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
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.’”
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.
October 12, 2017 § Leave a comment
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. 
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  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  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 , 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 .
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.
 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)
 Neil McGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (London: Penguin) 2010, 55.
 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)
 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.
 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.
February 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
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.
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.
January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment
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.
July 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
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.
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.