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Landmarks of History and Place: Art In The Open

“They had their being once and left a place to stand on” (Al Purdy, Roblin Mills)

As I write about Art In the Open, “a comprehensive on-line catalogue of more than 250 pieces of public art located throughout the Niagara region” that’s a “project [which] has taken a considerable amount of time from concept to finish largely because of the many pieces that needed to be located, identified, photographed and researched before being entered into a database for inclusion”, the debate around public art and monuments and how they compliment / challenge Canadian society has hit an apex. I’m referring to the decision to remove a John A. MacDonald sculpture in Vancouver. That’s something I’ll simply cite here, as to the relevance, of “art” (with various definitions) in the “open” (public spaces, private spaces, spaces in our heads and “our” histories) is made quite clear by that debate. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell isn’t saying he doesn’t have an opinion; but that’s a few thousand words for later.

Full disclosure: I worked on this project, researching / writing about everything from Rod  Dowling’s Locked Prosperity by the Thorold library to cenotaphs that sprang up around Niagara post WWI, in an inverse correlation to the fallen men they commemorated. As we mark a century since the end of WWI, its both sad and amazing to learn of how these markers (among others) shape Niagara into what it is now, with parts distinct yet interlinked. A space like Mather’s Arch in Ridgeway / Fort Erie offers history with physical “landmarks.” There’s so much here, so much Niagara “history” we think we “know”, but many of these artworks offer nuance and complications to the accepted [his]stories. The website, launched this Spring, is bilingual (artintheopen.ca  /artenpleinair.ca).

The blurb: “Art in the Open users will learn about the artwork they pass by on a daily basis and they will also be able to see works that they are not familiar with in other parts of the region. It is hoped that this will be a popular tool used by out of town visitors to see this cultural aspect of Niagara.” I’d offer only mild disagreement: living / being a cultural consumer here, I was pleasantly surprised by what I DIDN’T know about Niagara’s“art in the open.”

Sometimes this was that communities, like the Mennonite Church in Vineland, have deep roots and created a “marker” themselves, for themselves, if also for others (Harriet Tubman’s BME Church falls within this framework, too). Sometimes this was experiencing works like Rod Dowling’s installations at Lock 7, Larry Rosnuk’s Port Colborne sculpture garden, or multiple pieces by diverse artists spread across St. Catharines, as in the Lutz Teutloff Collection. There are pieces that have a life to those who interact with them, only enhanced by the “history” and context of the works you can see online. She Wolf by Ilan Averbuch is a landmark of Brock’s campus, and is “art in the open” in a different sense than Les Drysdale’s sculpture of Nikolas Tesla in Niagara Falls. The latter is there to note his scientific connection to the Falls (a matching statue stands on Goat Island) but was initiated / funded significantly by the Niagara Serbian community, honouring one of their own. This idea of immigrants building Niagara is present in Bas de Groot’s Welland Canal Monument, honouring the many who came seeking a better life and made this a better place. But we can’t ignore Douglas Cranmer’s Totem Pole – a recent point of debate, to repair or replace this contested marker of Canada’s centenary from Centennial Park in STC – or the more recent Landscape of Nations (NOTL ) which reflect the often difficult, less often considered, truth and reconciliation in Niagara.

I’ve offered a taste, skimming surfaces and drawing connections, of what you see / what you can see (some quite serious, some quite hilarious) with artintheopen.ca / artenpleinair.ca.

Visit the site, then visit the works.

If you pick up a copy of the print version of The Sound this month (September 2018), you’ll find detailed excerpts and some interesting images from Art In The Open. The image here is courtesy Art In The Open, and is Rod Dowling’s work installed at Lock 7. 

Written by Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, FUSE, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.

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