I was a little bemused to see the Vancouver Biennale listed as a “thing to do” on TripAdvisor. My befuddlement stems from three points: 1) The Biennale is an organization that promotes and exhibits art in public spaces. They hold a physical office in Vancouver, though I doubt it’s on most peoples’ itineraries; 2) All of the current Biennale-sponsored public art pieces have their own listings on TripAdvisor; and, 3) The TripAdvisor listing for this page speaks specifically to the Ocean Concrete Silos “GIANTS” at Granville Island, which already has its own TripAdvisor page (“Granville Giants Murals”). I realize point #3 is probably just somebody’s silly error, but it does make “Vancouver Biennale” potentially confusing for some. Nevertheless, I’ll take this as an opportunity to talk about the Biennale and its importance in shaping the character of this city. In doing so, I’ll likely mention some of the Biennale’s installations in passing. If you’d like more substantive reviews of individual Biennale public art pieces, please see my separate entries for each on this site.
Established in 2002, the Vancouver Biennale has as its Mission “exhibit[ing] great art in public space, creating a catalyst for learning, community engagement, dialogue, and social action.” In short, the Biennale – through its public art exhibits – hopes to engage the community and encourage us to think while concomitantly enjoying the art before us. In this way, art isn’t just a beautiful plaything for us to admire; instead, it becomes a space within which we can ponder deep cultural questions and maybe – just maybe – be spurred into action. Consider Jianhua’s “Pillows” from the 2009-2011 Biennale: A series of fibreglass “pillows,” the artist upsets and de-constructs the meaning of “pillow” from soft, warm and welcoming to a cold, hard and impersonal object. In doing so, Jianhua encourages us to more closely examine “the everyday” for new meanings and insights. “Pillows” was a quirky installation at Harbour Green Park, but it captured the essence of the Vancouver Biennale quite aptly.
Because the Biennale only uses public space for its exhibits, the artwork is accessible to most anybody. Vancouver is thus transformed into an “Open Air Museum” which, in turn, morphs the city into a massive canvas of sorts where we can all come together and explore, create an inter-communal dialogue, and learn from one another. There are no boundaries; we can use our imaginations and make of the art what we want. “Echoes” at Kits Beach, for example, can simply be a comfortable set of chairs, or they can be modes through which we can communicate and question language constructs. Now that’s deep!
What I appreciate about the Vancouver Biennale, beyond its (mostly) interesting installations across the city, is the indirect way it encourages us to explore our City of Glass. When I decided to do a “Biennale Walk” of sorts, I started at Point Grey – one of Vancouver’s most affluent neighbourhoods – to view “Vancouver Novel.” Set within the context of a posh neighbourhood, the scrolling text is at once humorous and unsettling. You almost feel like a voyeur standing in front of someone’s private home. From Point Grey, I made my way to Kits Beach (home of “Echoes”) and wandered along the Seawall until I came upon Granville Island (“Giants” and “The Family”). After exploring bustling Granville Island, I continued along the Seawall until I reached Cambie Bridge. Here is where you’ll find the Biennale’s latest installation, “Voxel Bridge,” which combines the physical and digital worlds in a beautiful gestalt. “Vortex” is at nearby Hinge Park, but is a waste of time, in my view. Following an insightful and mind-blowing experience at “Voxel Bridge,” I exited the Seawall and made my way towards the Vancouver Biennale office where I could observe “The STOP.” This piece, which was part of the 2009-2011 Biennale, is an excellent example of why context is important. The STOP was originally installed at Charleson Park and Vanier Park – unsettling and disturbing viewers because of its apparent randomness – but now resides next to the Vancouver Biennale offices, in a small industrial area. In my view, The STOP loses much of its impact because, 1) It’s not in a very high-traffic area; 2) The signs are spaced differently and at least one is somewhat askew; and, 3) The pink colour opposite the word STOP is likely to be missed unless one walks into the small parking lot adjacent the office building . . . okay, I’m rambling. Long story short: The Biennale provided an opportunity to actively explore and engage the city in a unique way – through art and culture.
The Biennale’s current theme, “re-IMAGE-n,” is timely given our existing milieu. There can be no doubt that the ongoing COVID pandemic has opened serious social cleavages and raised many important questions as a result. Toni Latour’s simple neon sign – “let’s heal the divide” – brings this to our attention and asks us to re-evaluate our attitudes in this time and this place. Likewise, the pandemic has also shifted what “public space” means. Most of us moved online to communicate, work and foster a sense of community; thus, the virtual world becomes our new public space. That’s why installations like Jessica Angel’s “Voxel Bridge” are so important – they point towards new technologies we might use for practical and, indeed, fun purposes. In brief, the current installations push progressivism within an artistic/cultural framework.
I should note, by way of conclusion, that most works that’re part of the Biennale are typically on exhibit for a period of 2 years. After that, they’re taken down UNLESS somebody generously purchases them and donates back to the city. They then become “legacy” pieces – examples include A-maze-ing Laughter, GIANTS, The Family and Jasper. In brief, some exhibits are time-limited so be sure to see them while you can!
PS: It’s a shame Chen Wenling’s “Boy Holding a Shark” ended up in purgatory even before installation (nixed?). I would’ve much preferred this piece over his ugly “Proud Youth,” which currently sits along the Seawall near Yaletown.