Public Art and City Planning – A Conversation with Jane Perdue

March 11, 2021 § Leave a comment

Interview by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu.

“Two Circles” by Micah Lexier, Two circles of identical size, identically positioned on either end of the lobby. One circle is solid black, the other a thin, black outline. Bay Adelaide Centre, Toronto. Photo by Tom Arban.

In the second interview in the series, Public Art and City Planning – A Conversation with Jane Perdue, Yan Wu, Public Art curator for the City of Markham, and art writer Rosemary Heather, talk with Perdue about her career, the changes she has seen over the years, what tools planners have for the provision of public art, what it’s like to work with private developers, and whether she has a favourite amongst the hundreds of Toronto’s public artworks.

Jane Perdue has worked as the City of Toronto’s Public Art Coordinator for the City Planning Division for almost three decades. As an independent consultant, Perdue developed a Public Art Policy Framework for the City of Markham (then Town of Markham) in 2003, predating the public art program that was formalized in 2013. Perdue has also worked with other municipalities in Ontario and Canada on developing public art policies and public art master plans.


RH: How long have you been in the field of public art and what are the major shifts you have seen over the years?

I was hired by the City of Toronto in 1991, so I’ve been with the City for almost 30 years full-time as City Planning’s Public Art Coordinator. I studied film history and art studies and after I graduated from York University my background in public art really started when I was hired at A Space, the artist run centre. I was hired by AA Bronson of General Idea at A Space. I had some idea about General Idea, but I did not realize that I had such a wonderful opportunity. I worked with them for four years. We did a number of satellite projects. Some of them were on the TTC. Ben Mark Holzberg created a project called Rolling Landscape, using Cibachrome in the ad space inside subway cars and also installations in the bus shelters. So that was really innovative, it was around 1980-81. A Space also sponsored a performance at Nathan Phillips Square, with Marina and Ulay, and that was a fabulous opportunity for me to help with that. It was a 24-hour performance of Marina Abramovic and Ulay staring at each other. Then I was appointed to the Public Art Commission in 1985 and was on the Commission for four years as a volunteer to help advise the City. I came to the City with a visual art and film background but I became an accredited planner about 12-13 years ago, because I realized how interesting planning was and I wanted to understand better how planning worked. For my first assignment, it was urgent, I had to help write a report for something that didn’t happen for another 25 years and I had trouble for a while understanding that but that was also a lesson realized: you plan for an idea and it may take a decade or two to actually be fulfilled. As far as changes, at the beginning we would be speaking with the architect with the developers and urban designers and so on and it was a very conservative approach and it was usually sometimes they are already had an artwork in mind that they thought would just be perfect for the site and they wanted to know where they could site the plinth. So it was really about an independent sculpture—and there is nothing wrong with that—but the change has been over the years is about looking at the various opportunities for how public art may play a role in defining a character or identity or terminus, or locating people to an area as a draw. The public art might be part of the community planning guidelines and the urban design guidelines objectives, so the understanding has expanded in that way.

RH: A lot of public art today is associated with condo development. Can you describe what public art looked like before there was so much development happening in the city?

When I started, it was a recession, so there wasn’t a lot going on. There were a lot of policies that were put in place. Our official plan came in, I think it was 1994, and before that we had hired a woman—Patricia Fuller—who is very well known in the States as a public art consultant. She helped us to do what we called City Plan 91, and we had a whole chapter on public art. We were very new at it as far as implementing policies and programs. Before I was hired, Ken Greenberg, who is very well known in Toronto, was running the Urban Design section and worked with a woman—Mary Lynn Reimer —and they looked at policies and programs in the United States, because those started in around 1960, 1959. We were looking at examples that might fit for Toronto. That’s why there was a public art commission in 1985. We didn’t have a lot of programming then but that was the beginning of it, looking at the processes and what would work. Since then, yes there’s been a lot of condominiums that have been built, but that’s the market. That’s not our policies, that’s what the market has offered. But we do have public art in offices and in other institutions for sure, and there’s a number of examples that are across the city and it’s not just in the downtown core. Development certainly is happening the most in that area, but also in North York, East York and the West District, former Etobicoke.


Aerial view of sculptor Richard Serra’s controversial piece “Tilted Arc”, prior to its removal, at Federal Plaza, New York, May 10, 1985. (Photo by Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images).

RH: You’ve been on the scene a long time, and you were working with American public art consultants. How did the controversy around Richard Serra’s public work Tilted Arc affect you?

I’m not sure it affected us but we heard about it and realized what it really came down to was moral rights and copyright. Who owns the sculpture and who can remove it? I mean, how appalling of this developer to actually remove the artwork. So rights of artists were very important to us, so we have that in our contracts with the developers. It’s a hard one to get your head around saying “Well, I own the art but I don’t own the idea.” We saw that as a landmark case. We also had our own controversy in Toronto, with Michael Snow and his geese sculpture in the Eaton Centre. The marketing people wanted to put little ribbons around the geese for Christmas, and then they were thinking about Easter, that might be fun. Michael took them to court and said “No, you can’t do that.” That was also lessons learned for all of us, about the importance of respecting an artwork. On the other hand, there are two Jonathan Borofsky’s Hammering Man in Frankfurt and Seattle. It moves and, seasonally, it gets different hats. But Jonathan likes that. It’s playful and he supported it. But someone else might not think that’s a fun idea. People crawl up it and put a hat on it. And that’s public engagement. The Eaton Centre one was about marketing but this was not about public engagement.


YW: Part of the reason we commissioned this conversation is to look at different working models and how different the municipalities have public art programs and what we can learn from them. I’m very curious about the two streams of public art in the City of Toronto—one under Planning and one under Culture—and how they operate separately. What’s the difference? How do they interact with each other and facilitate each other?

Well, with the former City of Toronto—and this is going back before amalgamation—City Planning did all of it. City Planning commissioned capital projects, our own infrastructure projects—that’s when the public art program started—and then also the private developer program. This is when we had North York, East York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, Metropolitan Toronto. There were several different layers of governments and agencies. Metro Toronto had its own agency, and the other boroughs were beginning to have their own public art policies. With amalgamation, almost 20 years ago, the roles and responsibilities were divided up, because the City just became so big for one department to be able to manage or handle all of that. It wasn’t possible. So, the culture division is responsible for the art that is on City-owned lands. Planning is responsible for overseeing the private developer program. But from that, culture gets a lot of money from the developers. The developers have three options. One is to commission public art on site on their own property in the public realm, or they can donate the funds to the City and that would then go to the culture division. Culture is not going to commission on the developer’s property. They’re going to find a park or a public area in the vicinity of the development—ideally—and then commission the artwork. If it’s not a big enough sum, they will collect the money until there’s enough there to commission a work of art. Then the third option is a combination of the two. There might be some money that would go to the City and then some that would remain on-site. The culture division runs competitions. They are open, they are transparent, they usually happen in two stages, and they do a public call. With the install, the City oversees this, and hires consultants to help them, because it’s not a large department. City Planning oversees the method within which the developer will commission public art: what kind of competition they have, where will the art be, who is on the jury, who is making decisions, who are the artists, and so on. It’s a paper trail, in a way. They put together a public art plan. It comes to a group called the Toronto Public Art Commission, chaired by David Anselmi, which is a group of volunteers who advise the Council, and they also advise City Planning. When the plan is approved, we report it to the Council, and then they go ahead with the actual commissioning of the work. So there’s two different streams, but we work together very closely, and while the Culture division is responsible for works on capital infrastructure, they don’t always get it. It’s not always applied consistently. They actually get a lot of money through City Planning, that goes directly from the private sector. A significant amount is generated from the private sector that comes to the City.


YW: In that case, if it’s option one and the developer decides to run their own plan, on their own site, and the developer keeps ownership of the work, do they have the option to do direct commissions? In the context of municipalities, commissioning methods are limited by procurement policy or purchasing by-laws. Because of budget size, this usually requires a competitive procurement process, which makes directly working with certain artists not an option—either through direct commissions or curated projects, even though we know their work will work well in the context of the site.

Exactly. You have to be accountable. Everybody does. It doesn’t matter what kind of competition. At the end of the day everybody has to be able to say, “This is how it happened.”


YW: Even with a private developer, do they have to do this?

They don’t have to do it. But they bring forward a public art plan to the City. We review it. It goes to the Commission. We report on it to the Council, and if there’s changes, they will let us know. But the changes might be because an artist that they want to work with isn’t available. Or maybe a jury member isn’t available. But do they have to explain how they do it? Perhaps not, but they might want to. They might have a brochure or they have a plaque. And that’s for the public to enjoy as well. That’s such an important aspect of this as well. That’s really how it works. There’s a lot of accountability. Not to get too much into the bureaucracy, but let’s say they had committed a million dollars, they actually provide financial receipts. They let us know how the money was spent. We have a chart specifying how much you can spend on maintenance, on administration and how much should be held for the actual artwork. That’s what we’re interested in knowing and making sure that it’s there, that it’s not being used up by changing drawings or architecture—all of that. The other aspect you asked me about was: what kind of competition? We encourage the developers to have a competition. They could have a direct commission, and they have. Sometimes it’s worked. We just warned them, I guess you could say: “You know what that means? You’re working with one artist and what happens if it doesn’t work out? You need to have a memorandum of understanding. You need to work with the artists. Have legal agreements, that if you need to say, we can’t do this together, you can get there. I won’t name the artist, but there was a case—probably now about 10 years ago—where the artist sued the developer because the developer did not go ahead with that particular commission and commissioned another artist. And we had to be all involved in that. So they do have the option to do a direct commission, but for the most part it’s a limited competition and it’s probably five or six artists that they’re interested in. Some developers will do an open call, which is great. But you usually know which artists might apply. Or they could encourage artists to apply. So they’ll have a two stage or maybe three stage process: an open call to see what’s out there, just send in your credentials to get a short list together, and then invite those artists to produce proposals and be paid for it. That’s the other part of it that we look at with the developers, of course, how much are the artists getting, what are the fees? It’s very important to oversee that. We help the developer spend their money, in the right way.


