Culture Days reached out to Community Reporters across Canada to submit articles to culture365 about their experience during the Culture Days weekend that took place from September 26 to 28. The reporters were asked to describe their observations of Culture Days activities they attended in their communities and the impact they had on the artists, public participating and their community. Below is a report by Carolyn B. Heller from Vancouver, British Colombia. Click here for more community reports.
If you’ve ever looked at a contemporary art piece, you’ve probably had this feeling:
What is that?
I don’t get it.
I’ve certainly felt that way, so I was relieved when Vancouver visual artist Krista Bailie said, “You’re not alone.”
As part of Vancouver’s 2014 Culture Days weekend, I had decided to learn something about art. Figuring that I should start with the basics, my first stop was the Vancouver Public Library, where Bailie was teaching a workshop aptly titled, “I Don’t Get It: A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Art.”
5 Steps to Understanding Art
Many people feel that “they don’t know enough” to understand contemporary artworks, Bailie said, so we walk away from pieces that puzzle us. She suggested that we fight that impulse and “plan to be there with the work.” Don’t give up until you’ve spent at least 10 minutes observing and thinking about the art.
But since we might otherwise just stand in front of a piece feeling lost, Bailie offered five questions to consider when we’re trying to puzzle out what an artwork might mean:
- What are you looking at?
- How do you feel?
- What does it make you think of?
- What other information is offered?
- Where is it placed?
Start with the basics, she said. Is it a sculpture, painting, or art installation? Does it have sound or smell? Look for “an entry point” – do you think there’s a narrative or story behind the piece? Where do you think the ideas could have come from?
Then, examine your own feelings about the work. “Does the work draw you closer or push you away?” Bailie asked. Does it make you feel cheerful? Irritated? Creepy? Think about why. Notice the colors or shapes and how they might affect your feelings. Some work is designed to challenge the viewer or provoke strong reactions.
Consider what the work makes you think about, Bailie suggested, and draw on your own experience. Is there something in the work that makes you think of your childhood or family? Some other experience you’ve had? If you can make a small personal connection to the piece, ask, “Can you draw a more universal conclusion from your personal reaction?”
It’s OK to ask questions about the work, too. Start with the name of the piece. Does it give you a clue about its meaning or the artist’s intention? Find out where the artist is from, since the work may include cultural or political references. Is there a write-up or description about the piece that tells you more?
Does its placement in the gallery give you any other clues? “Shows aren’t arbitrarily thrown together,” Bailie said, so you should investigate why one piece might be next to another. Is it by the same artist? By a different artist using similar materials or considering a similar theme?
“You can always pull out your phone or ask somebody,” Bailie said, “but it’s good to consider your own experience. Make bad guesses if you have to.” What’s most important, she said, is to think about the work, rather than to find the “answer.”
“Go and explore,” Bailie counseled us, telling us that Vancouver has an active visual art scene. “Go out and see the work that’s being made.”
A Downtown Public Art Tour
Keeping Bailie’s advice in mind – and to test out her suggestions for viewing art – I continued my Culture Days adventures with the Public Art Guided Tour: City Centre, an hour-long downtown walk, with stops at more than 15 public art pieces.
With a Culture Days balloon attached to her backpack, guide Emilie Crewe met our group on Georgia Street and told us that Vancouver has an active public art program, consisting of several hundred pieces, some temporary and others permanently installed around the city.
Crewe herself is an artist who produced a video – about the repatriation of a 100-year-old First Nations blanket – that was recently featured in a public art installation for Vancouver’s “Year of Reconciliation.”
Compared to other forms of art, public art is often designed to be more “accessible,” Crewe said, as we set off along the crowded sidewalks and stopped in front of a life-sized bronze bull. The owner of the adjacent building purchased the work, Royal Sweet Diamond, by Joe Fafard, simply “for the enjoyment of the people of British Columbia and visitors” as the plaque next to the animal explains.
Other public art has more political messages, Crewe noted, outside the Del Mar Inn on Homer Street. A line of text across the building’s façade is an art installation, Unlimited Growth Increases The Divide, she told us, that artist Kathryn Walter created in 1990 as a statement about development and economic class distinctions in the downtown area.
It’s easy to walk past works like Unlimited Growth, as I’ve done many times, without realizing that they were “art,” but I’ve certainly noticed The Words Don’t Fit the Picture, Ron Terada’s illuminated sign in front of the Vancouver Public Library. I never knew, though, until Crewe explained, that the piece refers in part to “Vancouver’s history as the neon capital of the world.”
When we reached Robson Square and artist Michael Banwell’s brightly colored sculpture called Primary No. 9, Crewe observed that public art is designed to engage and interact with the public. As if to illustrate her point, a young man was using the sloping side of the artwork as a kind of lounge chair, leaning against it as he talked on his phone.
In front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, we stopped next to an artwork that asks viewers to interact with it more actively: Douglas Coupland’s Gumhead. The artist created a seven-foot-tall likeness of his own head and invited passersby to decorate it with their chewed-up gum. Although Crewe explained that Gumhead is technically not “public art” (it was installed as part of the gallery’s recent Coupland exhibition), the artist’s piece would be very different without viewers’ participation.
On this quick tour through downtown, I wasn’t able to follow Bailie’s advice to take time with each piece, but we did “go and explore” on this entertaining introduction to the many public artworks in the city center.
Art By Bike
The following day, I set off to see more public art at an event organized by the Vancouver Biennale. This non-profit organization is in the midst of a 2014-2016 exhibition called “Open Borders / Crossroads Vancouver,” in which artists from around the world are installing art pieces in and around Vancouver. Their Culture Days event, dubbed the BIKEnnale, was a self-guided cycling tour of the exhibition, including both newly installed works and “legacy” pieces that remained from prior Biennale events.
The BIKEnnale tour started near English Bay in front of an artwork that has become a wildly popular attraction. Originally installed during the 2009-11 Biennale, A-maze-ing Laughter, by Chinese artist Yue Minjun, includes 14 larger-than-life-size bronze figures, their oversized faces fixed in equally oversized grins.
I was surprised to learn, from a Biennale staff member talking with visitors about the work, that the grinning sculptures have an underlying ironic meaning. The artist has said that his smiling faces, modeled on his own visage, actually mask suffering and misery in post-Tiananmen Square China. I know that I’ll look at these grinning sculptures a little differently from now on.
Pedaling along the Seawall, past Dennis Oppenheim’s Engagement – the colossal twin engagement rings overlooking English Bay, which are another Biennale legacy – I met Ammar Mahimwalla, project coordinator for the Biennale, who was waiting for visitors opposite another installation.
Created by Brazilian twin brothers who work as OSGEMEOS, Giants is a vibrantly colored, 75-foot-tall mural painted on six concrete silos across False Creek on Granville Island. Mahimwalla told me that the brothers took a month to paint their “graffiti-style” work. They use a special aerosol paint that’s produced in Barcelona and had to be shipped to Vancouver by sea!
Biking on to the Olympic Village, I came to the vividly-hued Human Structures Vancouver, by Jonathan Borofsky. I decided to I wrap up my tour by thinking about Bailie’s five questions:
What am I looking at? A colorful steel work made of interconnected human figures.
What does it make me think of? A brightly painted climbing structure (though a posted warning cautions visitors not to climb).
What other information is available? The Biennale’s information sign tells me that the artist “seeks to convey the feeling that everything is connected.”
Where is it placed? It’s facing the downtown skyline, which makes it seem almost like a human skyscraper.
How does it make me feel? Hmm, I’d have to say “hopeful.”
Perhaps I still don’t get it, but thanks to Culture Days, I’ve had a chance to look at a lot of art around the city. And now I have some questions to ask, too.
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