a lot I gained from the tour, it opened my perspectives about the technical philosophies of art and installation overall. Major kudos to the folks at the Vancouver Biennalé.

Here’s some visual proofs of thursday:

We/ Photo by WHYPA Participant Hiiro Prince

“WE” – Multi-lingual human form sculpture.

Photo by WHYPA Participant Hiiro Prince

PRIDE is ever so near, represent!

Photo by WHYPA Participant Hiiro Prince

L.E.D. shining brightly as she interviews Ms. Faith – hard at work as always!

Photos courtesy of: Yours Queerly, Hiiro Prince!

Vancouver Biennale piece WE by artist Juame Plensa (photo credit: Justine Lee)

Click below to hear Vancouver Biennale Exhibition Coordinator, Gillian Wood talk about the Vancouver Biennale as well as WHYPA Participant, Hiiro Prince talk about Juame Plensa’s piece WE: