Vancouver Biennale

Vancouver Biennale

Roberta Staley - Sculpture Magazine - 2017 - Source

A stack of five cars, precisely balanced on a twisted old-growth cedar trunk, erupts from a patch of green grass—an incongruity amid the spider web of roadways and elevated rapid-transit lines edging the downtown core of Vancouver. The 33-foot-high, 25,000-pound Trans Am Totem—its massive tree stump sup- porting the vehicles like an arboreal Atlas—is a tribute to, as well as a critique of the car, North America’s enduring symbol of personal freedom and technological innovation.

Vancouver-based Marcus Bowcott, creator of Trans Am Totem, has loved cars since he was a teen—especially the Trans Am, which, gleaming and polished, crowns a heap consisting of a BMW, a Honda, a VW Cabriolet, and a Mercedes. “The cars on a pedestal refer, at once, to advertising, longing, and absurdity,” Bowcott says. The vulgarity of the crushed vehicles sitting on the still-dignified cedar testifies to the environmental impact of driving. Trans Am Totem is also art historical, with the stump representing a marble column, the car tires the volute of a capital. Its placement, however, was most important. Against a backdrop of glass high rises and the blue, snow- capped North Shore Mountains, it spoke to lost landscapes and vanquished cultures. The cedar symbolizes the region’s once-lush coniferous forests. A bear paw at the foot of the stump, carved by First-Nation artist Rick Harry (who also goes by his Aboriginal name, Xwalacktun) is a reminder that Vancouver occupies the unceded traditional territories of Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam First Nations, who inhabited this coastal area for 15,000 years before European ingress.

Bowcott was one of 26 artists whose works were showcased at the 2014–16 Vancouver Biennale. Founded more than a decade ago by former gallery owner Barrie Mowatt, who wanted to bring museum-quality art into public spaces, the biennial attracts major international artists and curators. “We are distinct from other biennials because we have a strong curatorial focus on space and location being critical factors in having art transform and engage neighborhoods and cities,” Mowatt says.

Since the inaugural exhibition in 2005, artists have created controversial, subversive, iconic, and even revolutionary pieces for the largely self-funded biennial, which exhibits new works every two years for a two- year period. It also includes international residencies for younger artists (age 36 and under), as well as an educational program for students from 125 area schools. Another component is the legacy aspect: biennial organizers find philanthropists who will pay the artists for their work, then “gift” that work to the municipality where it has been on display.

“Open Borders/Vancouver Cross- roads,” the 2014–16 edition, included (in addition to Trans Am Totem) show- stoppers like Ai Weiwei’s F Grass, installed at Harbour Green Park. The gothic “F” was made from 1,328 tufts of cast-iron spikes, whose subtle message delivered a subversive punch. By itself, a blade of grass is delicate and fragile, yet a field of grass can be resilient in the most inhospitable environments—a metaphor for the small yet powerful acts of defiance that courageous, but otherwise ordinary, citizens undertake daily in China. For Mowatt, F Grass, which will find a permanent home at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, spoke not only to China’s state- sanctioned human-rights abuses, but also to the elitism of its site in upscale Coal Harbour, which boasts multi- million dollar condos and tony restaurants. F Grass also gives a wink to Vancouver’s famed tolerance for marijuana, which rivals Amsterdam’s celebration of cannabis culture.

In addition to famous artists, the biennial supports emerging artists, many known only inside their home countries. In this installment, senior curator Marcello Dantas of São Paulo introduced a number of dynamic young Latin American artists, bringing them to Vancouver to establish a synergy with the environment before beginning their projects. “I looked for artists who could express this condition of uneasiness, of discomfort
and fragility,” Dantas says, citing the street artist pair OSGEMEOS (Portuguese for “The Twins”) — Gustavo and Otávio Pandolfo, identical twins who paint graffiti murals on buildings. Giants, the São Paulo duo’s contribu- tion, consisted of 69-foot-high, stylized human figures rendered on six huge silos at the Ocean Concrete plant on Granville Island. Such projects, says Dantas, “are social engagement strategies to make the general public aware of the role that art can play in their daily lives.”

Jonathan Borofsky’s Human Structures Vancouver also sparked reflection. The pyramid of steel figures was shown at Vancouver’s Olympic Village, built for the 2010 Winter Games. Big enough and accessible enough for small children to run through, the 24-foot-high Human Structures Vancouver is part of Borofsky’s 10-year odyssey of melding figures, which “emphasizes the idea of humanity connecting together to build our world.” The pixelated forms demonstrate how connectivity is “becoming digitally driven.”

Vancouver has always been known for its rainy, blue-green landscapes of ocean, mountains, and forests. The Vancouver Biennale’s quest to merge art with the outdoor environment makes it, in comparison to many biennials, extraordinarily ambitious in size and scope. As Dantas says, “Vancouver is a great place to explore diversity, creativity, and nature—public art is a great player in this context.”

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