On a trip to Vancouver a couple of years back, I spent some time exploring public art around the city. I only scratched the surface of Vancouver’s large and diverse public art collection, so back in April with a few art maps in my hand, I set off for a few walks around the city. For me, this has become a “must do” when visiting a city for the first (or second, in this case) time. A walk around a city exploring public art has largely replaced gallery or museum visits for me. I like the combination of interesting modern art, hunting for it (even with a good map, sometimes it takes advanced detective skills to actually pinpoint its location) and doing that against the backdrop of neighbourhoods and sights that I might not have explored otherwise.
On an evening walk along the waterfront, I visited one of my favourite pieces of public art in Vancouver – the Olympic Cauldron outside the Vancouver Convention Centre. Even without the torches lit, it’s an impressive reminder of the 2010 Olympics which will always hold a special place in the hearts of all Canadians.
Near the end of a hike around the seawall circling Stanley Park, and near English Bay is “Engagement” by Dennis Oppenheim. Oppenheim almost never provides details or interpretations of any of his sculptures or pop art. I like to think that these almost thirty foot tall rings that are angled away from each other symbolize the delicate balance of marriage.
A little further south along the seawall at Sunset Beach Park is “217.5 Arc X 13” by Bernar Venet. This is one of a series of arc sculptures by Venet. The name is the literal composition of the work – 13 beams of steel forming a 217.5 degree arc. When I first came upon it, I thought it was a large piece of industrial waste or garbage. Given the natural beauty of the backdrop, but also the industrial nature of the water as transport for raw and finished materials in and out of Vancouver harbour, I think this piece makes a statement on the difficult coexistence of the two.
On this trip I spent a good deal of time exploring the Yaletown neighbourhood. A good deal of its public art was of a subtle nature – the kind where you needed to take a second or third look to see and understand it. One great example was along the water where this bench built into the seawall features images of nearby apartments and condos in “Red Horizontal” by Gisele Amantea.
Another example of subtle art (and something I didn’t catch on my first walk past) was “Welcome to the Land of Light” by Henry Tsang. This mixes English and Chinook jargon text along a stretch of the seawall railing at False Creek. At night this is illuminated with fibre optic cable below the text representing the ability (hope? dream?) of technology to bring diverse cultures closer together.
When I walked past “Brush with Illumination” by Buster Simpson, I have to admit it wasn’t really my cup of tea visually. However, after reading a bit more about the work, there’s more to it than meets the eye. This piece collects solar energy to power sensors that record environmental conditions here at False Creek. The brush part of the sculpture has an illuminated end that at night flashes per the ASCII codes of the data it collects.
Right on the shore of False Creek is “Time Top”. Jerry Pethick created this sculpture from inspiration of a childhood favourite comic book “The Time Top”. I really like that there are embedded cartoon panels right on the seawall by the sculpture. He submerged this sculpture underwater for close to two years to let it build a weathered look before installing it here.
Just past Time Top is more artwork you might miss if you weren’t looking for it. On the supports of the Cambie Bridge, “A False Creek” by Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky shows the estimates of sea rise levels due to melting of the earth’s major ice fields.
With a playful nod to the railway and brewing history of Yaletown and False Creek, “Coopers Mews” by Alan Storey is an interactive piece of art (unfortunately, not operational on my visit) between a couple of residential buildings. On the path under the tracks, there are boards that you can step on that emit sounds and steam from the barrels overhead.
“Street Light” by Alan Tregebov and Bernie Miller is located at the foot of Davie Street. This work shows important events in the history of Vancouver. On the anniversary of each event, the piece was designed so that sunlight (if it chooses to come out in this notoriously overcast city) will shine directly through the panel and cast a corresponding shadow on the street.
My tour of the Yaletown area kept turning up some interesting finds, and again, many were quite subtle. Along the street just above the seawall were two shelters inscribed with words and imagery. Entitled “Lookout” by artists Christos Dikeakos and Noel Best, this work is to provide shelter from the rain, a vantage point out to the water, and documentation of the history and present day of this place.
Just a few blocks away from the water, “Footnotes” by Gwen Boyle is a series of 57 tiles embedded in the sidewalk on Pacific Street. The words and phrases are meant to evoke the history of this location (formerly, the coastline) and document its progression from sea to land.
In the same area along Pacific Street is Alan Storey’s “Password”. There are four sets of four rotating letters that spin to form words from exhaust and air movement coming from an underground parking lot. The possible words are in groupings reflecting activities, architecture, space type and (of course since it’s in Canada) weather.
After the afternoon exploring Yaletown, I walked past this work on my way back to my hotel. On top of the Vancouver Art Gallery is a work entitled “Four Boats Stranded” by Ken Lum. The colours of the boats (and there are two others on the other side of the roof) represent colonial stereotyping of racial identity – the yellow boat is a stylized Fujian ghost ship, the black boat is the Komagata Maru. On the other side is a red First Nations longboat and the white representation of Captain Vancouver’s ship.
And finally, no exploration of Vancouver public art would be complete without walking past “The Words Don’t Fit the Picture” by Ron Terada. Located outside the city’s central library, I like how this art forms part of a boundary of the library. For me, it is a representation and reflection on imagination and the space between the literal and what is conjured in one’s mind. I saw this work as a strong metaphor for the building and what its books and texts can stimulate in all of us.
Over five days and many, many kilometers walked, these were some wonderful and thought provoking pieces of art. Some heavy in meaning, some playful, some requiring more reflecting or reading once I was back home – they all gave me a deeper understanding of parts of the city and a great way to visit some places I may not have seen otherwise.