The third edition of Artefact, Montreal’s tri-annual exposition of public art, took as its theme the 40th anniversary of Expo 67. As with previous editions of the event, commissioned works were created in situ for a specifically designated area of the city, which is chosen for being in some way already legible to the general public. Given this mandate, Artefact 2007 was like a homecoming, returning to the site of its most charged precedent: a world’s fair famous in this country for carrying with it all the hopes and optimism of an era that is now all but lost to time.
Situated on Ile Sainte-Helene, a public park in downtown Montreal and the site of Expo 67, the event posed a question about how the memory of a city functions in the present, especially when it is addressed by a generation of artists who are mostly are too young to have experienced the original event.
Faced with the considerable over-determination of its locale, a number of the exhibition’s 20 participants exercised a blissful disregard for the burdens of the past. The consolations provided by the natural world offer perhaps the easiest exit from the pressures of history, and this route was taken by a number of artists in the show. Martha Townsend’s A” ciel decouvert (2007, as are all works discussed in this article) mirrored the sky by sinking two concentric, mirrored circles into the ground, flush with it and facing upwards. My own visit to Artefact was some months into the exhibition, which was staged from the end of June through September, and I found that the visiting public had exacted a toll on this work. Wear and tear had scuffed its surface, dulling its effect, but what the sculpture lost in sheen it gained in metaphorical strength, becoming like any object that has a natural lifespan and that returns, finally, to the earth.
The fine and idiosyncratic Manitoba artist, Aganetha Dyck, ensured a similar fate for her work, Nesting Sites, Sipping Sites for Small Life Forms. Like most of the artworks she has made over the past 15 years, Dyck made use of bees to create indefinable sculptural objects; at Artefact these were made by combining pony saddles with beeswax and honey. By hiding the resulting hives in the branches of trees, the artist hoped to provide a home for some of the environs’ smaller inhabitants. Dyck displayed a healthy indifference to the needs of her human audience: the sculptures were barely visible from the path. The end effect, a humbling before the vicissitudes of the natural world, is somehow gratifying, and certainly timely. More artists should make work like Dyck’s.
It is a comment on the retracted ambition of our times that the works in the show that grappled directly with the history of the site fared best when employing humour to reflect on the changes that time has wrought. Straight-up utopianism goes down better these days when presented with an admixture of irony. Situated near the geodesic dome that was the US Pavilion in 1967 (created by Buckminster Fuller, the dome is now a functioning biosphere used for ongoing scientific experiment), Mathieu Beausejour’s folly, Pentagone, offered a maze-like structure in the shape of a pentagon, which provided a temporary shelter for public sex, complete with glory holes and advertisements on the Internet. With La mouche et le sucre, Quebec City pranksters BGL perpetrated another kind of joke, this time on the audience. Located near the park’s concert stadium, the group’s full-scale ice cream kiosk was rendered inoperable and grotesque through the addition of thousands of dead insects covering all visible surfaces in the structure’s interior. Cartoonish and yet genuinely stomach-turning, the work made for an aggressive and hilarious betrayal of Artefact’s attempt to use sculpture to create a kind of public trust.
A provocation of a more gentle kind was found in Toronto artist Diane Borsato’s Eclipse, Wednesday February 21, 2007. Playing off of the geodesic dome’s dominant presence in the park, Borsato presented a large-scale, mounted photograph of a giant snowball shot from a low angle so that it mostly obscures the dome, which is partially visible behind it. Framing this temporary sculpture in snow are two young women, who presumably made it on the date given in the title. A lovely statement about the gender relations which lurking in the background of history’s greatest architectural accomplishments, Borsato suggests that this is one aspect of our utopian past we can leave behind without regret.
Perhaps because it so effortlessly represents the aspirations of an earlier time, and because it dominates the park, Fuller’s dome also formed the background for a work by the ceramic artist Stephen Schofield. Situated in a small pond that sits in the shadow of the dome, Schofield’s Hedging uses a sculptural language reminiscent of 60s decor–colourful ceramic balls strung together along a flowing pattern of metal bars that connect to fluted poles and star-like shapes–to create a work that is strongly evocative of the spirit of Expo. In conversation, Schofield reports that, probably unlike most of his colleagues in the show, he visited the event three times in i967. Despite presenting what was perhaps the most nostalgic work in the exhibition, he insists his work is not intended to be a commentary on the reduced scale of contemporary idealism. Rather Schofield sees the work as functioning like drawing or a proposition that iterates, oh so successfully, the seductive pull of the ideas of the 60s. This optimism in a minor register was one echoed overall by the event itself.