YW: On this type of project, does the developer usually hire a third party to run the competition, or run the project as a whole for them?

Always. They will always hire a consultant. We have had a couple developers in the past who are art collectors—and again I won’t say who—but very prominent collectors, who say “I can run this competition”. And within a few days we get a phone call back asking “Who is it that we could hire”? Because it’s a lot of work. It’s administration, it’s understanding what artists are out there, understanding the implications of a contract for an artist—all of those things that happen behind-the-scenes that aren’t as much fun and interesting, but are obviously key to the success of the program. So that’s why we have in our chart a limit on how much a developer could spend on a consultant and running the competitions. If they don’t hire an art consultant, we know that the staff at the City are going to be doing a lot of work, and that’s not our role.


YW: Does the developer have the option to let the City run the project?

No. In the agreements with them, we outline what our expectations are. This includes administration, running competition, etc. Frankly, if a developer asked us to run their competition, we would say “No, we can’t do that. We don’t have the staff or the resources, and why would we be running a competition for something that then would be not on our land? That’s not part of our mandate.” Another city might say “We can help you.” And certainly, I’m not suggesting that they write a public art plan and we report to Council and hear back in three years. Not at all. It’s almost on a daily, weekly, monthly basis that we are hearing from the art consultants. If they run into problems and challenges and updates, we’re there to help them, for sure, but not to run the program.

RH: I had a conversation with the public art consultant Brad Golden and he was talking about how the competition in the market ramped up and that’s why the architecture in the city got more ambitious, let’s say, because there was so much building and they needed to differentiate themselves. That brings up the question: do the developers see that public art as a necessary evil or do they like it? Would they see it as a way to differentiate themselves in the market?

Yes, they do. And if they see it as a necessary evil, they won’t be doing it. Remember, this is an option for them. It’s voluntary until they agree to do it. It’s about density bonusing. It’s about allowing the City to be in a position to secure public benefits, and public art is one of them. It may not be on all projects that are eligible. It’s the developers option. If they want to enter into the field of public art and commission public art, they will say that. If they don’t want to, if they think it’s a necessary evil, as you put it, they’re not going to do it. And frankly, I don’t think it would be much fun for staff either. If they come in and say “we were told we had to do this, how do we get it over with, how do we do it, and so on”. Actually, sometimes it turns around and it’s more positive but for the most part, if they don’t want to do it, they won’t. But if we’ve secured a public art commitment initially, it could be different owners by then. So they may just decide to go for option two and just give the money to the City, and that’s a contribution as well. And I think when you say that some of the buildings, because of the market, are more interesting, and they’re more innovative and creative, absolutely. And so are the architects, and the urban designers and the planners for that project. A lot of them see public art as a real benefit, because it can add that character and signal that this building, this development, is different. Come stay here, come live here, come buy. Rent an office here, or whatever. I think public art not just in Toronto but in the Western world and much further has really taken this on. And it’s not new. It’s been going on for hundreds of years. What public art is, with a plaza and so on. But it has evolved and I think that some developers are more open to it because they see the benefits they see how it has the potential to improve their development. They also get awards, they get acknowledged. There’s been a number of awards recently. Concord Adex got the Arts and Business award from the Toronto Arts Foundation at the Mayor’s lunch just a few weeks ago, which is fantastic. And that’s for all the public that they’ve done in the city. The Toronto Urban Design Awards for Micah Lexier at the Adelaide Centre won the top award, this is two years ago. So that gets their attention as well.


YW: How has Section 37, which allows the developer to add community benefits in exchange for increased density, played a role in the public art program?

Section 37 is part of the planning act and it has formalized the public art program. Whereas, before it came into play—and I think we’re talking probably about 15 years ago or so, in the planning act they included Section 37—and they allowed municipalities to secure public benefits as a trade-off to density and bonuses, so really formalizing that kind of engagement. Public art is mentioned, but it could be many public benefits. And it’s for municipalities to choose to use Section 37. A lot of municipalities don’t use it. They never have and that’s their choice. Before that, we had different kinds of agreements. Basically, they were called collateral agreements, formalizing a commitment from a developer to commission public art. Over the years, these agreements have become more fulsome. The public art provisions are pretty tight. We have a template that we provide to the lawyers and then the lawyers go back and forth and have a look at it and so on. So it’s a tool that we use. It’s not the only tool. We have Urban Design guidelines. We have public realm guidelines. We have secondary plans. We have tertiary plans. We have all kinds of different documents that help to engage, or help to forecast that there’s a potential for public art. And I I think in my introduction here I did mention but, I’m a planner as well as coming to the field with my background in the visual arts and film, because I find it so interesting. So I’m an accredited planner. I’m a combination of the two, which is fantastic, in that it helps me when I’m in conversation with other developers and planners. Because I understand that public art isn’t the first thing that they think about. It’s the first thing I think about. But it’s about trying to find that balance. How they would benefit. If public art can play that role, it’s fantastic.


RH: When I looked at the City’s map of public artworks, which is great, there are many little art works, but does Toronto need some kind of big huge iconic work, like the CN tower? Something that really brands the city, like Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago?

When you say there’s lots of little works, I mean, there are hundreds of works and some of them are little but I think a lot of them are very large, and really have impact. That map represents what Culture did and what the private developers have done and there are probably about 400 works on that map. It goes right back to the 1850s when donations came to the city and most of those are monuments and memorials and pretty traditional works. Something like Cloud Gate could be fantastic but I did hear Ken Lum’s keynote speech, and he wasn’t being critical of Cloud Gate, but he talked about the attention and how much money it takes to actually maintain that artwork, a million dollars a year, but that remember that Cloud Gate it started with a smaller budget and then it went up and up to about $25 million, and it’s fantastic. It’s a great tourism draw. I went to Millennium Park. because I want to see that and the Plensa that’s what you go to, but Chicago also has fantastic art everywhere else in the city, and architecture too. That’s a city that understands what private can do to improve the public realm. And that’s what Millennium Park is. I’m open to it. If there’s an idea for an iconic work of art. Where it would be, I don’t know. Who it would be by, I don’t know. But if we could ask the private sector to contribute to amassing monies to do this, I think that would be great. But if that means that’s all we’re going to get, then I think that might be a problem. I think you have to have a balance. In planning, if there’s an initiative—like the John Street Corridor or the Bloor Street streetscape—if there is an initiative that we say “This is real. We want to dedicate public art dollars to it” then that’s what we’ll do. And we’ll secure that from the private sector. It comes to the City. It’s held until there is the opportunity to actually do it.


YW: So about half of the works on the map are owned by the private sector?

Yes, and the City is working on expanding that inventory to incorporate existing public art websites from City Planning, Culture, and Transportation, and launching it with the Year of Public Art. This includes all of the street art programs. There are dozens and dozens of murals. That’s under Transportation, which is another really interesting program that the City does. That came about because of the graffiti that was happening. Because of the street art that wasn’t considered art—it was tagging and vandalizing private buildings. And there was an initiative to put together a committee that looked at the so-called graffiti art and an owner would come forward to the City and say, “I like it. I commissioned it. People want it,” and so it would remain. Otherwise, they were being told to remove it by the bylaw officers, by municipal licensing, and if they didn’t remove it, there would be a charge. So they would then sometimes resist and say “I like it.” We haven’t met for a long time, but I’m actually on that group that helped to evaluate whether it was art or not, which was a problem too, because that’s not for me to do, so we would say “Get some support from your neighbour or your local business association. Write a letter and tell them. That started because of all of the tagging. How can we clean up the street—maybe? And out of that came the StreetARToronto (StART) program, approaching some of these artists and saying “Do you want to do this officially, or not?” If you don’t want to do it officially then we won’t work with you. But do you want us to work with you and commission works that you can have that might be on a more permanent basis. We can pay you to do that. We can find walls and areas and you can work with the community and actually install these artworks. And that’s how that program started. That’s going back about a decade and it’s just fantastic—what’s been done and how it enlivens the city.


YW: One last question, you can choose not to answer. You have all these hundreds of works and commissions realized through you, what’s your favourite piece?

No. I can’t do that. I remember somebody else was asked that once and said it’s like asking me who’s your favourite child? We have so many backstories on projects that they might be more about how we got there to have something that’s magnificent, but I don’t think I can do that. When I do slide presentations, I do select ones that are probably the most prominent and maybe the most sophisticated in their presentation. That for me is then congratulating and celebrating whoever commissioned it and the artist, of course, but I do like the ones that people maybe don’t know about and maybe discover. There’s a lot of artworks in the City of Toronto that people don’t even know exists. Maybe you know, we have a sculpture installation by Evan Penny right at Bay and Wellington, right in the downtown core there’s an installation there that he did over 20, 25 year ago, and it’s fabulous. And then there are the big scale ones, like the James Turrell, it’s so fantastic to have one in Toronto. I remember the art consultant was saying that the construction crew were saying “What is this? It’s just light and colour. That’s not art.” It’s really more of not a trick but it’s just something that’s a little more subtle in some ways that I enjoy. But they’re all my children. They’re all my favourites.


Interview conducted by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu on October 21, 2020 as part of Markham Public Art’s Becoming Public Art: Working Models and Case Studies for Art in Public, a nine-week virtual summit presented by the City of Markham in partnership with ART+PUBLIC UnLtd. Framed by current discussions happening at the intersection of contemporary art, public realm issues and urbanism, the summit features working models and case studies that address the challenges and opportunities faced by those working in this constantly evolving field. 

