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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hideous Public Art: Curmudgeons II - Revenge of the Killer Curmudgeons

I had the great pleasure of meeting up with fellow blogger Edward Michael George in Toronto in September. After lunch and a few beers at a cafĂ© on Baldwin Street, we took a critical stroll down University Avenue to look at some of Toronto’s Hideous Public Art - a subject of mutual interest. We were both so moved that we decided to write a joint critique and cross-post it at each of our sites. Part One ("Gumby Goes to Heaven") can be found here. Welcome to Part Two: The Pillars and Gardens of Justice

EMG

The next stop on our stroll was not anticipated, but ended up being—in my opinion—its highlight.

Immediately outside of the Ontario Superior Court (across the street from the U.S. Consulate General) and—as we were traveling south—just past a very thin presence of still-protesting Tamils, Eric and I happened upon what are known as “The Pillars of Justice” and “The McMurtry Gardens of Justice”.

A little background:

The McMurtry Gardens project—named in honour of then-Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, who was on the point of retiring—was conceived of nearly 3 years ago with the purpose of enlivening an otherwise dull block of the downtown with a sculptural garden (comprising around ten pieces,of which the Pillars are the first), contained within just the garden-variety of gardens stretching to Queen Street. The monuments were to depict “justice-related themes”; the garden itself, to borrow poor Michael Bryant's agonizing description, would “forever serve as a reminder that justice bloomed in Ontario under Roy McMurtry … [who] ensured that nothing could stop the growth of justice, human rights, and the rule of law."

Well, as it is now, there’s a little too much of the Gaza Strip about the Gardens—what with their flowerless piles of bleached-out dirt (save for a few weeds), made inaccessible by clumsily erected chain-link fences—and we’re still 9 short of the proposed 10 sculptures. (And that’s 3 years on, in case you’re not remembering. Three years!)

The Gardens wouldn’t be a hundredth so ridiculous were it not for the facts that 1) their commemorative plaque was erected well in advance of the planting of any actual greenery (work that cannot be undertaken any sooner than spring of next year), and 2) the plaque urges us to take this wasteland as our cue for a reflection on the state of our f-ing judicial system.

Nothing can stop the growth of justice, human rights, and the rule of law, eh Mr. Bryant? How about neglecting to sow their seeds?

But, no doubt, this will become a moot point in a year. Or two. Or three.

As for the Pillars … Well, this piece is something like exquisitely awful. The thing is just so banal, so unimaginative, and so aesthetically barren that it seems to me that only silver jump-suited aliens visiting our post-apocalyptic world could be impressed by it. A little primitive did I hear you say, Quaxon 2000? Yes, perhaps. But is it not admirable that this civilization evolved to the point of developing a Public Art Algorithm of which, clearly, this is a product? It puts me in mind of the emblem on our own galactic shield. You know the one: the really big spaceship made-up of 42 smaller spaceships?

This burrito of adolescent pretension is made of steel apparently, but you’d never know from looking at it; somebody had the brilliant idea of painting the thing white so that it looks like huge slabs of foam core. And while the maquette suggested that the Pillars would have a sturdy base of four steps, it only has two—bolted carelessly to a disproportionate (and concrete) third. The consequent impression of flimsiness is so vivid that you’d think a strong gust could toss the whole mess up University, bunking lightly off car-roofs and pedestrians’ heads until it got caught on a staple protruding from a telephone poll … Where it would flap for months until nothing was left of it but a few exhaust-stained tatters.

The body of Oscar Nemon’s work at least gave us the reassurance that Gumby Goes to Heaven was an exception—however glaring—to the sculptor’s rule. The same, alas, cannot be said of this artist, Edwina Sandys. (That’s pronounced “sands” by the way—who is, coincidentally, the granddaughter of Winston Churchill, whose be-bird-shitted likeness, you’ll remember, scowls but a block east of here.) There isn’t enough space here to dedicate to a proper examination of Ms. Sandys’ work; suffice it to say that anyone who thinks they are doing something challenging or original by putting a pair of tits on the crucified Christ and calling the thing “Christa” deserves to be ridiculed to scorn. Ms. Sandys is the very embodiment of social justice activism as psychosis.

