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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


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

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Hideous Public Art: the Ottawa Stainless Steel Edition

It's been a long time since I've written about hideous public art, let alone mined the rich vein of hideousness to be found in the nation's capital, but a weekend in Ottawa has inspired me to take up the keyboard once again. Ottawa is often a city of great beauty, but these two sculptural monstrosities executed in industrial stainless steel effortlessly blight the landscape around them in a uniquely Canadian way.

The first work is located in front of Minto Place, a modern office development at the southwest corner of Slater and Kent Streets. Titled Northshore, it is the work of Canadian artist Noel Harding.





















Admittedly the site, a bleak concrete pedestrian plaza in front of the tower, is an unlovely place, but this sculpture makes it even uglier. When I first glimpsed it I thought "Who put the giant teapot on the sidewalk?" On closer examination, it became clear that it was some kind of post-modern statement, since there was a slowly revolving Christmas tree stuck in the top and some dead vegetation poking out the spout.





















Sadly, there was no helpful plaque on the plinth to explain the symbolism to perplexed passers-by, so I was left to my own devices. I figured that this being Ottawa, it had to have some political message; perhaps the dented teapot shape was meant to symbolize our throw-away consumer culture and the Christmas tree was a comment on the shallowness of our secular lives.

Fortunately the truth is only a Google search away:
landLAB and artist Noel Harding were selected as the winning team for a public art commission at 180 Kent Street in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada for the private developer Minto. The work, as titled, points outside itself – being a city mind dreaming of the woods. The silhouettes of plantings imagine, identify, and celebrate a symbolic character of the Canadian Wilderness that resonates in a quintessential relation as if holding the reality of Tom Thompson’s “The Jack Pine.” Plant material becomes more than simply landscape as they pay homage to nature itself; celebrated within a grand vessel. Reflective steel becomes the giant trunk of a fallen tree with an extruded branch, renewal in the reality of living trees and grasses protruding – turning (1RPM) in the physical illustration of time. NORTHSHORE is a confirming statement. The meanings are rich in evolution and layering yet succinct and pointed in symbol.
Oh, well I see it now that you mention it. However, the "living trees and grasses protruding" from the spout have dried up and died in the blast-furnace heat of the concrete plaza, and I fear the revolving Christmas tree isn't far behind. The theme of renewal and "dreaming of the woods" is a tough sell here, but that must be all part of that rich layering thing.

There is one pleasing aspect of the sculpture - it's shiny convoluted surface distorts images like a funhouse mirror, so at least there's some minor entertainment value to walking past it on the sidewalk.





















While I was in Ottawa I took in the exhibit of paintings by the 16th Century Italian artist Caravaggio and his contemporaries which is on this summer at the National Gallery of Canada. After spending a few hours immersed in the lush paintings of the Roman Renaissance, we took advantage of the beautiful weather and took a walk around the grounds of the gallery. On the Nepean Point side we were confronted by this monumental piece of stainless steel jutting a hundred feet into the air:





















This work, by American artist Roxy Paine, is titled One Hundred Foot Line, and it juts out of the park at Nepean Point like a piece of wreckage left behind by an F5 tornado. It is truly gigantic, and it sticks out like an Axis of Ugliness smack dab in the middle of one of the most scenic spots in the city. Here's a shot with Parliament Hill in the background:





















Here's another from Parliament Hill itself, looking across the Rideau Canal with the Ottawa River in the background:





















To truly appreciate its visual assault, you have to stand close to it. The bright sunlight glares off its polished surface and makes it impossible to ignore:





















What to make of this work? It looks like a jagged lightning strike or a gargantuan inverted icicle. Its installation in this location seems to me a deliberate thumbing of the nose at the philistines who built the Parliamentary precinct in their beloved Gothic Revival style and the nearby Chateau Laurier Hotel like an oh-so-quaint Loire Valley castle. The unwashed masses would recoil at the idea of razing these cutesy relics of colonial oppression, so why not put a brutal 100 ft high piece of jagged stainless steel right beside the statue of Champlain on Nepean Point so it's visible to all the tourists visiting these corny buildings?

The National Gallery helpfully explains this sculpture to the perplexed:
A monumental new sculpture now graces one of Ottawa’s most picturesque skylines, thanks to a new acquisition by the National Gallery of Canada. At 30.5 metres high, One Hundred Foot Line by critically-acclaimed contemporary artist Roxy Paine is his most ambitious sculpture to date in terms of upward scale. Overlooking the Ottawa River from Nepean Point, One Hundred Foot Line beautifully references Canada’s capital and its proximity to nature as well of industry in this region.

One Hundred Foot Line is from a series of tree sculptures called Dendroids that has earned American artist Roxy Paine significant international acclaim in recent years. Made from unyielding, stainless steel pipes used in manufacturing and heavy industry, One Hundred Foot Line is a masterful example of Paine’s intense fascination with trees and his technical ability to create sublime structures from industrial materials. For him, the Dendroids represent an attempt to observe trees as a language governed by rules and structures and reflect his thoughts on human encroachment on the environment.

The sculpture presents a meandering tree trunk that has lost not only its leaves but all of its branches. The tallest of Paine’s Dendroids to date, the work welds together dozens of stainless steel cylinders into a seamless whole. The National Gallery’s sculpture distinguishes itself from others in this series through its uniform shimmer which displays a calmly discerning monumentality. As a glossy line extending steadfastly upward, Paine’s latest offering is a bold statement on the relationship between nature and the “man made” in our contemporary world.
Oh bullshit. It "beautifully references Canada’s capital and its proximity to nature"? It "displays a calmly discerning monumentality"? How about this - it's an act of artistic vandalism that was installed to deliberately mar the landscape of one of the most beautiful spots in Canada. One only hopes it gets struck by lightning fairly soon. That would indeed be a "bold statement on the relationship between nature and the man made in our contemporary world"

6 comments:

eliza said...

It looks exactly like a giant dried bulls penis.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I saw that coffeepot sculpture last month, and my first thought was some vandal had put in the christmas tree as a lark, and nobody in charge cared enough to pull it out.
I see now what a rube I am, not to appreciate artistic refinement when it slaps me in the face.

Whatever happened to the twisted-intestine-school of modern public-space-art? You can see examples littered all over the place.

And before I log off, take a look at that stained-glass thingy over in Hull on I think Sacre-Coer. Yikes.

JohnnyD

OddSox said...

Makes thee giant spider in front of the National Gallery look positively intellectual!

Naamloos said...

This is unrelated to your post, but I added your blog to my blog roll.

On a more related note, I enjoyed reading this post. The explanations of those sculptures do not help me understand the sculptures at all.

Anonymous said...

Just across the river in gatineau, there is another bizarre modern piece you might want to look at. Just up teh street from the museum of civilization, in front of place du portage, is a giant white sculpture. Looks kinda liek a heart, kinda like a bum, and signifies nada.

Madman2001 said...

Your insightful prose sizzles, Eric. Keep up the commentary.