Look closer at the Toronto Man sculpture on St. Clair West

December 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

German artist Stephan Balkenhol’s polarizing public art work bears the heavy weight of Toronto’s globalized reality on its sturdy shoulders

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 17, 2019

Photo: Samuel Engelking.

It was always going to be controversial. A 25-foot-tall sculpture of a man cradling a condo, standing on multi-coloured cubes. Commissioned by the developer Camrost Felcorp and made by celebrated German artist Stephan Balkenhol, Toronto Man (2019) is one of the city’s newest public artworks. It got a mixed reception when it was unveiled in August.

Balkenhol spends his time living between Meisenthal, France and Karlsruhe, Germany, where he teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts. He’s been a commanding presence on the European art stage for decades, and the work is the sculptor’s first commission in North America.

NOW spoke with Balkenhol by email over a number of weeks this fall. His comments made clear why he thinks his work has sparked dialogue: The sculpture is just a pretext for a conversation Toronto needs to have with itself about rapid development in the city.

Where to find it

Located at 101 St. Clair West and facing the street, the work is part of a three-condo development complex on the site of the former Imperial Oil building. It has provoked consternation ever since it went on display: here is the invasion of the city by developers made literal. Is the artist mocking us? Toronto Man inspired a social media debate, with one Twitter user noting that it represents “a certain class dominance over the society that is supposed to be diverse and multicultural.” It’s a fair summation of the ambivalence the work has prompted.

Why it stands out

Toronto Man is big. At 25 feet in height, it’s not at human scale. When asked how he decided on the size of the work, Balkenhol called the sculpture “big, but not too big.

“The location on the street in front of the high buildings demands a certain height of the sculpture,” he said. “It was meant to be a kind of landmark and should be perceived [by] the people driving on the road as well for those who walk by.”

The rough-hewn surface of Toronto Man is characteristic of Balkenhol’s practice. Using a carving style that dates back to the Middle Ages, he hacks and chisels his figures out of single blocks of wood. Casting the figure in bronze and adding a coat of paint is the artist’s contemporary update on this tradition. At the same time, the rustic look conveys a message about the technique’s medieval origins.

The figure of a standing man wearing slacks and an open collared shirt often recurs in Balkenhol’s work. A Twitter comment noted that Toronto Man has “a Soviet messianic look in his eye.” Is the figure some kind of new New Soviet Man? Or, more likely, John Galt, the libertarian architect hero of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged? In the book, Rand conflates architecture with a maverick world-building that cares not for the destruction it leaves in its wake. Torontonians could be forgiven for feeling that developers are equally disruptive, given the impact of condo development on city life.

But this reading falls short of seeing the sculpture as a whole. The cubes at the Man’s feet are as important as the building he is holding.

Who exactly is Toronto Man? “This guy in Toronto is a nobody in an everybody – he could be you,” says Balkenhol. “This sculpture invites you to take his place and hold the tower [while] standing on the coloured cubes.”  

The cubes are a decisive detail. On a traditional sculpture, the pedestal separates the viewer from the figure it represents. The base of Balkenhol’s work suggests a more playful invitation.

That said, Balkenhol makes clear that seeing the man as a developer is not a misreading.

“I don’t want to illustrate stories but invite people to invent some by looking at my sculptures,” he says. “I do make proposals but don’t tell a story myself up to the end.”

Vice writer Mack Lamoureux couldn’t decide if the work was intended as a celebration of developers’ hold on the city or as an indictment of it. Is the “sculptor shitting on the developers for gentrifying cities by putting up some ‘luxury condos,’” he asks, while conceding “there’s also the real possibility that the developers are in on the joke.”

Balkenhol said in a 2014 interview: “It is the viewer who fills it with meaning. Astonishingly enough, many beholders can hardly bear this ‘openness.’”

Photo: Samuel Engelking.

The bigger picture

In the last decade, Toronto has been utterly changed by condo development. The skyline is more glossy, the population is bigger and rental prices keep going up. All of this is rolled up into one big, 21st-century package of globalization.

The Yonge + St. Clair BIA is also pushing to raise the profile of the neighbourhood and make it more of a destination. Public art is a big part of the strategy. Other recent projects include an eight-storey mural by Sheffield, UK street artist Phlegm and the pop-up Tunnel of Glam, an 80-foot long tunnel of sequins running to January 6.

More broadly, the city has a policy that requires a percentage of large-scale development projects go toward public art. Until Toronto Man, no public work has been funded through that program while overtly commenting on the city-building phenomenon that made it possible. Toronto Man bears the heavy weight of Toronto’s new lived reality on its sturdy, capable shoulders.

Look Closer is a column in which a writer visits public art or an art exhibition and explores why a specific work jumped out at them. Read more here.

@rosemheather

Who the Pot? Why so Primitive? by Rosemary Heather

October 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

Maura Doyle

Maura Doyle, Mons Pubis, barrel fired stoneware, 2014

The artifact preserved and cared for by the museum – the humble clay pot, for instance –
communicates a message to us through time about the circumstances of its use and how it got made in the first place.

