Dida Zende wants to change the world with art

German artist Dida Zende hopes his work will prompt critical discussions of sustainability and social change.

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      Dida Zende has been practically living in a container in the parking lot of the Waldorf Hotel. For three weeks, the German artist went to the L-shaped box—formed by two used shipping containers at a right angle—and worked. He carved two holes in the ceilings for solar panels, scrubbed the outsides, gutted the insides, and painted the structure white. Often with a cigarette between his lips, the mid-career artist moved between activities with an agility and energy that took years off his age. After weeks of work, the social sculpture’s grand opening is tonight (June 2) to coincide with the Fair, a new art event at the Waldorf.

      The project is the latest incarnation of Zende’s FIT (freie internationale tankstelle, or “free international fuelling stations”) series. It’s been seen in Berlin, Copenhagen, Cologne, and Miami. Inspired by artist Joseph Beuys, Zende strives to adhere to the 20th-century icon’s principles of social and accessible art.

      “Politics can’t change the world anymore,” Zende says slowly. “I believe that art is the only thing which can change the world to a better place. Art forces us to think critically, and to not see the world in black and white.”

      The series, which began in 2002, found Zende transforming abandoned gas stations into gallery spaces. Each station is built with recycled materials to promote what he calls “creative sustainability”, which uses art to prompt a discussion about environmental issues and social change.

      The FIT project in Vancouver differs from Zende’s other locations because it’s not a transformed gas station but a container. He couldn’t find an abandoned gas station in the city under preset time constraints. Instead, the container made from abandoned shipping material serves the same purposes.

      Like the other locations, the space will be available to the community for a variety of purposes, from local artists’ exhibits of their work to lectures and workshops. Zende, along with the curators for the project, Malcolm Levy and Kate Armstrong of Revised Projects, will accept email proposals after the opening. The one criterion: the uses have to incorporate a discussion of sustainability and art.

      With FIT, the idea of the gallery space—the white cube—is also challenged. Existing on the street and having its outside painted white with red trim, it becomes the inverse of this white cube.

      “It’s the gallery space inside out,” Zende says. “It’s accessible, on the street. It allows everyone to become aware of his creative potential and his ability to change things.”

      FIT is also the first of a possible eight projects that are coming to Vancouver in the German-based Goethe-Institut’s satellite program. The institute, which has three locations in Canada, developed this two-year initiative for artists and curators to create German-Canadian projects.

      “The satellite is a great way to bring German art to Vancouver, while saving on the expense of renting a permanent gallery space,” says Sonja Griegoschewski, director of the Toronto location.

      Given the lack of resources available to artists, satellite programs can provide a solution to the high cost of gallery spaces. Last October, for instance, Satellite Gallery—a collaboration between Presentation House Gallery, the Museum of Anthropology, and the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery—opened its doors on Seymour Street. With the help of the Michael O’Brian Family Foundation, the three organizations share the space, alternating programming.

      “We’re going to be seeing a lot more of these types of places and solutions,” says Reid Shier, the director and curator of Presentation House Gallery. “It’s unfortunate, but I think we’re going to be seeing less and less of the artist-run space because it’s just not feasible anymore.”

      Although satellite initiatives help address the larger financial problems that beset the arts community, according to Zende, the Goethe-Institut’s program also allows the art to change constantly and be placed in new locations around the city.

      Once his Waldorf installation is completed, Zende won’t miss a beat. He recently found an abandoned gas station in Vancouver, prompting him to return to the city to work after he makes a brief visit back to Berlin in the coming weeks.

      “I’ve been in contact with this station I saw last Sunday,” he says, his energy never ceasing. “So there’s something cooking for a future project.”