Archive for the ‘art’ Category

Imminent demolition of 122 year old building in Vancouver’s old Japantown

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Demolition of 120 year old Ming Sung Benevolent Society building/SRO/art space

The frantic festival of demolition continues in Vancouver, a city whose demolition rate is double that of Toronto’s. And Toronto is no paragon of heritage either.

The City of Vancouver is attempting to force demolition of the 122 year-old building which belongs to the Ming Sun Benevolent Society. The building, on a significant block of Vancouver’s vanishing old Japantown, functioned as a clean well-run SRO with eight units and a community reading and meeting room, all above an extensive cultural space rented out to an art collective called Instant Coffee. The art collective produced the poster above.

The building was said to be structurally damaged (it wasn’t) when the building next door, for unknown reasons (vandalism? sabotage? maintenance issues?) cracked and then was hastily ordered demolished by the City. By most accounts the City bears  responsibility for this situation. Following the demolition next door, the City then condemned the Ming Sun building and barred tenants from entering. These elderly tenants, mostly Chinese Canadian and First Nations, were evicted without warning. They were given no time to collect their belongings. The City took no responsibility for finding replacement housing for them, and some went on to sleep rough. It now appears that the building will be demolished by this Friday. The owner, a Chinese family association, is unable to pay for the demolition and rebuilding and will therefore be forced to sell the lot to the City.

Members and former residents of the Benevolent Society are beyond distraught.

In all of this there is rumoured involvement of a neighbouring landowner, said to have ties to the City, who has had his eye on these lots, but this is not yet confirmed. In any case there have been reports of what appears to be suspicious vandalism of the Ming Sung building since the City closed it off.

Access to the building is currently barred. The Instant Coffee art collective is unfortunately away in Korea working on a project. Its friends in Vancouver would like to help but are unable to enter and clear out all its goods. The City has been arbitrary and unresponsive throughout with all parties. Its uncommunicativeness serves to give the appearance of wanting to bury the story and complete the demolitions as fast as possible before an outcry can be raised. If the belongings of the tenants are destroyed in a demolition – and since tenants can’t get in to retrieve their possessions this seems inevitable – will the City compensate them? And in a city that is the 2nd most unaffordable in the world relative to median income, where will these tenants go?

The City has said, and will no doubt continue to say, that the public doesn’t have all the facts (and given the lack of transparency of the current administration, there’s often some truth to that), that the offending building is a “fire trap” (ie. the municipal version of the “national security” excuse), and in short that the City knows best.

But does it?

This is one of the the twenty oldest buildings in the City and a good example of that era’s boomtown architecture. It offers affordable housing to seniors in the Downtown Eastside. It is an important component of cultural life for the Chinese community.  It played a major role in the history of Japantown and the Japanese Canadian community in Vancouver. And it provides valuable affordable art space in a city where that commodity is fast diminishing. Affordable housing, a hedge against homelessness, a sturdy old resilient building made of old growth lumber that would be non-ecological to replace, a piece of architectural heritage for many communities and for the whole city, and affordable studio space for the arts. This building matched every stated objective of the current regime at City Hall. And they’re now mandating its demolition, for no reason. They must make this right.

How is any of this in line with the City’s stated commitment to affordable housing, to protecting the arts from unaffordability, and to heritage values? The city’s new heritage plan was announced only this week. Other cities maintain buildings in far worse shape than this one.

How is any of this demolition part of a Greenest City initiative?

Those of us who live and work down here are closely watching the City of Vancouver, the ruling Vision Vancouver party run by Mike Magee, and City Manager Penny Ballem. This level of hermetic and arbitrary behaviour is undemocratic and just one more example of the poor urban management we’ve been enduring here.

Powell Street demolition

The first demolition on the Powell Street block in question. This photo taken in August.

Interpretation of Enzo Mari’s Sedia Chair by Russell Baker, Bombast Furniture

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

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Russell Baker, Allahppliqué, 2013
Pine, paint, tape, cushion, hockey sticks, pom-poms, leather, fabric. 1 of 1.

I ended up buying this chair at the auction I wrote about previously. I had no intention of buying anything nor any budget to buy but that is why they serve you champagne at auctions. Though I guess if I’d thought about it the chances of  leaving without this chair were always going to be small. The proceeds go toward building a new Presentation House Gallery in Vancouver.

I know Russell as a fellow designer. Like me, he comes from a visual arts background. He himself makes chairs (and other furniture) and is also a writer and art critic. His company, Bombast Furniture, is named for the cotton stuffing inside upholstery. The street meaning of “bombast” does not apply to his furniture, though, which is not loud and which is carefully designed and constructured to last at least 100 years.