The artifact re-created tells a different story. Maura Doyle’s smoke sealed clay pots are not re-creations exactly, but the artist confirms their point of reference comes directly from the pasteven for those works in the show modeled after things from the contemporary world, like a paper coffee cup. At first glance, precedents of the clay pot in history, examples of which go back to the Stone Age, are what make these works intelligible. Why they might exist in the present, and what decisions led Doyle to create them, is how we understand them as artworks. Writing about ceramics practice today, art critic Roberta Smith offers a helpful distinction, these works are to be understood as: art world, as opposed to ceramics world, ceramics. [1]

As Smith implies, Doyle’s works come with a built in conceptual dimension, and this distinguishes the work from clay pots understood to be straightforward executions of pottery as a craft. A nuanced understanding of how we exist in the present is a message the best artworks can bring to us. In Doyle’s case, the artist’s interest in mastering a centuries old technique sheds unexpected light on how we experience our contemporary world. Consider the words of Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum: [h]uman history is told and written perhaps more in pots than in anything else [2] for viewers of Doyle’s exhibition this includes what these pots can tell us about the history of our own time.

Before making these works, Doyle thought it important she become a student of the craft of pottery in its earliest examples. Time spent at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and especially looking at the Jomon pottery [3] at Tokyo’s National Museum was the artist’s starting point for the endeavor of pot making itself. Doyle’s exhibition plays with the conventions of museological display to make this context explicit. Fidelity to this source material also extends to the surface of the works, but more about that later.

Up to this point Doyle’s art practice has not necessarily been craft-based. Instead the artist has embraced a range of strategies in which, more or less, form follows function for the projects she develops. For The Money Collection (2002-2003) Doyle collected money (donations welcome!) turning the necessity of financing her art practice into the substance of the practice itself. Existing mainly as an informational flyer and talking point, The Money Collection mined the humour of the humbled circumstances artists typically experience in the early stages of their career, the work proposing a way to make Doyle’s experience tangible for her audience.

Instead of a medium-specific engagement, working longterm with sculpture or painting or video, for instance, Doyle creates the context for shifts in perspective she can share with her audience. For The Chip Bag Project (2004), the artist collected empty potato chip bags (her goal was to collect 10,000) with the idea they could be dropped from a helicopter en masse into Toronto’s Sky Dome (today known as the Rogers Centre), which she rechristened the Sky Bowl for the project. Seeing, with the help of the artist, a city’s sports center as a receptacle for our culture’s trashiest elements (junk food being much more pure commodity than actual food) helps us to break free, if only temporarily, from a normalized view of our culture in all of its ridiculous excess.

The artist’s two Boulder projects take a similar approach to a wildly different topic: the erratic boulders that populate the urban landscape in Canadian cities. In short: erratics are rocks that have been transported by glaciers to wherever they have happened to come to rest. Launched by the artist in Toronto and Vancouver in 2004 and 2005, respectively [4], Doyle’s twin projects present two erratic boulders in their respective cities as sculpture. Positioning her boulders as artworks, Doyle then created booklets for each project that included a guide to where other boulders could be found throughout the two cities. Functioning incidentally or by design as elements in an urban landscape, these large rocks typically go unnoticed, blending in with their surroundings along with nearby squirrels and park benches. Doyle’s project asks us to look again. Contemplating how they got here suggests a glimpse into a geological timeframe that engulfs us, a corrective to a purely human and narrowly contemporary perspective on our everyday experience.

Of course a long tradition exists within art making for this type of corrective. It is called the momento mori (remember that you will die). While other works by Doyle directly partake of this tradition (Bone Dump (2011), for instance, a commission by Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, consisting of 8000 femur-like porcelain bones piled in a heap), Who the Pot? could be said to evince similar concerns, if less directly. Clay pots are among the earliest examples of human culture. Recent scientific studies have found a connection between the skills required for tool making and human speech. For this reason, the earliest toolslike a hand axe carved out of stone, for instanceare considered to mark the emergence of humans most like ourselves [5].

Sculpture makes society, in other words, and the works in Who the Pot? deliver this message in terms that are highly particular to the time we live in. Every potter, in practice, will make ceramics in a manner consistent with the craft’s prehistoric origins. Doyle’s pots reinforce this idea; through the similarity many of her works have to examples of the earliest ceramics (the pot, the jug and the pitcher), their method of display, and most important: choices the artist has made about what the surface of each pot looks like. She has opted not to work with the glazed finish familiar from contemporary ceramics, (the glaze makes ceramics usable, unlike Doyle’s works). Fired by the artist in a barrel, the surface of each pot is instead sealed by smoke, the tell tale signs of which are the surface flashing marks of smoke and flame. This simple choice marks Doyle’s pots as decorative, but within a register of the prehistoric world. In their textured and imperfect surface, in the absence of sheen, we can intuit a kind of withholding on the part of the artist. She resists allowing her artworks to appear seamless with the universal surface of contemporary life. This would be a universal surface as it is figuratively understood, which is experienced through the lens of the digital. Against that depthless continuum, Doyle asks us to, if momentarily, look away so we might understand our lives within a broader and much more human, expanse of the present.

