Things, stuff, and other items of interest

October 12, 2010

Fire Hydrants, the nature of art, and my staggering ignorance

Not too long ago, I sent out a couple of tweets accompanied by a couple of pics. Not long there after, I did it again. All of the photos were of some new sculptures that the City of Ottawa had commissioned from a couple of local artists: Marcus Kucey Jones and Ryan Lotecki. The photos & tweets are linked below. Click on the pics to see the original tweets and larger images.

If you'd like a chance to see all of the sculptures, I'd encourage you to go for a stroll from one end of Wellington St. west to the other. It's not a terribly long walk, just barely shy of two kilometers, and while enjoying your stroll you'll be able to check out all eighteen of these recent artistic additions. Or, if you prefer a bit of a short cut, local photographer Justin Van Leeuwen has diligently catalogued all eighteen in a photo on his flickr account, which you can find here.

I'll admit,  that I was at something of a loss for words when I saw my first of these eye catching artistic installations near the coffee shop on Wellington that I refuse to name. A fire hydrant, with a baby seat perched on top of it, all carved from one solid piece of italian marble. Trust me when I say that the picture above doesn't do it justice.

Now friends, I'll freely and willingly admit that I am not the most sophisticated urbanite in the vast municipality of Ottawa. I'm not as refined and cultured as many of the illustrious residents of the National Capital Region. Hard though it may be to believe, I am not wholly uneducated when it comes to artistic endeavours. I have over the years toyed with the creative process. I've played instruments, I've painted, sculpted, drawn and more recently begun toying with photography. While perhaps I am overly generous in my own admittedly bias opinion, I prefer to think of myself as marginally elevated from the knuckle dragging Cro-magnon man who could kill a woolly mammoth just by headbutting it with his enormous cranial plate. The arrival of these eighteen 'pieces d'arts' threw me into something of a quandry.

I've spent the last few weeks considering these sculptures, then pondering my reaction to them. I've spoken with friends both very much in favour of them, and those who feel they are not the most prudent choice when it comes to expenditures from the public purse. What really struck me after speaking with friends and passers-by on the street, is that while most people who had seen them had an opinion, not many knew much about them. So I did some research and this is what I found:

These eighteen pieces were commissioned recently (not sure precisely when) by the city of Ottawa as a result of the following policy:
"One percent of funds for new municipal spaces is put aside for public art in order to beautify the space and make art accessible to everyone."
This same policy goes on to state:
"A jury of art-specialists choose the art based on its appropriateness for the space and on the response from community consultation."
There was apparently a chance for the public to examine the proposals, and give voice to their opinion:
"The public is invited to meet the artists, view the proposals and record their comments during the public meetings. The jury of art specialists will take the public’s comments into consideration when it meets again to choose the winning design."
Unfortunately I was unable to find out who the illustrious art specialists are who comprise the jury, nor was I able to ascertain the date of the original gathering where the public had the chance to either offer their support, or voice their dissent to artistic proposals.

From what I've been able to find online, the budget allocated to this particular commission was some where between $225,000.00 & $250,000.00.  Which works out to approximately $12,500.00 to 13,888.00 per sculpture. It would seem that italian marble isn't cheap. Who knew?

In this article from June 2008, the artists are credited with describing their choice of the fire hydrant motif as:
 "[...] the fire hydrant as a sculptural form because of its interesting shape and for the uncelebrated, but very necessary, role it plays in the urban landscape."
- from: 'Wellington to sport that hydrant look' 
Where as on the City of Ottawa site, the artists are quoted directly:
Marcus Kucey Jones and Ryan Lotecki chose the fire hydrant as sculptural form “as it is rooted in its familiarity in the urban landscape. It is an object found in every community connecting people in an uncelebrated yet vital manner.”
The site goes on to describe the overall motif rather generously:
"The hydrants will present the viewer with a sense of humour, playfulness, and historically reference the area."
Huh. Playful, humourous, historical, uncelebrated yet vital. These are [EXPLETIVE DELETED] fire hydrants people. Fire hydrants! It's a piece of municipal emergency equipment. Men and women in large loud trucks come barreling down streets and attach hoses to them in order to try to save burning buildings. Vital? Ok, I'll give you that one. Uncelebrated? Not unlike the valiant street gutter I suppose. Oh woe is me, filled with grief for the heroic man hole cover. What tragedy has yonder light post known? Seems a touch overly dramatic don't you think? Historical... that's a reach and you know it. Playful and humourous? Now you're just making shit up.

The one overwhelming theme that seems to have come up with nearly everyone I talked to about these sculptures were that they queued visual triggers that reminded the individual of portions of the human anatomy that are not normally discussed openly in mixed company. I'm not quite sure if that reveals more about the sculpture, or the person looking at it. I'll skip this one and move on for now.

Look, don't get me wrong, I'm not against the concept of public art. On the contrary, for the most part I'm inclined to support it. There are many pieces around town that I'm quite fond of. I've even grown fond of Louise Bourgeois's "Maman", another controversial piece at the time of installation if memory serves. I'll happily admit that the quality of work and craftsmanship that have gone into these pieces are extremely impressive. It's the over all fire hydrant motif that I'm left shaking my head at.

We just paid a tidy sum to line a city street, one which is already decked out with functioning fire hydrants (which cost a approximately one tenth of the price of their marble neighbours if the internet is to be trusted), with more fire hydrants. They're like large metamorphic rock shrines of doggy toilets. You want to know why the lowly fire hydrant is uncelebrated? Primarily because one does not normally celebrate banality. When was the last time you celebrated getting your tires rotated? How about paying your hydro bill? Doing your taxes? Taking out the garbage?

A friend & former coworker of mine came to the defense of the sculptures immediately after my first tweet that started all of this off. "The point of art,' she said 'is to provoke conversation." If that's the legend by which we measure then these have been an complete success. If you were aiming for humourous, playful and historic? I personally think you missed the mark. I'll leave you with a definition of art taken from the television show "Northern Exposure" as delivered by the character "Chris Stevens" played by one Mr. John Corbett:

"You're confusing product with process. Most people, when they criticise, whether they like it or they hate it, they're talking about product. Now that's not art, that's the result of art.
Art to the degree of whatever we can get a handle on, and I'm not sure we really can, is a process.
Begins in here [points to his heart], here [points to his head], with these [wiggles his fingers] and these [points to his eyes].
Now Picasso said: 'The pure plastic act is only secondary. What really counts is the drama of the pure plastic act. That exact moment when the universe comes out of the self, and meets it's own destruction.'"
- Chris Stevens, as played by John Corbett
in Northern Exposure - 5x18 "Fish Story"
Written by: Jeff Melvoin, Directed by: Bill D'Elia.

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