Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hideous Public Art - Two Curmudgeons Stroll Down University Avenue

You'll remember that I'm a big fan of the Hideous Public Art series at the blog Diogenes Borealis, yes? Well, I had the very good fortune recently of meeting its author, Eric, and spending an afternoon with him. Half our time was spent hoisting pints on a Baldwin Street patio, the other half guffawing our way down University Avenue (by way of the AGO), taking in the sights there ... Better call them spectacles actually.

A distillation of some of our thoughts and conversation here follows--the first of what will likely be 3 or 4 joint critiques, cross-posted to each of our sites.

Stop 1: The Art Gallery of Ontario.

After having ranted numerous times about Daniel Libeskind’s grotesque addition to the ROM known as “The Crystal”, it was appropriate to take a cursory glance at Frank Gehry’s recent renovation of the AGO. I was prepared to hate it, but it doesn’t provoke a strong reaction in me either way. The old AGO building was nothing to write home about, so the new Dundas Street facade certainly isn’t any worse. It has a certain charm with its expanses of clear glass stretched over a soaring wooden frame, but it reminds me of a transparent beached whale. At least it isn’t yet another iteration of his signature crumpled tin-foil buildings, which are getting a little tiresome. The back of the building (facing Grange Park) is truly ugly; with its massive expanse of blue anodized aluminum cladding and its modern staircases curving down like claws around The Grange. It looks like an alien spacecraft that has landed in Victorian London.

Gehry’s redesign of the AGO is an improvement on the original building right up to the point where it does this dreadful thing you’re seeing done to the poor old Grange. Which is to say, seen from the northeast corner of Dundas and McCaul, it’s really something. Get around the other side, though, and you’re punched in the eyeballs, and beaten relentlessly about the credulity.

I notice that the façade is the same colour as the holograms on the Transformers toys of my boyhood; and no doubt if Eric and I had bothered to look at it from the right angle, we could’ve made out a Decepticon insignia.

So a slight variation on the alien spacecraft theme in my view: not quite suited to the physical demands of interstellar warfare, Capsizedboat-tron awaits the order for his post-colonization duties (something cushy in the Ministry for Space-propaganda, if it’s convenient) set spang in the centre of ever-accommodating Toronto.

Stop 2: Per Ardua ad Astra - Dundas Street & University Avenue

This is probably Toronto’s most famous piece of Hideous Public Art. Known officially as Per Ardua ad Astra (“through adversity to the stars” - the motto of the Royal Canadian Air Force) it was unveiled by none other than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1984 as a memorial to Canadian airmen. It was sculpted by Oscar Nemon (1906 - 1985), a Croatian emigre who settled in England during the war and who is justly famous for his portrait sculptures of luminaries like Sigmund Freud and Winston Churchill. Per Ardua ad Astra was his last work.

Per Ardua was very controversial when it was installed. Paid for by philanthropist and art patron Hal Jackman, the former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, it attracted criticism for being “politically motivated” and for being installed without consulting the Toronto arts community. At the time the Globe and Mail called it "vapid," "ghastly" and a "mediocre sculptural doodad" and art dealer Av Isaacs organized a protest against it. Nemon himself, when he saw that the city had placed his work on a plinth against his express wishes, reportedly said that they had made it look like “a tulip in a box” (as opposed to just a tulip, I suppose). Shortly after it was installed, vandals spray-painted the words “Gumby goes to Heaven” on the plinth and it’s been called that by Toronto residents ever since. The Great Canadian Book of Lists puts it at number six on its list of “Ten Controversial Moments in Canadian Art”.

Well, who am I to argue with the arts critic at the Globe and Mail? This thing really is a mediocre sculptural doodad. Prominently positioned in the middle of a major intersection on Toronto’s most ceremonial boulevard, it looks really out of place like it should be in a playground instead. I can imagine it installed in an amusement park somewhere with water spouting out of its hands. Its childish appearance is all the more startling when one realizes that it is in fact a memorial to Canadian airmen who fought and died in combat (including seven Victoria Cross winners). I can imagine the look on the Queen’s face when she pulled the shroud off this thing at the unveiling.

I just can’t understand the iconography of this sculpture. Is Gumby releasing a Dove of Peace? Perhaps warding off the Eagle of Fascism? Maybe just shooing away the Shitting Seagull of Lake Ontario? As art it’s just ridiculous, but as a war memorial it’s insulting.

I was surprised to discover that the sculptor, Oscar Nemon, is also responsible for the Winston Churchills to be found next Nathan Phillip’s Square here in Toronto, and outside of the Halifax Public Library. (No doubt there are others as well.) I’ve always rather liked these monuments—in spite, that is, of the effect the pebble-grained body has on the unstylized head, i.e. emphasis of the loads of birdshit on Winnie's face as compared with the body, where the stuff is effectively disguised in relief. And, indeed, there is much that is admirable about the corpus of Mr. Nemon’s work. But the Canadian Airman’s Memorial (aka Per Ardua Ad Astra, aka Gumby Goes to Heaven ) really is awful.

(And if I can just note: while I sympathize wholeheartedly with the mockery intended by the nickname, it strikes me as being a little inadequate. I get more a feeling of: Gumby’s Had Way Too Much To Drink, And Is Way Too Excited That A Village People Record’s Been Put On. For which, apparently, gay Gumby is about to get squashed by a homophobic anvil.)

It goes without saying that this bronze and marble piece is conspicuously ugly/trite, but, like Eric, what annoys me most about it is the confusion of its visual metaphors:

Here we have the figure, stretched impossibly to the heavens—its oversized hands palm-upwards and outwards, implying both the skyward aspiration and the hands’ transformation into wings—but then, for some reason, we’ve got an eagle, and an incongruously proportionate one, atop all that. I mean, if we are trying to describe man’s growth through technological progress (as per the former RCAF—the institution here being commemorated) then why go any further than the gumbification-and-wingy-hands theme? Or, if it’s the idea of man harnessing the power of flight, why not just have some regular sized dude dangling from the bird?

And don’t forget the memorial’s motto/title: through adversity to the stars. The stars! Yet another dimension of metaphorical convolution! Wouldn’t it have been at least a little less muddled if Gumby were reaching for a star, then? (Though, yes, that would be rather too Soviet, wouldn’t it?)

The thing’s just a mess.

(cross-posted at Diogenes Borealis)