There is humour in Allahppliqué but of course that doesn’t make it frivolous. I could talk about this piece at length but instead I will let Russell do it. Below is the text he wrote to accompany the chair. It stands as a statement about design in general, and I love it for its re-statement of the original critical or revolutionary impetus in Italian design.

 

Allahppliqué: Toward a Radical Bricologic
Russell Baker

It was while I was sitting in front of the Hermes boutique in Terminal 4, Heathrow, when transiting from Tangier (aka the Interzone) to Vancouver, that I first intuited that Enzo Mari, the man who famously called Rem Koolhaas a “pornographic window dresser” to his face—it was while sitting in front of the Hermes boutique that I realized Enzo might never have heard of Dina, the greatest living belly dancer in the Arab world. How this (merely probable) fact might relate to my project, I was at that time unsure. (How does one account for solitudes of this nature?) When I subsequently passed the Hermes boutique at YVR upon my return home, I had a better idea of how, precisely, the Enzo Mari/Dina axis (as I now refer to it privately) related to my project.

To back up a few steps—and for the purposes of clarity—I should add that before my departure for the Interzone I had been invited to participate in a fundraiser auction for Presentation House Gallery. The Gallery had offered me an Enzo Mari “Sedia” chair and invited me to do whatever I wanted to the chair. Upon completion, my manipulated version of “Sedia” would be offered at auction to supporters of the gallery in a relatively standard dinner-format fundraiser.

The “Sedia” is of course the most famous manifestation of Mari’s legendary DIY project (“Autoprogettazione”) from 1974. “Sedia” is a form rich in associations, and has been variously interpreted; it has been read as a gesture of disgust, as an offer of freedom, as a shot over the bow of the good ship consumerism from “the critical conscience of Italian design.” It is also, now, repackaged and delivered in a ready to assemble (RTA) format, something different than it once was.

My challenge, as I understood it, was to reinvigorate or reactivate the revolutionary potential lurking beneath various layers of historical accretion that had attached to the “Sedia” since its original appearance. As Mari has himself observed, the chair found its way very quickly into the arena of pure kitsch — was assimilated almost immediately into the marketplace as an (admittedly exemplary) manifestation of the decorative category “rusticity”. How then to reactivate a revolutionary object that had, by its creators own admission, enjoyed such a fleeting moment of relative power uncontaminated by market forces? To put it more simply, how was I to save “Sedia” from becoming just another signifier of belonging for an ever-growing group of puritanical internationalist consumers whose apparent appreciation of “simplicity” so perfectly paralleled an earlier generation’s drive toward “rusticity” (cf. Terence Conran, terra cotta, balsamic vinegar, Jennifer Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous). No small challenge indeed!

To understand the “Dina Thing” (by which I mean my unconscious concatenation of Hermes, Enzo Mari, and Dina) you would have to have had the experience of being shadowed by CIA operatives in Cairo, just before the so-called Arab Spring; to be innocently enjoying a belly dance extravaganza, at four in the morning, in a night club that seemed the perfect meeting place for secret agents, crooks, fellow travelling fruits and gamblers — a veritable Eldorado for the fun-loving but decidedly dishevelled Gulf State “Haute Volée.” (Boy can they drink!)

Such was the experiential ground of the symbolic fusion that linked Hermes, Enzo Mari and Dina in my mind. For it was upon identifying the CIA operative in that bar, and realizing that his reason for being there was me, that I came to a rather concrete understanding of the new geopolitical realities. (It didn’t make me feel safer.) That I had somehow been mistaken for a “person of interest” in the most serious of international conflicts in our time for simply expressing a passing interest in the Islamic world (how else can I characterize my interest in Dina?) was food for thought. Could the dominant world order (symbolized here synecdochically by the “global” brand Hermes), be so fragile that my peripatetic, merely touristic wanderings through the Islamic borderlands actually attracted official attention? If this were so, might there be in this fact a clue as to how to reactivate “Sedia”?

What I was looking for was a recipe for (market) unassimilability that yet might somehow simultaneously invite a higher union. Was such a thing even possible?

Chair, Russell Baker

—Tangier, Morocco. October, 2013

Enzo Mari’s classic 1970s chair modified by artists and designers – Presentation House Gallery auction

Friday, November 15th, 2013

Enzo Mari chair modified by Omer Arbel

Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery turns 30 this year and will soon move to a beautiful new building designed by the eminent Vancouver firm Patkau Architects. To mark its birthday and raise money for the move, PHG is holding an innovative benefit auction in which major Vancouver artists and designers have been given a classic 1970s Enzo Mari Sedia 1 chair and asked to modify or reinterpret it. See the full list of artists and works on the auction blog (just note that not all of the works have been delivered, so some of the entries don’t have photos yet). The auction is on Saturday, November 23, 2013. Tickets available by phone 604.986.1351. As of publication of this post I think there are a small number of tickets left.

