Skip to Main Content
Public Art in Canada

Public Art in Canada: Critical Perspectives

Annie Gérin
James S. McLean
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 336
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Public Art in Canada
    Book Description:

    The rigorous essays and original works of art collected in this volume present a compelling demonstration of the strategies, aesthetic and otherwise, used by artists to elicit intellectual, sensual, or emotional responses that can only be obtained through artistic practices in public places.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-9752-2
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Introduction: Off Base
    (pp. 3-22)

    During excavation of Montreal’s Notre-Dame Street in the summer of 1834, workers preparing to put down water pipes made an unexpected discovery. In a long-forgotten civic drinking well lay the slightly bruised head of a finely sculpted marble bust. The severed head of King George III had once belonged to what was likely Montreal’s first public monument, erected on the nearby Place d’Armes roughly sixty years before its recovery.

    The bust, a symbol of the might of the British Empire, had originally been shipped to Montreal in 1766, less than three years after Canada had come under British rule. It...

  6. Part 1: The State and the Negotiation of Taste

    • [PART 1: Introduction]
      (pp. 23-24)

      Public art in Canada (at least the imported European variety) predates by a good measure the Victorian cobbling together of the vast territories that wouldbecomeCanada. Our colonial administrators, after all, knew the value of a good monument to the sovereign. Yet there are conditions of genesis in the political construction of this nation state that speak to a great deal more than the much-vaunted federation with its orderly division of powers. We tend to forget that Canada was once a very new idea, caught up in its own enthusiasm for the possibilities of building a civilized future among...

    • 1 The Wrong Commemoration: Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith’s Paintings of the State Funeral of Sir John Thompson
      (pp. 25-44)

      Canadians might be intrigued to discover that they have been living for more than a century with a significant mystery involving some very large missing paintings. We know from newspaper accounts that three monumental canvasses were painted to commemorate the passing of Prime Minister Sir John Thompson. Here is a quote from an article published in theHalifax Heraldin January 1895: ‘Mr. Bell is preparing for a historical painting of the state funeral. It will be in three panels and be about 25 feet long. The painting is intended for the National Gallery at Ottawa.’¹

      We also know that...

    • 2 A Drive through Canadian History: People, Cars, and Public Art at Niagara Falls in the 1930s
      (pp. 45-64)

      Historically, public art is invested with memorial intent. In Canada, the examples from the late nineteenth century (there are few from before) and the early twentieth century mainly consist of statues of male politicians and of Queen Victoria staring sternly down from granite pedestals on Parliament Hill, around provincial legislatures, or in city parks and squares. These statues were consistent with public monuments erected at the same time in the United States, Europe, and the far-flung reaches of the British Empire and they represented the leaders of society. The people who looked up to view them were the led.


    • 3 Camouflage Series
      (pp. 65-74)

      The Camouflage Series is an ongoing ‘performative photography’ project initiated in 2004. So far it has taken place in Montreal, Helsinki, Saint John, Winnipeg, Detroit, Ottawa, and Toronto. At each chosen site, I integrate my body into a major public artwork by wearing common materials chosen to match the colour and texture of the work. These have included aluminum foil, garbage bags, and packing tape. The final artwork consists of a diptych: a full-body photograph of myself in costume together with a photograph of myself integrated into the monument or sculpture.

      Although my attempts at integration are inherently flawed (I...

    • 4 Public Art and Canadian Cultural Policy: The Airports
      (pp. 75-94)

      Eager to abandon its antiquated and often embarrassing facilities, the Canadian Department of Transport (DOT) began planning in 1952 for a system of sleek, up-to-date airport terminals to be built across the country.² Smaller terminals in the system were designed by DOT, while major terminals were contracted to architectural firms. The first new major terminal was constructed at Gander in 1958 because of the high volume of trans-Atlantic flights handled by the airport.³ This was followed by terminals in Halifax, Montreal, and Ottawa in 1961; Toronto, Winnipeg, and Edmonton in 1964 (arguably the high point of the program); and Vancouver...

  7. Part 2: Memory, Politics, and Controversies

    • [PART 2: Introduction]
      (pp. 95-96)

      If the bricks and mortar of the great modernist public-works projects were meant to reify a symbolic reality, as a touchstone of how we might think about ourselves, they did so while whistling past the graveyard of thewein question. Theweof Northrop Frye’s ‘garrison mentality’ may well have gained solace from the anchoring of common concern in public art and public places that, at last, attempted to put the riddle of the ‘Where is here?’ to the question of ‘Who am I?’¹ But thenousof Paul-Émile Borduas, thepetit peuplehe challenged to awaken inRefus...

