Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) recently announced “Trio” and “Fish,” by German artist Christian Moeller as the newest additions to its growing public art collection. Both were met with unanimous approval by the 150 or so Calgarians at the unveiling held at the Dutton Theatre (soon be the old Calgary Central Library) and I saw only positive comments on Twitter. In chatting subsequently with several Calgarians everyone seems to like “Trio” and “Fish.”
Once a curator, always a curator!
Having spent 10 years the Executive Director/Curator of the Muttart Public Art Gallery (now Contemporary Calgary) in another life, I look at art projects with perhaps a different eye than most.
I also liked the pieces at first glance, but as Moeller was presenting the background on his two pieces of art, I began to think they are cute more than clever, more playful than provocative.
I started to ask myself some questions.
- Doesn’t Calgary already have enough cute, playful public art?
- Do we need more thought-provoking pieces?
- Do we need more interactive and engaging public art?
Best Library In The World?
Then Bill Ptacek, Calgary Public Library’s CEO gave a passionate speech saying his vision is to “create the greatest public library in the world” and how public art is critical to that vision. He was emphatic the new library will have a strong indigenous presence as part of its placemaking. (Councillor Druh Farrell, in her welcoming comments also made a point of referencing the role of the indigenous people in Calgary’s history.)
The light bulb went on!
Why instead of an international competition for a public artwork, didn’t CMLC commission one or more indigenous artists to create art for the new library?
I am not aware of any major public artwork in Calgary by an indigenous artist. A missed opportunity?
In chatting with a few visual art professionals, they wondered why Moeller was commissioned to create art for both the outdoor and indoor sites. CMCL could have easily conducted an international competition for one of the sites and conducted an invitation competition to Canadian artists with an indigenous background for the other.
But I digress.
CMLC / Library Update
After posting this, CMLC contacted me to say that Brian Jungen was actually one of the five finalists for the new Central Library commission. Calgary Public Library also commented on Twitter that they have three artists in residences (one dedicated to indigenous art) and Indigenous placemaking within the new library.
Just by chance I also visited the new Riddell Library and Learning Centre at Mount Royal University. I was very impressed by its design and the funky studying and learning spaces provided. But what really caught my attention was that some of the signage was in English and Blackfoot. I am wondering if Calgary Public Library is thinking that they might do that also.
What is "Trio?"
Moeller told the audience “Trio” is three, 10-meter tall cartoonish, alien-like characters inspired by the plastic Dunking Birds (aka Drinking Bird) that bob up and down to mimic the motion of a bird drinking. FYI: The heads and necks of Trio will oscillate back and forth by 25 degrees (20 degrees forward and 5 degrees back). Two of the sculptures will be located at the new Central Library’s west entrance and the other at the east entrance.
CMLC’s news release describes “Trio” as “a band of sisters engaged in an endless back and forth motion. Reminiscent of a cross between a hockey player and a ‘drinking bird,’ they perform a visual dialogue or choreography, rocking their tall upper bodies like an upside-down pendulum swinging through the open sky.”
What is “Fish?”
Moeller’s second commissioned a huge artwork (45 ft. by 10 ft.) is made up of approximately 10,000 “books.” Well they are not actual books, as they don’t have titles, authors or writing in them. The artist had the blank looks custom manufactured in 12 different coloured spines. Each quasi-book is strategically placed to create a pixelated close-up of the head of a huge reddish-orange fish staring back at you.
I wonder if this work is a comment on the meaninglessness of books in our digital world and the changing role of libraries. I also wondered if the artist considered adding an interactive element – for example, allowing people to take out the books, write in them and return them.
The Selection Process
CMLC went to great effort to explain the comprehensive process involved in selecting Moeller for this commission – one that began with a “Request for Qualifications” from local, national and international artists, back in 2014. This created a list of 239 artists, which was narrowed to 35 by a Volunteer Art Committee comprising of representatives from the community-at-large, ACAD, Glenbow, Calgary Public Library, Calgary Arts Development and an artist.
