In Union Station, in frozen January, an art garden blooms
|Toronto Star 21 Jan 2019 at 06:27|
They are on their way home, drawn into their devices, or airport-bound with roller luggage in tow or maybe caught in the automatic shuffle en route to the office. Some glimpse at it as they stream past. Some circle back for a closer look. Some stop immediately. Because in scrubby, grey and frozen January, there is an art garden in the middle of Union Station.
The gigantic pergola, built for the month in the West Wing, displays a selection of flora-themed artwork exploring different notions of “transformation,” all by Canadian talents, all one-time OCAD University students or instructors.
Ed Pien presents 75 framed photographs from the 2016 series Our Beloved, arranged into a wall. The celebrated Canadian artist and former OCAD teacher photographed details from flowers left by the graves at Cementerio General de Santiago in Chile. (JONATHAN CHEN / SPRING MORRIS)
A 3D-modelled environment by Alex McLeod printed big enough to immerse passersby within the isles of evergreens, even as they speed past to catch their train. (JONATHAN CHEN / SPRING MORRIS)
In the middle of the nation’s busiest transit hub, visited by some 300,000 each day, it is an invitation to stop and smell the roses. A cliché, perhaps, anywhere but here in this most buzzing hive, where moments for reflection and respite are rare.
The Transformation exhibit launches a new partnership between the school and the city’s central transportation station. It is the latest such collaboration for Union, which has been working with grassroots and major arts organizations to turn its revitalized station from a midpoint on any commute into a cultural destination in itself.
Other efforts include open studio rehearsals with professional dance groups held for the public in the West Wing and free lunchtime concerts by the Canadian Opera Company.
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“We were impressed with the renovation, but also with the vision that’s driving it,” says Glen Lowry, associate dean in OCAD U’s faculty of art. The exhibition is the first fruit to come of a long conversation about partnership potential, he says.
Beginning Jan. 27, OCAD will lead free monthly drawing classes at Union. For the May-June semester, the school plans to hold an off-site course dedicated to the issues of a major transit centre in the new Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund Legacy Room.
Much as Union Station is a critical hub for transportation, Lowry calls OCAD U “a major hub for contemporary art production.”
“The faculty, the students and the alumni constitute a very significant portion of the contemporary artmakers in Canada,” he says. The partnership brings extra public visibility to the breadth and strength of practices happening there. This kickoff exhibition introduces just a few of those talents.
For January, the theme of Union programming is “The Possibility of Transformation.” Handed this concept, curator Matthew Kyba (of Bunker 2 and Forest City Gallery) wanted not only to include artists whose work contemplates transformation and growth; he hoped the exhibition itself could make a transformation of the space.
He didn’t want to emulate the typical white cube, which can intimidate some; rather, he wanted to create an environment that attracts and entices: a garden. In contrast to the dark, rich wood surrounding the Oak Room interior, the pergola’s unstained spruce walls and Douglas fir crossbeams suggest something under development, “something coming into being,” Kyba says.
On the outsides of the structure, facing the widest pedestrian lanes for commuter traffic, hang the largest works: on one end, a 3D-modelled environment by Alex McLeod printed large enough to immerse passersby within the isles of evergreens, even as they speed past to catch their train. On the other side, opposite the curator’s note, are three paintings by instructor Rob Nicholls, who here renders familiar landscapes as soft and shaggy martian forests and likewise transports viewers far away in an instant.
The works inside require a little more time and attention. Ed Pien presents 75 framed photographs from the 2016 series Our Beloved, arranged into a wall.
The celebrated Canadian artist and former OCAD teacher photographed details from flowers left by the graves at Cementerio General de Santiago in Chile. The images document beauty and decay, as some specimens explode into life, while others rust and wilt, discolour and degrade — real and artificial alike.
The series, he says, is about “embracing empathy … the ability to be transformed by what one has experienced.” The photos, like experiences, aggregate to stir something deeper.
The Susy Oliveira collages opposite play with an almost mechanical repetition of floral forms while beside, Bradford-based photographer Farihah Shah explores the roots of her identity through a series of self-portraits. She traces her family history back from Guyana, holding emblems of that heritage against her Black skin: the jewelry of a Hindu bride, for example, or a floral patterned tea cup, representing colonial Britain.
The project, for her, was about “transforming or challenging the typical ideas of what identity is and what it means to be from a certain place,” something that rings true for a lot of people from Toronto and Canada, she says, who come from multiple backgrounds.
“Not hard to see, but maybe easy to miss,” Kyba says, the sculptures of Court Gee peeking over from the top side of the structure.
The recent OCAD grad affixed 22 solar-powered dancing dashboard flowers — those cartoonish tchotchkes found at the dollar store — to the pergola roof. If your eyes aren’t stuck to your smartphone or to the ground ahead of you, their candy-coloured vases, shining under the skylight, might catch your eye. If you’re very lucky and there’s just enough sunlight, Gee says, you may see them dance.