NOTES

[1] Roberta Smith, PAUL CLAY’, New York Times, June 30, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/arts/design/paul-clay.html (accessed May 05, 2014)

[2] Neil McGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (London: Penguin) 2010, 55.

[3] Accepted as the oldest form of Japanese pottery, Jomon refers to the distinctive cord markings found on the surface of pots made during this Neolithic era of Japan’s history. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jomo/hd_jomo.htm (accessed May 5, 2014)

[4] Maura Doyle, There’s a New Boulder in Town, 2004, Toronto Sculpture Garden, Toronto; Monument to all Boulders in Vancouver and on Planet Earth, 2005, permanent public sculpture in conjunction with Or Gallery and City of Vancouver.

[5] Neil McGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (London: Penguin) 2010, 17.

This text originally commissioned on the occasion of Maura Doyle’s Who The Pot? at YYZ Artists’ Outlet, Toronto, 2014.

More information about Maura Doyle’s work can be found here and here.

Meat dress manifesto: On the contemporary irrelevance of contemporary art

February 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

Jan Sterbak, Meat Dress 1987

Jan Sterbak, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, 1987

By Rosemary Heather

I happened to find myself in Grande Prairie, Alberta. I had never heard of the city before. In Canada most urban life hugs the border with the United States. Canadians commonly refer to this border by its latitude: the 49th parallel. Grande Prairie sits just north of the 55th parallel. If you were driving from Montana, it would take over 12 hours to get there. Call me ignorant of geography. I didn’t know Canada had cities that far North.

I live in Toronto and it cares little about what happens in Grande Prairie; the centre of Canada’s media universe, news emanating out from here barely mentions the place. For the people of Grande Prairie, I’m sure the feeling is mutual. After all, Grande Prairie is booming. In part due to the dirty economics of the Tar Sands, Alberta is an exceedingly prosperous province.

Driving the streets of Grande Prairie, you can draw a map of Globalisms’ franchising coordinates. Starbucks is one outlet we are happy to find. Good coffee is progress, says my companion. Context is everything. In the absence of better coffee, Starbucks is good. Like the prow of a ship breaking ice, Starbucks opens up new markets for capitalism while setting better standards for coffee taste. This is the progress we like, one that caters to our urbanite selves. We can thank the Tar Sands for this, along with its disastrous environmental effects. History is always experienced as a lived contradiction.

At lunch, I read a BBC story on my phone about Lady Gaga. How does she do it? Various experts weigh in on the Gaga phenomenon. Like Starbucks, I don’t doubt that Lady Gaga is popular in Grande Prairie. Shuttling through stations on the car radio I hear Bad Romance and then Classic Rock. I want to understand the changing landscape of mainstream culture. In Grande Prairie, I find myself in the changed landscape itself. To me, it looks like a city that has popped up overnight, the spores of Globalism taking root in the form of big box stores. Seeing duplicates of chains I know from elsewhere makes Grande Prairie a place I both can and can not recognize. Thriving, it still seems to barely exist. It is simulacral, to use that old word.

At Starbucks I had picked up a flyer for a local historical society. This is what culture is in Grande Prairie, I think: Lady Gaga and historically-accurate reconstructed log cabins. Grande Prairie upends what I thought I knew about the world. Globalism redraws the map of the globe, and Gaga looms large on this horizon.

At the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards, Gaga wore a meat dress. Thinking about this, I make the assumption it augurs something new. Not the meat dress itself – that is an artwork made by Jana Sterbeck in 1987 – but the meat dress as an object of mainstream consumption. Claiming to be an artist, Gaga uses the shock tactics of the avant-garde, but not to any avant-garde end. As John Ashbery wrote in 1968, “the artist who wants to experiment [today]…is now at the centre of a cheering crowd. Gaga serves a structural purpose, not unlike that of Starbucks coffee.

Writing about the Pepsi Corporation in the New Yorker, John Seabrook notes that Pepsi products have a dual nature. Every bag of Doritos offers flavour combinations that are the same every time, fused with something more abstract. As Seabrook says, “PepsiCo grafts taste with desire.” The same could be said for any contemporary brand. In Gaga’s case, she embodies the culture social media makes. Gaga is the best example of its aspirational narrative: self-transformation is just a costume change away. This is why the music she makes can be merely adequate.

Art and pop culture are like languages. The parts of speech remain the same, while meaning is generated through the logic of substitution. If history’s substitutions always move from tragedy to farce, Gaga is definitely the farce. She wore the meat dress for the purposes of a photo op, nothing more. It was but a salvo in the arsenal of costumes changes she uses to keep her publicity machine churning. When Jana Sterbeck put the meat dress in an art gallery its point was decay. Not an irony for which Gaga can spare the time.