Five artists were then chosen by the Committee to meet with the New Calgary Library (NCL) project team; Library staff and a local historian so they could better understand the NCL vision and Calgary’s sense of place. The five artists then developed their concepts and presented to the Committee. Moeller was ultimately chosen for the $2 million public art commission, a sum which is inclusive of all fees, expenses, fabrication, delivery and installation costs.
CMLC is an arms length organization of the City and as such, is not bound by the City of Calgary’s Public Art Policy. However, they have always conducted a very professional and fair selection process for their public art, with the result being artworks enjoyed by the majority of Calgarians.
Cute? Clever? Captivating?
Susan Veres, senior vice president of strategy & business development describes the new public art as “a colourful, captivating concept that brings a playfulness to the library experience – a delightful sense of arrival and wonder for all visitors to enjoy, especially children.”
Moeller’s playful pieces will compliment CMLC’s existing permanent public art in East Village, which are also colourful and playful.
- Ron Moppett’s “THESAMEWAYBETTER/READER,” a colourful and delightful mosaic of 956,321 (no I didn’t count them) colourful tiny glass tiles (made in Germany) reflecting Calgary’s history.
- Julian Opie’s “Promenade,” which features several cartoon figures on an LED screen representing everyday Calgarians, as they stroll in endless circles around what looks like a mini downtown office tower. Ironically the piece is more accessible to those driving over the 5th Avenue flyover than to pedestrians on the street.
- Michel de Broin’s “Bloom” which is made up of retro streetlights arranged to look like a giant flower located in St. Patrick’s Island on the banks of the Bow River.
As well, “Trio” and “Fish” will also fit nicely with Calgary’s other fun, funky and quirky downtown public art – Plensa’s “Wonderland,” a big white wire mesh head, the tall skinny naked dancing figures titled “Brotherhood of Man” by Mario Armengol, Sorel Etrog’s aliens, Sadko and Kabuki, as well as the folk art cows in the Centennial Parkade’s +15 Udderly Art Pasture.
This is not the first time Moeller has been short-listed for a public art commission in Calgary. Back in 2014, I was a juror for a public art piece to be commission for the Crowfoot LRT Station. One of the submissions was Moeller’s. Ironically, his proposal was my choice for the site, but all the other jurors voted for Bill Pechet’s tree-like lampposts with yellow warning lights “leaves.” Not a bad choice, I just liked Moeller’s better.
I was surprised to see a version of Moeller’s Calgary’s proposal installed in the middle of a traffic circle in downtown Nashville this past October. I loved the piece, but the location wasn’t appropriate - the public couldn’t get up close to the 35 cedar poles, each 85 feet tall, that looks like a game of pick-up sticks with references to First Nation tent poles. What I liked about Moeller “Stix” piece was I imagined kids at the LRT Station running around the poles playing tag and hide-and-seek. This could not happen at the Nashville traffic circle!
I am still envious of Chicago’s Millennium Park and its two iconic public artworks – Cloud Gate (by Anish Kapoor ) and Crown Fountain (by Jaume Plensa). Both attract thousands of people daily to come, stay and interact with them. They are destinations in themselves, not just something to glance at and move on.
However with a price tag of $23 million for Cloud Gate and $17 million for Crown Fountain, I expect I won’t see a work of art on this scale and scope in Calgary in my lifetime. But we do have two special pedestrian bridges with similar price tags - the Peace Bridge at Prince’s Island and George King Bridge at St. Patricks’ Island.
I expect Moeller’s “Trio” and “Fish” will be loved by Calgarians. While some will complain about the $2 million budget and some will complain “why wasn’t a Calgary or Canadian artist selected?” I think that will always happen. You can’t make everyone happy and than includes me!
However, I do think we missed an opportunity to do something special by not working with Canada’s indigenous visual arts community to create a monumental work of art.
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