Zombie public art in Victoria

May 28, 2010 at 11:59 pm | In arts, victoria | 9 Comments

A few days ago, Jon Tupper, director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV), published an opinion piece in Victoria’s local paper, Why Victoria deserves great public art. His article took aim at the latest sculpture unleashed on Victoria: a treacly confection in bronze, The Homecoming, which is supposed to commemorate the Canadian Navy.

The piece is installed at Ship’s Point, a prominent spot on the Inner Harbour, where tourists are likely to stumble upon it. The other day I went to see it for myself – didn’t have a camera on me, but the picture used in the local paper gives an idea of what to expect:

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Installed in early May, the statue was apparently a gift from me – and the other “people of Victoria”: it is “our” “gift” to the navy on its 100th birthday. (source)

Not one cloying detail is omitted: the bag at the sailor’s side (whose uniform and physique are both generic yet insistent, as though he’s the maintenance man at the refrigeration plant) is stuffed with thoughtful presents (a teddy bear, etc.); trusty Fido accompanies the child; the sailor’s strong, bare forearms (the left manacled by a wristwatch, a wedding band the size of a small donut emblazoned on that hand’s ring finger) prepare for perpetual embrace; and so on and so forth… It’s not for nothing that they say the devil is in the details.

As Jon Tupper puts it:

The problem I have with this work [The Homecoming] is not only that it is overly sentimental, but that after we look at it once we don’t really have to see it or think about it again because it’s all been done for us. Beyond the sugary subject matter, the handling of the figures would make one question whether today’s artists still have the ability to cast and carve with a high degree of verisimilitude.

It might seem odd to challenge The Homecoming‘s verisimilitude, given its hyper-realism and overt insistence on prescribing the viewer’s emotional response. But take a look at the photo by Bruce Dean (aka Professional Recreationalist on Flickr): Zombie Sailor Comes Home.

Click through on the link and see why that title fits.

Meanwhile, the letters to the editor at the local newspaper have rallied to the work’s defense. People like sentimentality and feel put out that anyone should question that preference. See for example Sentimental art has a key place or The Homecoming evokes deep response.

At least three letters published to date echo Tupper’s critique, however. Norman Gidney (editor of Douglas Magazine) writes An abstract touch would help our art:

…The Homecoming is just too cute and kitschy.

I like the sugar rush of something sentimental occasionally, but as a complete cultural diet, it’s lacking fibre and protein. (source)

And Steve Weatherbe, who published a weekly business newspaper until recently, wrote Navy not well-served by The Homecoming:

Jon Tupper’s piece on public art was great (May 23). At last the silence has been broken about the lamentable piece The Homecoming. He is bang on about its sentimentalism.

We all agree with the feelings it intends to depict, but there isn’t much thought there. That is because Canada, after 60 years of high liberalism, no longer knows what to think about the military, or does know but out of political correctness perhaps is afraid to say. (source)

Ines Hanl and Klaus Kinast, the owners of The Sky is the Limit Design, weigh in to say that Victorians get the art they deserve:

Great cities truly deserve great art — but despite its magnificent natural setting it seems that Victoria just got what most of its people seem to deserve (and crave): Sugary fluff in the form of intellectual cotton candy; the mediocre and the forgettable, both in architecture and in art. (source)

Indeed, our architecture is cut down and back until it “fits in,” meaning it’s bland and boring.

And zombified Disneyland sculpture completes the picture.

9 Comments

  1. The sculpture is sickly as most Victorians opinion of art. The example that is always brought out are the mattresses on Blanshard and Southgate but in my mind that is better art than this.

    Comment by Thomas Guerrero — May 29, 2010 #

  2. If you click through on Steve Weatherbe’s letter, you’ll note he mentions Baden’s Pavilion, Rock and Shell favorably:

    For examples of good art, there are the cenotaph on the legislative grounds and the strange but evocative metal work at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. I mocked it at first, but more and more I like its evocation of classical Greek shields and helmets and the pain and destruction brought by war.