To claim pop cultural novelty is new is merely to betray my own biases. I am naive like every Liberal Arts student. Study of the modernist canon defines the scope of my formal education. Figuratively, modernism is reducible to clean lines and white spaces; pure abstraction and an absence of embellishment at one time signified a break from the past. It’s a legacy that lives on in the white cube of contemporary art today. And seeing the world from inside the white cube nurtures certain assumptions about what’s important.

Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga, Meat Dress, Designed by Franc Fernandez and styled by Nicola Formichetti, 2010

The problem modernism always had with kitsch is that it is not remarkable to be a fan – and fans are what popular culture creates. Today, it is unremarkable to be on Facebook; most people participate in the new culture the digital era creates. At the same time, Facebook is not merely the contemporary version of an older form. Facebook, like the internet, is genuinely new, in the way that collage and television once were. This suggests is that nowadays it is more notable to be on Facebook than it is to have an interest in modernism and contemporary art. In the popularity of Lady Gaga and Facebook and Starbucks, we find the cultural formats of the modern era’s irrelevance. Viewed from the perspective of Grand Prairie, Alberta, this becomes clear to me. Not the literal phenomenon of modernism’s end but rather the loss of its importance as a way to understand our culture.

Thanks to Ann Dean for her comments on this text.

This text was commissioned by Animate Projects’ for their Digitalis series of film commissions, which premiered at the London South Bank, December 2011.

The Digitalis catalogue can be downloaded here.

Maura Doyle: Dear Universe

January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Maura Doyle, Bones, 2006, porcelain, unlimited edition, sizes vary

Ever the rigorous practitioner, Maura Doyle made sure to try the new ‘Unidentified’ flavour of Doritos’ tortilla chip when it was debuted recently by Frito Lay. Deciding they taste like a “ketchup taco”, she imparts this information at the end of a letter she has written to the Universe. Giant in size, like everything in this show, the letter asks after the fate of her DNA sample, which the artist had previously entrusted to a rocket ship.

Querying the Universe on any manner of topic provides a good analogy for art making. In both cases you can ask questions and propose a solutions, but without any hope of definitive reply.  Doyle’s practice benefits from a non-didactic approach to questions about our relationship with nature. Her work helps clarify its human component. As she once reminded us: “Sticks [are] made from dead people”. What we understand about nature is a reflection of what we understand about ourselves.

For her show at the Paul Petro Gallery, Doyle presented beautifully wrought bones made of unglazed porcelain. Made in a generalized likeness of the femur, the bones are an end (of a life) product that also make a sly commentary on the redundancy of sculpture. Elaborating on this point is a giant Tim Horton’s coffee cup, slightly damaged and ‘tossed’ on the floor. In a previous project, the artist proposed using a helicopter to drop thousands of empty chip bags into Toronto’s Sky Dome. A funny take on the idea of recycling, the work suggests the city’s premier sports stadium can double as a waste bin.

Seeing the landscape – natural and man-made – as a gigantic found sculpture is one way to overcome our alienated relationship to it. In Doyle’s practice we find a reason for the increasing interest contemporary art practice takes in the world outside itself. Like her notes to the Universe, scaled-up to help them get noticed, Doyle suggests that finding reconciliation with the world we’ve got begins with giving value (and sending notes of appreciation!) to all of its elements.

This text originally appeared in Hunter and Cook #6. Maura Doyle’s show Dear Universe was presented at Paul Petro Contemporary Art in 2010.

More info about Maura Doyle can be found here. Doyle’s Dear Universe (2008) giant letter to the universe can be purchased at Art Metropole.

Eli Langer

July 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Eli Langer, Shadow Shift, 2007

Many people were struck by the confounding elegance of Eli Langer’s latest exhibition in Toronto. Like much contemporary art, you could ‘get it’ in an instant – but what you ‘got’, that was less certain.

A powerful florescent light eliminating all shadow enhanced the dazzling white ground of a painting hanging in the gallery’s window vitrine. Floating against this whiteness were a couple of insouciant washes of oil paint in purple and blue, the lines intersecting in the work’s upper right hand corner to make a 45 degree angle.

That this work has been described as both “Zen-like” and “baroque” gives an indication of the freshness of ground that the artist marks out with this exhibition.

In a media environment that thrives on monotony, shock, and repetition (this is what celebrities are for!) it is exceedingly difficult to create a visual frisson of the new. Much worthy art founders on exactly this rock of seeming overly familiar. Langer’s work in this show has the opposite effect; the artist combines familiar elements to free us from tired habits of looking.

Luis Jacob talks to Rosemary Heather

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Rosemary Heather: How has your art practice developed in the local context in Toronto? We have known each other for 10 years, and I know you have always been very involved in different local scenes. Can you talk about your involvement with the Anarchist Free School, and how that informs your current practice?

Luis Jacob: My education has played a big role. I studied semiotics and philosophy at the University of Toronto.

RH: You are not trained as an artist?

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