Urban living: A runaway lamppost, a giant wavy rabbit

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Public art that resonates with people gives a city life. Consider “Cloud Gate” in Chicago’s Millennium Park — or “The Bean,” as the artist Anish Kapoor’s shiny sculpture is cutely called.

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Composed of 168 reflective steel plates, the giant legume-shaped work is a popular selfie spot.

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In fact, The Bean is the most visited attraction in the Midwest, drawing five million people a year. In 2017, it was the top tourist destination in Chicago and was placed among the top 10 places to visit in the United States.

The Bean’s presence has created the Millennium Park effect, as Mark McClelland, co-founder of Australia’s Cultural Capital and a sculptor himself, writes in his blog at mcclellandstudio.com: “In the short time since the park was built, it is estimated that 10 billion dollars’ worth of real estate development has taken place in … close proximity to the park that capitalize(s) on the enhanced views and amenity it creates.”

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“Droplet” by Studio Kimiis covers a pavilion at ArtWalk.
“Droplet” by Studio Kimiis covers a pavilion at ArtWalk. Photo by Photo courtesy of Concord Adex

In short, having a view of The Bean is not unlike seeing the Eiffel Tower out your window. Can that sort of cachet attach itself to public art project at a condo in Toronto?

It can certainly give the condo landmark status: think “Safe Hands,” the 88-foot steel sculpture by industrial designer Ron Arad that climbs the exterior of Great Gulf’s One Bloor; or Zhang Huan’s “Rising,” the tangle of birds ominously skirting up Living Shangri-La on University just south of Richmond.

“Jax,” a colourful installation by the artist Pierre Poussin, is an homage to the old-fashioned children’s game.
“Jax,” a colourful installation by the artist Pierre Poussin, is an homage to the old-fashioned children’s game. Photo by Photo courtesy of Concord Adex

Concord’s CityPlace another site rife with public art installations. Douglas Coupland’s “The Red Canoe,” at Canoe Landing Park, overlooks the Gardiner Expressway west of Spadina. It has been such a hit that people climb inside it, presumably to watch traffic.

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Behind the Concord builds is Karen Mills. The art curator and public art consultant for Concord Adex has spent five decades in the art world, the past 23 with Concord. She also notes the success of Coupland’s “Bobber Plaza” at CityPlace.

“You’ve got these giant fishing floats and water fountains that burble,” says Mills, who was also the liaison for Kapoor’s first piece in Toronto, in 1995, “The Mountain” at Simcoe Place. “When you watch kids and dogs run through Bobber Plaza it’s hysterical.”

Public art doesn’t have to be esoteric, says Mills. She gestures to the assembly of works at ArtWalk. The program will help launch Concord’s Park Place, a 45-acre master-planned community coming to North York. There will be 20 residential towers in the project, along with the largest critical mass of public art of its kind in Ontario.

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More than 20 pieces are currently on show. ArtWalk participants can meander a pebbled path — it takes about 20 minutes or so — soaking in art along the way. There are explanatory placards with each artwork, along with QR codes that let users explore them further via a treasure-map-style app called Eventzee.

“It’s as if a chunk of the highway had been lifted and curled like licorice to create this,” says Concord Adex art curator Karen Mills of “Highway Rabbit by Inges Idee.
“It’s as if a chunk of the highway had been lifted and curled like licorice to create this,” says Concord Adex art curator Karen Mills of “Highway Rabbit by Inges Idee. Photo by Photo courtesy of Concord Adex

“We’ve done short documentaries just like in a museum to explain everything,” says Mills. “You can hear artists talk about their work, and it’s not filled with artspeak.”

As for how pieces were chosen, Mills says, “The Park Place towers are grouped around a large central park. We wanted artwork to be commissioned that had a strong sense of the land.”

“Peacemaker’s Canoe” for instance by Mohawk artist Jay Havens is reflective, in every sense of the word. The faceted sculpture is as eye-catching as a massive elongated diamond.