    It’s a work I always thought was internally incoherent, but Weatherbe’s interpretation makes me reconsider. Baden’s other controversial Victoria piece, the “mattresses” you refer to, don’t seem to be kept up/ maintained. The piece looks ratty, or at least the concrete mattresses do. The more corporate-looking sign looks slick. Maybe that’s the point? 😉 A bit of subversive juxtaposition?
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    Whatever the case, The Homecoming is worse than I imagined it could be.

    Comment by Yule — May 29, 2010 #

  3. Over on Facebook, Rob Randall pointed out the uncanny coincidence (?) of how Canada’s (possibly the world’s) worst mural features a teddy bear tucked in a pocket. See p.31 in Will Ferguson’s description in Beauty Tips from Moosejar. lol

    Comment by Yule — May 29, 2010 #

  4. Couldn’t agree more. Between The Homecoming, Terry Fox, the fibreglass Captain Cook, and Millennium Peace, we’re building a substantial collection of sticky public art.

    Since this is what residents seem to want, maybe we should give in, and build the collection even larger. Put gnomes on the Legislature lawn, fill the city with the stuff. Then tourists will come to gawk and laugh at us. But at least they will come ….

    Interesting to read the critiques published in the TC. Norman Gidney wants a little ambiguity, Steve Weatherbe wants an acknowledgment of reality (not just “Realism”). Both might be good requirements to include on a checklist for any public art that Victoria considers in the future.

    Comment by Ross — May 29, 2010 #

  5. Victoria’s problem is that it on the one hand it sees itself as a capital city defined by a cultural history that crossed the pond – conservative traditional values – and on the other hand West Coast, granola and laid back. There’s a funny tug-of-war that goes on all the time and it permeates it seems to me all levels of life. That’s why many of us feel frustration with not only public art but the overall lack of real vision which could make this city a leader in innovative thinking around issues that affect us all.

    At the last count there were something like over 350 practicing artists in Victoria. In many cities that relative proportion of artists would have created some good energy to form for want of a better word communities – sharing studios, space, buildings – just doin’ stuff – highlighting ideas and broadening the term “modern art” because I believe that a lot of people still think of non-representational art as “modern art.” Hello? Please return those Twentieth Century Art books published in 1960 to the library.

    I’m in danger of going way off topic here so I’ll close but I think you get my drift Yule.

    Comment by Christina Mitchell — May 29, 2010 #

  6. Thanks for your comment, Christina. Completely agree about the two polarities that create the “funny tug-of-war” – framing the situation like that explains a lot. You could almost map those polarities politically, too. I’ve come to believe that together they’re keeping innovative, interesting “third options” down, or at least making it very very hard for those third options to develop.

    Comment by Yule — May 30, 2010 #

  7. In Penticton they had a sculpture of a man coming home, carrying a suitcase, but not wearing any pants. It didn’t take long before a late-night censor hacksawed off the naughty bit.

    Some people are afraid of anything a little different — controversy is apparently a sin of some sort. At least this homecoming statue won’t cause any controversy, because boredom isn’t controversial.

    Comment by Daniel — May 31, 2010 #

  8. Oh dear… Really? Hacked it off? Well, maybe whoever did it took the thingy home and …uh, repurposed it? Creative recycling?

    Comment by Yule — May 31, 2010 #

  9. PS: Barry Hobbis had a letter in the T-C as well, Homecoming critics miss the point, where he argues that using “words like ‘lamentable’ and ‘inept’ is insulting and disrespectful and does a disservice to everyone who contributed to the initiative” because the statue conveys “an understanding that the people of Victoria appreciate the members of the navy and other armed forces.”
    .
    Hmm, I have to admit that this is an unusual metric for art appreciation. The work “appreciates” its subject?

    Comment by Yule — May 31, 2010 #

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