If the point of public art is to stir debate, then a new piece by a St. Clair W. condo development is a resounding success.
The 25-foot bronze and stainless steel sculpture, which depicts a towering man in a white button-up shirt holding up a tall condo building while standing on a foundation of multicoloured blocks, lit up Twitterverse this week, with users debating: what does it mean?
One user mused the statue was a dig at condo developers, another tweeting that it represented “a certain class’ dominance over the society that is supposed to be diverse and multicultural.” Added another, “Never has Toronto been captured so perfectly.” One user called the display “a public art sham,” with “no public benefit.” While some saw getting such an high-profile artists as a coup, and others expressed shock about the sheer size of the towering structure.
Others just called it ugly.
“One can never anticipate how people will respond,” said David Moos, lead consultant for the installation, commissioned through the city’s Percent for Public Art program, which encourages developers to contribute 1 per cent of their gross construction costs towards art dedicated for the public realm.
The piece, by revered contemporary German artist Stephan Balkenhol, was assembled in Europe before shipped to Toronto where it was unveiled Aug. 10, part of the development being built at the former home of the Imperial Oil building. Balkenhol is expected to visit the site with Moos sometime next week.
Moos, a former curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, says his own personal impression is that the subject is standing on an unstable foundation that “might support him or shift,” while holding a “tower that’s heavy and might topple.”
A key objective was to “make a genuine effort to try and do something that is relevant to people,” Moos said. “Maybe we can get people to thoughtfully reflect about this.”
Moos said Balkenhol received zero esthetic input or direction from the selection team, in what Moos called a free creative process.
“He has ideas about Toronto and he proposed this work,” Moos said.
According to the Percent for Public Art Program website, “The privately-owned art is intended to make buildings and open spaces more attractive and interesting and to improve the quality of the public realm.”
In its bid to grow the city’s collection of public art, the program uses a clause in Ontario’s Planning Act known as Section 37, which lets developers trade community benefits for zoning variances. Councillors have a hand in deciding whether to use the funds from Section 37 for art or other benefits such as splash pads, playground upgrades and community centres. The money must be spent in the same ward as the development, as the funds are meant to compensate for its impact.
Private developers have commissioned more 150 public art displays under the program to date.
Balkenhol, whose pieces are currently held in prestigious collections worldwide, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, was selected by a panel of Toronto arts professionals, project architects and local residents. The selection committee was picked by city planning staff and the developer.
It is the first of two works to be incorporated into the Imperial Plaza development spearheaded by Camrost Falcorp Inc. City documents about the project from 2014 suggest the estimated budget for the work was $675,000 — of which about 85 per cent was to go directly to the creation of the artwork.
Imperial Plaza is already home to other works of art.
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Last year, Camrost Felcorp hired Toronto artist Anthony Ricciardi to create seven murals splattered with bright paint and a rainbow of drip marks for the lobby of the One o One condos in midtown.
“This developer has a sophisticated sense of the role art can play in the lives of people,” Moos said. “There is a possibility at this site to have an art ensemble.”
Balkenhol was selected over five other artist invited to submit proposals. A note posted near the statue indicates the committee selected the piece as it embodies the “present moment in the city’s evolution and invites deep contemplation.”
That’s why Brendan Sinclair likes it.
Sinclair, who lives in the area and came across the sculpture on the day of its unveiling, posted a photo of the statue and tweeted, “new condo in Toronto unveiled its permanent art installation this week, a sculpture of a creepy white dude in dress clothes holding a massive condo on top of a more interesting and colourful foundation. It’s a horrid eyesore and kind of perfect for this city right now. I love it.”
He told the Star he was surprised by the piece, as it’s not “not the usual inoffensively abstract art I’d expect from a luxury condo.”
“The first thing I thought was, the people who live here are going to hate this,” Sinclair told the Star. “It’s huge and hard to miss and not the usual inoffensively abstract art I’d expect from a luxury condo.”
But that’s what makes this piece a success, he said, adding he welcomes the proliferation of public art across the city.
“I’m all for more public art, even if it sometimes values being interesting or relevant over being comforting or fitting in with its surroundings,” he said.
“The fact this piece has gone up in the same complex that has another condo being built using the exterior of a demolished century-old church as a facade is some interesting context as well, I think,” Sinclair said.
Jason Miller is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Reach him on email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @millermotionpic