Richard White, August 7, 2014
It never ceases to amaze me how a day of flaneuring will unfold. This time we were checking out the galleries on 124th Avenue (Edmonton’s Gallery District) and Brenda said, “let's wander the next block over and see what the homes are like.” We quickly found the urbanscape had changed from an almost treeless, commercial, noisy street to a calm, tree canopied street in Westmount with a mix of early 20th century homes.
The homes weren’t huge mansions, but not tiny cottages either. Some had been fixed up nicely, but lots were in need of some TLC and there was one new infill. Laterthat later day, we read in Avenue Magazine, that Westmount was ranked #5 on their list of Edmonton’s Top 10 Neighbourhoods.
The house that really caught our attention was the one with about six major steel sculptures on the front lawn. We knew that Edmonton had a love affair with steel sculpture, but this still seemed a bit strange. Later, just a few blocks away and back on 124th Street, we wandered into Scott Gallery where we saw a steel sculpture by Peter Hide. So we thought we’d ask what they knew about the house on 125th Street with all the steel sculptures. They knew nothing, but were intrigued and said they would check it out.
They also proceeded to tell us about Borden Park that has been recently revitalized to include several pieces of public art including several steel sculptures. Sounded interesting, but we had other plans - to meet a friend in Little Italy for lunch.
The idea of checking out an art park intrigued us both, so by about 6 pm we decided we had to check it out. Also, it was kind of on the way back to Urban Escape B&B where we were staying at.
Borden (Art?) Park
The backstory to Borden Park is that it was originally called East End City Park when first opened in 1906, but renamed for Sir Robert Laird Borden, the 8th prime minister of Canada after he visited Edmonton in 1914. It was a popular park with one of the city’s first outdoor swimming pools and included a popular band shell and baseball diamonds.
Folklore has it that up to 7,000 people would invade the park on sunny Sundays for picnics and other activities in the early 20th century. It was also a fairground with rides - a carousel, roller coaster and the something called “tunnel of love known as the “Old Mill.” It was also home of the first Edmonton Zoo.
Fast forward to the early 21st century and an August Saturday early evening (it had been a beautiful day) and there were probably less than 50 people in the park. Yes, a few picnickers, a dog walker, a few walkers and some families at the playground. Amazing what a difference 100 years makes – gone are the rides and animals.
In 2006, the City of Edmonton approved a revitalization plan for the park, which included a new uber-chic washroom, new furniture, refurbished bandshell and pathways and modern public art. The old swimming pool is still there but closed, plans are to convert the old swimming pool into a “natural swimming experience” (i.e. the water will be filtered naturally rather than using chemicals) that can converted into a skating rink in the winter.
Oh yes, we did check out the sculptures and we were the only ones doing so. Except for two colourful pieces, they were all very modest scale, modernist abstract assemblage steel sculptures. They were all pretty static for my tastes, not very visually engaging and were robbed of any power they might have in a gallery setting, by the expanse of the park and its towering trees. Even in the smaller more confined space of the contemporary water feature area of the park the four sculptures seemed lost, no synergy with the water or each other.
My favourite piece had no information on the artist or the piece; perhaps it was the newest piece and they just haven’t put up the information yet as all the other pieces were labeled. (Thanks to Allison Argy-Burgess, I found out the piece is called “Willows” and the artist is Marc Fornes.) It was a colourful, root-like form that allowed you to walk inside it. And when inside, you noticed it was full of fun Matisse-like cutout holes that sparkled in the sunlight like a kaleidascope. It had a dream-like quality to it inside and out, like something from a children’s fairy tale. I like the playfulness of the piece and that there was some engagement of the viewer to come inside and explore it.
Too Much Plain Welded Steel
I think the sculptures would benefit by being relocated to a smaller, open gallery-like space where they could play off of each other to create their own sense of place. As is, they are not large enough to take command of the large expanse of the park space they currently inhabit. there is also not enough diversity of materials and subject matter - 90% of the works a welded steel. I have included the label text for each piece, which I also think does little to help the public better understand and appreciate the artwork.
We started the day out a plan to check out Edmonton’s Downtown Farmers’ Market and meet a friend for lunch. Who knew we’d end up in the east end of town exploring a park that was no more than a swamp just over a 100 years ago.
For awhile now I have been advocating that public art would better serve the public good if it was installed in its own art park where it could be curated to capitalize on the synergy between the pieces, rather than trying to compete with surrounding architecture and clutter of streetscape designs. Borden Park is an attempt at doing so, but unfortunately missed the opportunity to truly create an art park that captures the public’s imagination – young and old, bohemian and bourgeoisie.
I understand the plan is to have 11 human scale, temporary sculptures dotting the park’s 23-hectars. I seriously doubt this will be sufficient to attract the public to venture to Borden Park to see the art.