Above is “68.3 chair” which is the original Mari chair sandblasted by noted Vancouver designer Omer Arbel, principal at Omer Arbel Office and creative director of Bocci. Presumably Arbel’s title refers to the percentage of the original chair left after sandblasting, by weight? Perhaps this is how the original chair would look had it been left to weather in desert winds since the 70s.

Below is an as yet untitled chair by Russell Baker, partner and principal designer for BOMBAST Furniture. I like many of the chairs in the auction but on balance I think this is the one I would bid on if I had the dough. It’s beautiful, and its atypical combination of emblems and identity markers is poignant in a way that is hard to put your finger on. I like that Russell also consulted a YouTube video on how to make pompoms so he could construct these by hand.

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Achilles chair, Espeth Pratt & Javier Campos

Above, Achilles by artist Elspeth Pratt and architect Javier Campos. The chair has been treated using a traditional Japanese method of preserving wood by turning its surface to charcoal using a torch. Architects Shigeru Ban and Terunobu Fujimori have used this ancient preservation method in their architecture. Using it here, however, renders the chair non-functional since the carbon seems likely to rub off on clothes. That is, the treatment effectively renders the chair a work of art or conceptual architecture, not furniture. (In fact though I am sure the surface has been treated in such a way that this wouldn’t happen.)

PHG auction chair - Ian's crate by Brian Jungen

Above, Ian’s crates by artist Brian Jungen. Brian has famously worked with chairs before, his whale skeletons made from disassembled white plastic chairs. Here, however, he does not disassemble a Mari chair but actually copies one from an old art crate that once transported the work of fellow artist Ian Wallace. Clever play on the contrast between functionality and art, furniture and meaning, utility and transformation.

And below, SMPTE Colour Index Study Number 001, the Sedia 1 chair disassembled and reassembled in one plane and painted in video colour bar tones by Douglas Coupland. Who was, by the way, born in North Vancouver’s nearby Lion’s Gate Hospital, so PHG gallery is close to home for him. Another copy of the original chair is included in the photo by way of comparison.

modified Enzo Mari chair by Douglas Coupland

Check back to the blog over the next week as more photos will appear.

 

Ken Lum’s Pecha Kucha talk in Vancouver

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Ken Lum on the demolition of the Pantages Theatre and everything else in Vancouver

Vancouver artist Ken Lum took the opportunity of a Pecha Kucha appearance to talk about the his city, its history and its habits, and its demolition and disappearance. Though he said little about his own work, none of the concerns or ethic of his art were missing. His offhanded, throwaway tone only barely conceals outrage. And there’s a surprise ending.

Like me, Ken is one of the few Vancouverites with deep roots here. Of course Ken has now left the city, and we miss him.

How many others will leave now that the city is up for grabs by Big Money, derelict government and careless stupidity?

Ken’s right when he says that the demolition of the Pantages Theatre—the oldest vaudeville theatre in the country, soon to be condos—was an “abomination.”

The following slide got an immediate laugh of recognition from the audience. ”It just shows you how crummy the details are now when you look down at the street…”

Ken Lum - "how crummy the details are when you look down at the street in Vancouver"

 

Tower of Babel

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

	Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel, 1563 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Bruegel painted a series of three pictures of the Tower of Babel; one, on ivory, is lost.

‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ (Genesis 11:4).

“The workers in the painting have built the arches perpendicular to the slanted ground, thereby making them unstable and a few arches can already be seen crumbling. The foundation and bottom layers of the tower had not been completed before the higher layers were constructed.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel, 1563, detail

“Bruegel’s depiction of the architecture of the tower, with its numerous arches and other examples of Roman engineering, is deliberately reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum, which Christians of the time saw as both a symbol of hubris and persecution…

“The parallel of Rome and Babylon had a particular significance for Bruegel’s contemporaries: Rome was the Eternal City, intended by the Caesars to last for ever, and its decay and ruin were taken to symbolize the vanity and transience of earthly efforts.

….

“It is a fact that the story of the Tower of Babel was interpreted as an example of pride punished, and that is no doubt what Bruegel intended his painting to illustrate. Moreover, the hectic activity of the engineers, masons and workmen points to a second moral—the futility of much human endeavour… Bruegel’s knowledge of building procedures and techniques is considerable and correct in detail.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel, 1563

See also The End of the Age of Tall Buildings.

Mobiles on the set of a Seekers concert, 1968

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

The Seekers Stage Set Design

Beautiful. Why are things so overdone now? This was a great set. 1968, BBC, London.

[Sorry about the ads; being allergic to advertising I have ad blocker and never see ads, but I'm told there's advertising on this one.]