    • 5 I nostri grandi Padri … Heroic Nationalism and the Italians of Montreal: The Monument to Giovanni Caboto, 1935
      (pp. 97-114)

      On Saturday, 25 May 1935, a bronze statue of the explorer John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) was unveiled in Montreal at the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Atwater streets in a small park directly across from the hockey arena known as the Forum. Typical of such inaugural ceremonies, the atmosphere was both festive and formal. The fanfare included marching bands, parading cadets, banners, children waving flags, and dignitaries in silk ties and morning coats. Guests included delegates of several countries, federal and provincial representatives, municipal leaders, local businessmen, clergy, and a large number of the city’s Italian community which numbered about 25,000....

    • 6 What’s the Point?
      (pp. 115-124)

      When I began making photographs in the late 1970s I was influenced by American photographer Edward Curtis andThe North American Indian,his photographic study of Indian people. I was captivated by the powerful people he met and photographed, but was also intrigued by what Curtis had apparently not considered: how his subjects would have photographed themselves. I could also imagine how odd it would have been, back in the early twentieth century, for white people to see an Indian using a camera to photograph their world and then actually photographing their world from their perspective.

      So when I first...

    • 7 Mémoire ardente by Gilbert Boyer, or When Politics Penetrates Contemporary Art
      (pp. 125-144)

      The culture of debate that has grown up around contemporary art, especially since the 1980s, remains concerned mostly with matters of ontology. However, there is an increasing sense that such debates may also be used to judge the public response to objects that often fall outside the recognizable limits of traditional genres, media, or styles. By analysing the arguments used in recent controversies about art it is possible to shed new light on what Nathalie Heinich has called the ‘quarrel centred on contemporary art,’² a ‘quarrel’ that enables us to better identifywhatit is that we criticize about works...

    • 8 Edmonton’s City Hall as Visual Archive and Collector of Memory
      (pp. 145-162)
      C.S. OGDEN

      The demolition and reconstruction of a public urban space can provoke a multitude of changes in the relationship between an urban community and its public space. When the public space is something as crucial to the community as a city hall, can the alteration of this space redefine the urban community itself? This is the central question that arises from a particular case study: the demolition and rebuilding of Edmonton City Hall in the early 1990s, an act that also involved the reconfiguration of the public art around the new structure.²

      Pierre Nora’s work with the concept of thelieu...

  8. Part 3: Activist Practices in Public Art Today

    • [PART 3: Introduction]
      (pp. 163-164)

      Public art in Canada has emerged as a conceptual terrain coeval with the gradual revelation that this nation state is as richly complex, as vast in the generosity of its most helpful contradictions, as the territory it occupies. Activist public art in Canada, as elsewhere, faces the challenge to expose those contradictions, to uncover the injustices that inevitably pepper the status quo. But in Canada such art must also somehow deal with a self-affirmed public character, aCanadiancharacter, which is mostly generous, helpful, and (with some notable exceptions) willing to address the most blatant questions of inequality and unfairness....

    • 9 Cultural Interventions in the Public Sphere
      (pp. 165-182)

      In a famous pamphlet published almost a century ago, V.I. Lenin outlined several problems within the social democracy and labour movements in pre-Revolutionary Russia, arguing strenuously for the institution of an all-Russian political newspaper. In so doing, he affirmed the signal role of the media – writers, artists, designers, photographers, as well as the bourgeois intelligentsia – in fomenting revolutionary activity on the part of the masses. Lenin also discussed problems of organization within the social democracy movement, forms of struggle and political agitation that today we could regard in terms of patterns of resistance, action, and intervention in the public sphere....

    • 10 Queering the Streets: Johannes Zits and Contemporary Public Art as Activism
      (pp. 183-200)

      The desire to engage audiences other than the usual gallery-going crowd leads many artists to a conscious decision to adopt alternative approaches to how and where their art will be accessed and viewed. As argued by Bruce Barber, Rebecca Burke, and Kathleen Irwin in other chapters of this book, this often leads them to work in places that do not support the widest dissemination of their vision, but with the trade-off that engagement between art object and audience can occur anywhere as long as there is an audience. Public art of this sort is often social and political in intent...

    • 11 Exhibiting Madness in The Weyburn Project: Situating Performance/Installation in an Abandoned Mental Asylum
      (pp. 201-222)

      This cryptic observation by Richard Serra points to the centrality of the work of art to its specific location and also offers a key definition for site-specificity. Here Serra comments on a hybrid art form that crosses sculpture and installation practices. Nonetheless, his observation provides a suitable point of departure for this paper, which focuses on a large-scale, multidisciplinary, site-specific, community-based event entitledThe Weyburn Project. This examination takes place specifically in relation to various conceptual and experiential contexts, and demonstrates how this complex genre offers a range of challenges to institutional, historical, and conceptual assumptions in art, theatre performance,...

