A fellow arts writer has a bit of an obsession with a statement made by a curator several years ago, that she ‘doesn’t know what Art is’: the curator in question is unimpressive, while often praised, within the Canadian overtly academic trench, so depending where you stand, this frankness has several ramifications. There’s definitely an element of incompetence and politicization in Kitty Scott’s comment about ‘not knowing’: alternately, I like to interpret it in a manner reminiscent of how even a blind pig finds an acorn now and again. After all, anyone familiar with the history of art knows that – like history, like society – change is constant, and in an excellent anthology of art writing stretching back centuries, Jeremy Tanner points out that many art historians deny the relevance of works that have severe sociological implications, just as many sociologists are bereft of any knowledge of history, especially art history, which can be both subversive and direct. Tanner posits they are more alike in their blinkering than either would like to admit.
All of that is in response to art in gallery spaces. What happens when we’re engaging with public art, or art in the public sphere, as I like to term it? After all, when someone enters a gallery space, there’s a convention at play, regarding looking and engaging, that puts the onus, in many ways, on the ‘visitor.’ But when works emerge from that (too often) ‘white cube’, and occupy sites that intersect with many different communities, they (must) become something else. Several years ago, there was a kerfuffle regarding Keeley Haftner‘s Found Compressions. It was installed in a neighbourhood that had, on its own, engaged in an intense clean up and revitalization: placing a work made of ‘garbage’ without consulting residents or stakeholders within said area led to vitriol and vandalism.
However, other works have employed irony and challenge effectively: look at the number of installations that happened, that intelligently explored the historical narrative around the War of 1812 when Harper tried to direct public money to create monuments that favoured his simplistic and ideologically shuttered propaganda? Several across Canada looked at stories not already told, or ignored, or that Harpo neither intended nor wanted…
This brings us to the here and now, and downtown St. Catharines, where Lilly Otašević’s Curtain Call has just been raised on the side of the Performing Arts Centre (facing Carlisle Street, but easily seen as you walk up St. Paul, with NAC behind you to your left). Some background information, before we approach the multi-hued, massive work that ‘hangs’ a storey above the sidewalk: Curtain Call ‘was funded, in part, by a grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Canada 150 program, through the Celebration of Nations/Célébration de nation project being led by the PAC…a portion of the PAC’s initial construction budget had been designated for a public art project, and this process has been ongoing for several years.” I’d inject that several cities across Canada often earmark financial (and construction) support for artworks to compliment their spaces. A notable one was in Saskatoon a few years ago, where the new police station, as part of its design and mandate, commissioned an installation out front as a reminder / warning regarding MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – do I have to explain that acronym, still? Oh, right, Andrew Scheer is making a run for PM, Kenney is back like a zombie parasite, so yes, yes, I do…). Connecting to this, Otašević’s “metal sculpture was created to look like a wampum belt, with colourful beads that follow a wavy shape along the wall” (an accompanying panel, and the full and final ‘setting’ of the piece should be completed, by the time you’re reading this). The shortlist from which Otašević was selected included five other finalists, by “a jury made up of local arts professionals and St. Catharines staff.”
You can see more of Otašević’s aesthetic and public works here at her site. Her practice is multi-faceted, and having been born and educated in Belgrade, she brings an interesting sensibility to public artworks (I may be extrapolating too much, but my interaction with the public artworks created by immigrants to Canada often display an awareness of history and its contested narratives that many here either deny or choose to ignore. Several artists I’ve worked with, or whose practice has helped shape my attitudes and expectations about art in the public space have been from Eastern Europe, and that’s a space that encapsulates ‘contested narratives’ like few others). Other public works: Crescendo can be seen in Burlington, Mobius in Toronto, and Unity is in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.
Perhaps you remember Elizabeth Chitty’s OAAG Award Winning community art project at Rodman Hall that ‘grew’ a wampum belt on the fertile and lovely grounds there, working with both Indigenous groups here but also recent newcomers. Slightly before that, an exhibition – Reading the Talk, also at RHAC – featured a sardonic, and definitely caustic in its satire, ‘take’ on the wampum belt treaty by Vanessa Dion Fletcher. Too much ‘art in the public sphere’ is simply ‘plop art’ still: pieces ‘dropped’ into a public space that say nothing to, nor respect, nor help define or refine the history of those communities, whether local or national (we’ve all endured those horrid karaoke modernist blocks and shapes that seem to occupy a great deal of space, yet we can pass by daily and not remember ‘seeing’…).
Curtain Call is vibrant in colour, and I’ve already enjoyed it as the sun sets, and may make a point of viewing it as the sun rises and shimmers and reflects on the blues, oranges, yellows and indigo of the flowing, bending work: too often, public art is a horrid failure, where it’s not only lacking in aesthetic, but to steal a joke, actually is an anaesthetic to good taste. Otašević’s Curtain Call is both engaging visually and relevant in an historical, as well as contemporary, sense of place and space.
All images are courtesy City of St. Catharines, and copyright of the artist.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, 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.