Even up close the illusion is very convincing. The semblance of weathered wood, the life preserver hung by the window, the molluscs clinging to the posts – these are the first of a number of sensory tricks played by Liz Magor’s public artwork LightShed. The scale, for example, is very disorienting. The structure is situated high on pilings, the height setting up a familiar relation to the built environment that is immediately undone by doors and windows which might at best accommodate a small child. Suggestions of heft and mass are also misleading and counter to the material reality of the aluminum form. This elaborated perceptual space, where one must distinguish between what is real and various material “effects,” is typical of Magor’s practice and takes on added dimension in public space, where the artist is responding to both the cultural history of the site, and the ways in which we represent these histories through heritage preservation and re-enactment.
LightShed is cast from a half-scale studio model of an 1880s freight shed that used to sit at the foot of Carrall Street. Placed in Coal Harbour after the area was redeveloped in the 1990s, the work visibly cites similar buildings that used to exist in proximity, and recalls the upscale neighbourhood’s former working class culture. At night Lightshed glows, lit from within by a bright lens typically used in lighthouses. This provides for the work’s title but also alludes to the stagecraft that sometimes accompanies heritage preservation. As the crow flies, the work could be plotted on a line between the totem poles that were first placed in Stanley Park by the Vancouver Park Board in the 1920s, the “restoration” of Gastown in the 1970s, and some of the superficial gestures currently emerging in Chinatown.
The shed and pilings are painted a matte silver colour with a subtle sheen, which plays well at intimating aged board and batten, while simultaneously noting an air of fakery, of the structure as a set piece. Given the particular context of the work, situated as it is between the harbour and a cliffs of glassy condo towers, the colour also conjures epithets of “silver cities,” “silver linings,” and “silver-tongued” seers, and related connotations of value, reflection, speculation and augury.
The hollow “presence” staged by the nightly illumination of LightShed–its evocations of inhabitation and warmth contravened by the inevitable emptiness–gets at a range of feeling and affect at work in our perception of the changing built environment. Physically recollecting the vernacular architectures and culture of an earlier time, and implicating these within the planned and ordered neighbourhood of Coal Harbour, the work speaks of the ways in which a city whose loyalties rest squarely with the new, time and again, concedes its history.
Mandy Ginson is a writer and editor currently based in Vancouver.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Born in Winnipeg, Liz Magor is an established Canadian artist whose sculptural works have dealt with questions of history and place, the aesthetics of the real and the reproduced, and the vibrant lives of objects and materials. Magor studied art at the University of British Columbia, Parsons School of Design and the Vancouver School of Art. Her work has been included in international exhibitions such as the Sydney Biennale (1982), The Venice Biennale (1984), and Documenta 8 (1987); and in solo exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery (2002), Henry Art Gallery, Seattle (2008) and at the The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (2016). Magor is the recipient of numerous honours and awards, including the Governor General’s Award (2001), the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2009), the Gershon Iskowitz Prize (2014) and the Vancouver Mayor’s Art Award for Public Art (2015). The artist lives and works in Vancouver.
The City of Vancouver’s Public Art Program celebrates 25 years of creating extraordinary artworks for public spaces. Every two weeks during 2016 we’ll share the story of a unique artwork created through the program. Over 260 pieces have been commissioned since 1991 through civic initiatives, community grants or private sector rezoning requirements. These are only a few of the key pieces that have helped to define Vancouver as a unique place and a world-class city for public art!