    • 12 Model for a Public Space
      (pp. 223-228)

      Model for a Public Spacegrew out of my participation in 1996 in a collective agit-prop project by the October Group, which had put together an architectural response to Ontario’s ‘common sense revolution.’ The new Conservative government of the time had destabilized the province’s social infrastructure by slashing welfare premiums, suspending the construction of publicly funded housing, passing laws to police homelessness and panhandling, eliminating many creative programs in schools, and cutting funding for community centres.

      Widely criticized at the time of their introduction, the effects of these changes have become more and more evident over the past decade. Toronto...

    • 13 Dark Forces at Mount Allison University
      (pp. 229-246)

      In 1947 Mount Allison University commissioned a young faculty member in the Department of Fine Arts to paint a mural depicting the history of the university. His name was Alex Colville.

      Colville’s painting,The History of Mount Allison, was installed in Tweedie Hall, a common room in a men’s residence. Tweedie was to become the location for a series of panel discussions and public debates on topics such as atomic power, attracting industrial capital to the Maritimes, and trends in the fine arts in Canada. These debates were broadcast on a number of regional radio stations and in one instance...

  9. Part 4: Contemporary Perspectives on Public Art

    • [PART 4: Introduction]
      (pp. 247-248)

      In a very practical sense, the overarching theme of this book, its key question, has been ‘Where do we go from here?’ Clearly, public art in Canada has both embraced this question and played a significant part in framing a conceptual map, a guide to help us through the rich minefield of wondrous possibilities that arises from making such open-ended queries. Yet there is another side to the practice of public art in Canada, one that seeks to gently expose and explore the parts of us that are most human, to engage and celebrate them and record their trace in...

    • 14 Emerging Urban Aesthetics in Public Art: The Thresholds of Proximity
      (pp. 249-264)

      This essay explores a number of public art practices that intervene directly in the experience of urbanity. It also seeks to examine the convergence of certain reflections that are elaborated in theoretical fields which investigate art and urban structures from different perspectives. It looks beyond the material dimension of the city and into a form of sociability, a manner in which users of the city are brought together and sustained by a system of values and associated representations.² This exploration of urbanity is framed by the notion of mobility, a competence fully developed by city dwellers, and a spatial behaviour...

    • 15 Window (Dis)Plays: Reality Shopping
      (pp. 265-270)

      Window (Dis)Playsis a time-based video public performance projected onto the exterior window displays of a downtown department store. The initial phase of the performance is generated by the activities of shoppers captured by surveillance cameras located throughout the store. This information is stored in a large database, uncut and uncensored. In the evening, after closing hours, the computer randomly selects video files which are then projected onto the windows and (dis)played for public viewing. A visual archive of the store’s commercial activities then becomes a spectacle for public consumption. The projection runs throughout the evening.

      In major department stores,...

    • 16 Framing Temporality: Montreal Graffiti in Photography
      (pp. 271-292)

      A graffito is a presence inscribed into a public place, a graphic witness to an event, and a trace of an expressive gesture. It is most often a visual shout, rarely a whisper or a matter-of-fact testimonial. It is there to be noticed. The missive may be addressed to a particular audience, but it is also greedy for the attention of a chance viewer. This loud assertion of a personal voice against the rules of the public place needs the materiality of the urban wall to assert its visibility. This visibility is sustained once the graffito is captured in a...

    • 17 Stardance
      (pp. 293-302)

      My work of the last seven years is about beauty, control dynamics, and representing the nearly invisible structures of the universe with models that magnify these structures and render them visible to the human eye. WithStardance,I have attempted to expose the unfathomable by musing on these concerns and urging the viewer to look up towards that most public of all spaces: the night sky.

      Mapping the stars is an ancient practice that attempts to order nature. It delivers its own contingencies of (un)predictability and (im)perfection. ForStardance,I took two-dimensional diagrams of the star group Canopus from star...

    • 18 The Public Part of Public Art: Technology and the Art of Public Communication
      (pp. 303-318)

      In a place and time where computer networks lubricate dreams of global conversations and tease us with the possibilities of new economies and new expressions of political emancipation wrought from the miracle of instant global communication, it may be quaint and eccentric to propose stepping into the shoes of Edgar Allen Poe or, rather, into the shoes of a character he invented more than a century-and-a-half ago. But Poe’s protagonist – the central figure in ‘The Man of the Crowd’ – is more than just a character in a famous short story.¹

      He enlivens a vision of London in the 1840s that...

  10. Works Cited
    (pp. 319-332)
  11. Contributors
    (pp. 333-338)
  12. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 339-340)