Vancouver's unsung post-Olympic public art

Tourists still gawk at Olympic Plaza’s jumbo sparrows, but other works commissioned for the event remain largely undiscovered

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      On this hot August morning, five months after the 2010 Winter Games have left town, Olympic Plaza is a lively place. At one end of the public square, located at the corner of Manitoba Street and Athletes Way, bicyclists in racing stripes psych up for a hard ride. At the other end, in front of the Creekside Community Recreation Centre, a TV crew shifts equipment as the coffee wagon arrives. In between, tourists amble around the plaza, all of them—truly, all of them—stopping to pose for photos in front of Myfanwy MacLeod’s outrageous public artwork, The Birds.

      Each of its two sculptures, naturalistically proportioned but ominously enlarged depictions of male and female English sparrows, stands 5.5 metres high, about the size of a perching pterodactyl—a really cute pterodactyl. Constructed out of painted polystyrene over steel frames, the sculptures startle, amuse, then confound. The effect of their scale, ultimately, is to make us think about the huge consequences of introducing a foreign species into a delicately balanced ecosystem. Launched in late May, the work was commissioned as part of the City of Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program, and speaks to the sustainability theme of the Olympic Village development.

      English sparrows, along with starlings and domestic pigeons, are among the drab but clamorous aliens that have proliferated and prospered in this place at the expense of indigenous species. But who, besides the quirkily conceptual MacLeod, would think to monumentalize them while riffing, too, on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 cult horror movie, The Birds?

      MacLeod’s sculptures are among the more assertive reminders of the various public-art projects associated with the 2010 Winter Games. Still, not all the art created in conjunction with the Olympics was permanent. Neither is the visual-arts legacy of the games entirely monumental—or in any other way conspicuous. Some of it, in fact, is modest and understated, tucked away in unexpected places, awaiting discovery.

      Silent Song, a wall-mounted sculpture by local artists Ruth Beer and Charlotte Wall, occupies a small chapel in Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Vancouver. Created with assistance from Emily Carr University of Art and Design students, it is composed of retired wooden organ parts, left over from the church’s recent restoration and refurbishment. The work was commissioned by the cathedral to coincide with the Winter Games and to enhance a space set aside for peaceful contemplation. Since then, it’s taken on a more permanent presence.

      The soaring verticals of the sculpture’s components, along with deft touches of gold leaf, speak to ecclesiastic music and architecture without being singularly faith-based. Both the space and the artwork appeal to a multidenominational public, including the wide audiences for the musical performances that take place in the cathedral. “Silent Song is intended to evoke remembered or imagined sounds,” says cross-disciplinary artist Beer, in a telephone interview with the Straight. “We see it as a metaphor for many diverse individual voices joined together in musical patterns.”

      The source of Fiona Bowie’s Surface is also hidden away: it’s a live video feed from two submerged cameras, attached to the hull of one of the little Aquabuses that carry foot passengers across False Creek. “I want to bring what is below and out of sight into view,” Bowie says by phone. Live footage of underwater life, including herring, eels, and crustaceans, can be viewed on a TV monitor mounted inside the boat, on large and small screens on Granville Island, and on-line at the Surfacer. “False Creek has definitely been hit by industrialization for over 100 years,” Bowie explains. It’s slowly starting to come back to life, she adds, but is in a vulnerable state. “What we see down there is a reflection of where our oceans are, globally.” From its curious perspective within that murky and often unrevealing body of water, Surface encourages us to connect with a commitment to stewardship.

      Landon Mackenzie’s Vancouver as the Centre of the World is a big, gorgeous, ambitious painting, inspired by the Winter Games, shaped by a formidable visual intelligence, and thrumming with life. Temporarily housed—unsold and uncollected—in a second-floor hallway at Emily Carr University, the multilayered work, expressively depicts an oval-shaped, raspberry-coloured globe floating on a striped ground of dislocated time zones. Alluding to many different forms of historic and contemporary map-making, it focuses us on the geopolitical forces that shape our vision of the world.

      “It’s about the creation of a complex fiction,” Mackenzie recounted in a recent studio conversation with the Straight. Oceans and land forms shift and merge, national boundaries are erased, and cities like Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, and Timbuktu seem to rotate around our hometown. During the first few months of 2010, reproductions of Vancouver as the Centre of the World were displayed at the Canada Line’s Oakridge Station and on ceiling panels in some of its train cars. Mackenzie had hoped that Cultural Olympiad organizers would also print it on the back of transit maps, for Canada Line travelers to take with them. This didn’t happen. “Giving the map to the public was paramount,” she insists. Exasperated, she published 10,000 of them herself—and is still distributing them at public events.

      In the meantime, visitors continue to saunter in the sunlight of Olympic Plaza, smiling into cameras, puzzling over huge sculptures of small birds, and remembering a time when Vancouver was, indeed, the centre of the world.




      Aug 19, 2010 at 12:39pm

      Wow, I didn't think the Straight was capable of publishing something positive concerning the Olympics. Thanks for a good article. Just more proof all the negative whiners were self obsessed.

      Charles D Carroll

      Aug 27, 2010 at 12:25pm

      You call those birds "art"? If this is what culture in Vancouver has come to, then maybe those arts cuts are well merited.

      Andrew Renaux

      Oct 11, 2010 at 8:30pm

      When you look at the message behind the art it gives a lot more meaning. Here is a link from the fabricators, Heavy Industries, on their symbolism and how they were made
      Its pretty intense what goes on to make this type of art.