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“About a year ago, he was given money from Waterfront Toronto to do a temporary installation that would float out into the harbour,” says Mills. “Jay and I were talking and I said, ‘What’s happened to the canoe? Would you sell it?’”

He was happy to, and the plan is to permanently install the canoe at Concord’s Canada House downtown after the uptowners enjoy it.

“This really is more than I could have imagined,” says Havens. “I sincerely hope the people who get the chance to view this work in its new home will be inspired by the Haudenosaunee story of The Peacemaker and learn something new about the territory they call home.”

“Jax” by Pierre Poussin, a colourful homage to the popular childhood game, is another sculpture on the move. Once positioned at The Bentway, under the Gardiner, it’s now permanently at Park Place.

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A sculpture comes to life in Inges Idee’s imagination; her supertall “Leaping Lamp” strides over a wall.
A sculpture comes to life in Inges Idee’s imagination; her supertall “Leaping Lamp” strides over a wall. Photo by Photo courtesy of Concord Adex

“We moved it to the North York marketing central,” says Mills, “(so that) suburban people could also enjoy larger commissions they might not get to see otherwise.”

But there’s no relocating “Gathering,” the heavy and beautifully carved boulders by Indigenous artist Michael Belmore. The stones were excavated out of the land for the Park Place buildings.

“For the Anishinaabe, stones can be seen as animate, having agency and memory. The work is a kind of collaboration between human and rock, between human lifetime and geological time, or deep time,” says Belmore. “These stones, while found on the property, were moved here by glacial forces a millennia ago. The work is a celebration of our collaborative journey. The scale and the texture of the stones are not only a visual statement but draw children to interact with them in a tactile way.”

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Other extraordinary installations include Ken Lum’s “Scholar’s Rock” the pavilion and trellis “Droplet” by Studio Kimiis and the Maple Leaf Trellis by Dutch collective the Verhoeven Twins.

Two must-see lighthearted works — “Highway Rabbit” and “Leaping Lamp” — come from the imagination of Inges Idee, a quartet of artists.

“We know we’ve got lots of families, so in that competition we included artists who could really entertain people, without becoming cheesy and stupid,” says Mills of the works.

“[Highway Rabbit] has a highway stripe, since we’re near the 401. It’s as if a chunk of the highway had been lifted and curled like licorice to create (it),” says Mills.

The lamp, meanwhile, looks lifted from a Victorian streetscape. “Except this one is running. It’s taking a step over the wall. Kids love stuff like this,” says Mills. “It helps people understand art doesn’t have to always be so serious that you have to read a long statement to have a clue of what it’s about.”

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Could one of ArtWalk’s pieces be Toronto’s Bean?

Maple Leaf Trellis, by the Dutch collective the Verhoeven twins, showcases fantastical interpretations of the quintessentially Canadian foliage.
Maple Leaf Trellis, by the Dutch collective the Verhoeven twins, showcases fantastical interpretations of the quintessentially Canadian foliage. Photo by Photo courtesy of Concord Adex

It remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Investing in large artworks lead to public spaces that encourage engagement.

That’s the reasoning behind the city’s Percent for Public Art Program, which, when it went into effect in August 2010, mandates that 1 per cent of capital project costs for significant private-sector development must go towards public art. (Doing so gives benefits to builders, who can use their participation in the program as leverage to negotiate for variances.)

“Some developers balk if they’re told they have to do this. They don’t understand what the broader benefits are to everyone,” says Mills, though she notes, “Cadillac Fairview and Oxford Properties have done brilliant jobs with public art.”

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For Mills’s part, she wants to see more than government grants for artists.

“What is missing are programs where artists can make artworks for the public as part of the deliverables for which they receive payment,” she says.

Mills sees more opportunities for art to make a civic impact. “I would like to see a program for artists to receive funding and training to develop artwork for use in the design and development of healthcare facilities. Not to make paintings to hang on the walls but to create designs that are integrated into the wall finishing systems,” she says. “We have learned from research that art, especially biophilic art, has demonstrable positive effects for promoting healing and improving mental well-being.”

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