Are You Having A Laugh?

Well, it wasn’t quite as simple as clicking my ruby red slippers, but three flights later (and one very long wait at customs) and this BAPs reporter made it to the Emerald City, Vancouver BC, for a brief sojourn. Once upon a time I used to call Vancouver home, so visiting the shimmering new water world is a bit like chatting up an old boyfriend at a high school reunion—I couldn’t help comparing the old with the new. Now we could talk fish tacos vs. doner kebabs, but let’s not—let’s talk public art!

Public art is the outward symbol of civic enlightenment: it identifies who we are and how we see ourselves, which parts of our past and our present we want to memorialize, what we find beautiful, shocking, exciting and inspirational. What can Vancouver’s public art program tell us about itself, and Berlin by contrast? I’ll give you a hint: it’s all about the Benjamins, baby—if Berlin is poor but sexy, Vancouver is rich but trying really, really hard!

East Side Gallery. Photo: Bernt Rostad

Berlin’s public art manifests itself primarily as either mural or monument. The East Side Gallery, undoubtedly Berlin’s most famous social sculpture, is a swirling serpentine synergy of mural and monument, embodying Berlin’s urban art tradition. From the East Side Gallery to the streets, the history of graffiti art in Berlin is a long and storied one, with modern murals by Ash, Blu, Banksy, JR and many more, constituting a significant portion of the public art that defines Berlin. They add color, evoke heritage, offer up pronouncements, reminders—​and also often just mere self promotion—​but, most of all, the great street art of our city reminds us that the people govern Berlin, not the interests of capitalism.

Mining The Corporate Present

In a city where capitalism is king, the streets are always swept so shoppers at Saks, Stella McCartney, and Chanel don’t have to step over empty coffee cups to make their purchases. In a city where corporations rule, every available square foot of real estate is spoken for by big business interests so the art is designed to impress rather than inspire. In Vancouver, the art of the streets is the art of the corporation. Dale Chihuly sculptures, for example, hang in a great glass cage alongside a stalwart skyscraper. The well placed carving, complete with an inspirational quotation, hovers at the base of a hegemony’s headquarters. Unlike the urban art of Berlin, Vancouver’s street art reminds us that these are not our streets, that this is not our city: that the true curator is capitalism. 

A Dave Chihuly sculpture downtown Vancouver. Photo: Hannah Nelson-Teutsch

While I was in Vancouver an election was held. Despite polls showing significant gains for independent, environmentally-oriented parties, the governing party—​which had surrendered to the interests of big oil by acquiescing to a pipeline running the length of the province—​remained in power. On election night, tears were shed, glasses were thrown and heads were shaken in disbelief. But this phenomenon, the unrestricted growth and unforeseen power of corporate interests, seems predicted on (or at least proven) by the public art that dominates Vancouver’s downtown.

Mining The Collective Past

The heart of Berlin’s financial district, on the other hand, is populated by a different sort of public art: the historical monument. From the Holocaust Memorial to the sculpture “Mother with Dead Son” by Käthe Kollwitz to the “Leere Bibliothek” (Empty Library) beneath Bebelsplatz recalling the book-burning, history holds court.

Berlin's Holocaust Memorial. Photo: Philippe Amiot

In many ways these monuments evoke the same sentiment as Berlin’s urban art: the desire of a people to shape the destiny of their own city and to immortalize the memory of past sins such that they shall not be repeated. In fact, even Berlin’s most prominent sculptural installations harken to the power of the past and the pressing need for positive change. Molecule Man, the sprawling Spree-bound sculpture designed by Jonathan Borofsky, is an epic example of the power of contemporary art to improve on a landscape. Yet the primary purpose of this work is the memorialization of the coming together of the three former districts: Treptow, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. Likewise, “Berlin,” the sculpture on Tauentzienstraße, takes as its principal motif a broken chain meant to symbolize the severed connections between East and West Berlin during the time of the wall.

Berlin's Molecule Men. Photo: Wolfgang Staudt

The past, like the people, are always present in Berlin––Yet in Vancouver, it’s the landscape that dominates outside the corporate corridor. Along the city’s many beaches, public sculptures play with our perspective on space and scale, mimicking and mining the power of the surroundings. The landscape dominates the dialogue in other ways as well, harkening back to the history of the province and the indigenous people who settled the coast hundreds of years before Westerners arrived. The story of Vancouver’s public sculpture mirrors the story of settlement in this province—east meeting west in a melting pot of civilizations under the mountains. Yet "heritage" and "tradition," as embodied by the Inuit "Inukshuk" and the Chinese “A-Maze-Ing Laughter,” seem more like buzzwords on a corporate checklist than honest artistic investigation.

Vancouver's "Inukshuk." Photo: Hannah Nelson-Teutsch

And it’s those self-same mountains with their natural wealth and resort potential that have given birth to the proliferation of public art in Vancouver. Only mining money could make possible the purchase of "A-Maze-Ing Laughter" at an initial cost of more than five million dollars. Only the Olympics—​made possible in no small part by the natural wealth of the city’s surroundings—​could drum up support for the cutting edge contemporary art that was purchased, installed and lauded as an example of the province's commitment to both pluralism and progress during the games. 

"A-Maze-Ing Laughter." Photo: Hannah Nelson-Teutsch

Yet at the end of the day, Jonathan Borofsky’s poetic insight as to the meaning behind his molecule man, “[The sculpture is a reminder] that both the man and the molecules exist in a world of probability and the aim of all creative and intellectual traditions is to find wholeness and unity within the world," seems applicable to both cities. Whether by mining the past or the present, the collective or the corporate, both public art programs seem truly dedicated to honoring their city through art—Vancouver just seems to be able to afford a little more high end honoring (at this point at least). But after a visit to Oz, I for one am ready to get back to the farm; poor but sexy suits me just fine.

Article by Hannah Nelson-Teutsch