By way of introduction to Eric’s analysis, I leave you with this tidbit (from James Rusk of The Globe and Mail--scroll down the thread) regarding the artist’s process:

Ms. Sandys … said she had first thought of modelling a work on the statue of Blind Justice at The Old Bailey in London, but on realizing the concept of blind justice could be misconstrued, chose a different design.

On realizing the concept of blind justice could be misconstrued, she chose a different design.

Inf-ingcredible.

ERIC

Where does one start? There's not much I can add to EMG's observations about the Gardens of Justice except to re-iterate the point that if you're going to put up a monument called Gardens of Justice complete with a helpful plaque explaining the concept to puzzled viewers, you'd better include ... what's the word? ... a garden. The site in its current form just invites mockery. The boulevard down the centre of University Avenue includes some beautifully tended flower beds, but the only one specifically designed to symbolize a civic virtue - and one that has been three years in the making - looks like Berlin after the Russians were through with it in 1945.

I can just imagine some poor sap having some life-altering case adjudicated in the nearby Superior Court building after having mortgaged his meagre possessions to pay the shysters at Dewey, Cheatem & Howe, stepping out during the lunch adjournment to eat a sandwich on University Avenue. He beholds the Gardens of Justice choked with noxious weeds and promptly steps in front of a north-bound bus.

I'm willing to give the project the benefit of the doubt and assume that the Gardens will eventually be in full bloom sometime in the near future (since the wheels of justice do grind slowly), so perhaps I'm being a little harsh. Nevertheless, even if it is ever full of tulips this garden will still be a little cringe-inducing. It's a garden, get it? A "garden of justice!" Get it? Justice "blooms" in Ontario! Get it? They say that a pun is the lowest form of humour - ditto for visual, horticultural puns.

As for the Pillars of Justice - good lord. I assume the structure is meant to mimic the Erechtheum's Porch of the Caryatids on Athen's ancient acropolis. The Erechtheum was Athens' temple to Athena Polias, protectress of the city, and the Athenians built a suitably impressive monument for her. What do we have on University Avenue? A cartoon-like structure which looks more like the temporary set from a low-budget high school production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.

Once again, the patricians responsible for this artwork have included a helpful plaque to explain its symbolism to the bewildered plebes. "We are the pillars of justice", we are told. "The missing pillar invites you to imagine that you are the twelfth juror." Oh - it's interactive! How clever! If I stand in the gap, I can participate in the justice system in all its panoply! Please. EMG and I took turns standing in the place of the missing Pillar of Justice and we both felt like idiots. In fact, EMG felt compelled to grab the ass of caryatid number 11. People walking by looked at us patronizingly like we'd just fallen off the turnip truck from some benighted art-less place east of the Don Valley. "It's a metaphor, you stupid hicks," you could almost hear them saying. "You're not meant to literally be a pillar of justice."















In this case, maybe not. A look at Edwina Sandys' previous commissions reveals a tiresome fascination with juvenile metaphors. Check out The Marriage Bed, in which one learns that marriage can literally be both a bed of roses and a bed of nails. Or how about Woman Free - another sculptural cartoon depicting, well, a free woman. I noticed on her website that the United Nations is one of her main clients. That seems fitting. She seems to produce works of art suited to government committees looking for logos for their PowerPoint presentations. Pillars of Justice fits right in with the rest of her teen-angst oeuvre. The viewer is literally a pillar of justice. Groan.

This woman is the grand-daughter of Winston Churchill? This is another sad example of the decline of once-great families. Commodore Vanderbilt's dynasty degenerated to Anderson Cooper; the Churchill line ends at Edwina Sandys. Churchill once said "success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm". Indeed.

(cross-posted at Edward Michael George)

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