No sooner had “The Ring” — the giant art installation that was unveiled in the heart of downtown Montreal on Saturday — been announced than every single member of the city’s amateur art critics’ association appeared out of nowhere to have their say on social media.
“A giant waste of money…”
“It should have been a giant bagel…”
The reactions brought me back to when I was working on Nuns’ Island two decades ago when two pieces of public art, chosen to adorn the centres of two roundabouts (don’t get me started on the controversies the roundabouts themselves created), incited similar reactions.
Same old, same old
One of the pieces of public art — “Le carrousel de l’île” by Quebec artist Michel Goulet, a series of 12 galvanized steel and brass sculptures representing human behaviour — didn’t appeal to many and no one seemed to understand it. If I’m being totally honest, neither did I.
The second one, at the entrance to Nuns’ Island, “Milieu humide” (wetlands), is basically a group of lime green rods sticking out of the ground, which react to light and temperature. While I’ve grown to like this piece of quirky art, at the time the reaction was so negative that the borough mayor almost had the sculpture dismantled before it was fully installed for “safety reasons” that never quite materialized. A petition was even created by residents, denouncing what they referred to as “popsicles.”
These negative reactions are nothing unique. In 2009, when a $2.4-million public sculpture was commissioned in Phoenix, Arizona by artist Janet Echelman, called “Her 30 Secret Is Patience,” many rejected it. Since then, the striking aeriel structure has won many awards and residents have grown to appreciate it. If some of you recognize the name, it’s because Echelman’s art has also graced Montreal. Her aeriel installation “1.26 (One Point Two Six),” temporarily hung above Quartier des Spectacles’ Jardins Gamelin a few summers ago.
When Paris’s iconic-by-now Eiffel Tower was being built in 1887, a group of French artists wrote a letter denouncing “the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower,” this “gigantic factory chimney, crushing with its barbarian mass.” It’s safe to say that the wrought-iron tower, now considered by many as one of the world’s most romantic places to visit, has grown on Parisians.
A mostly private, but costly project
“The Ring” is now causing similarly heated reactions. One thing art consistently does is stir up emotions, and not always the good kind. When public funds are involved — even if this artwork is primarily privately funded — people’s proprietary interests become (understandably) even stronger.
The 23-tonne steel structure that measures 30 metres in diameter and cost a hefty $5-million is suspended at the main entrance to Esplanade PVM at Place Ville Marie to link it to the rest of the city. Landscape architect Claude Cormier, who was responsible for “18 Shades of Gay” — the whimsical network of colourful balls along Ste-Catherine in the Gay Village, which attracted more than its share of tourists under its rainbow canopy ‚ is also the one behind “The Ring.”
The project was commissioned by real estate company Ivanhoé Cambridge. Tourism Montreal, the Quebec government and the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal are among the parties financing the project, which is meant to revitalize the downtown core. Made of steel, “The Ring” was designed and built by a Quebec company based in Trois-Rivieres. Most of the money spent went to local workers who built, designed and installed the piece, and to pay for the heavy equipment involved. It’s essentially a net infusion back into Montreal’s and Quebec’s local economies.
A marriage of past, present and future
Cormier said in an interview during the inauguration of “The Ring” last week, in the middle of a monsoon-like rainstorm, that it represents “a marriage or union of past, present and future, bringing together different moments of history.” Sure, it sounds like the pretentious artspeak that often plagues the art world, but he’s not entirely wrong. “The Ring” looks out towards Mount Royal, McGill’s Roddick Gates, the Royal Victoria and along the soon-to-be-finished pedestrianized McGill College Avenue that will feature a public square honouring local jazz legend Oscar Peterson. The REM will be running underneath it all. It is a marriage of Montreal’s past, present and future.
Those who champion the public art piece hope it will be viewed as a gateway to the current city centre, a celebration of more than 200 years of our city’s history, a popular new meeting point and most certainly a favourite spot for tourists and Instagram users.
While some (like public historian and frequent Cult MTL contributor Taylor Noakes, with whom I recently discussed “The Ring”) find that Cormier was too safe of a choice (and I would encourage him to write a piece explaining why), I rather like it.
I think it’s audacious and makes quite the statement. Hovering over the staircase of Place Ville Marie’s Esplanade, it just simply can’t be missed.
Public art defines public spaces
The beauty of public art is that it can be celebrated and interpreted in any which way residents and visitors of a city choose to. Once art is created, it no longer belongs to the artist, it belongs to those engaging with the art.
Public art has tremendous cultural, social and economic value. Even if we don’t like the art. Even if we don’t understand the art, it becomes indelibly connected to a place.
Just think of some of the iconic pieces of art we’ve come to associate with the cities they’re in. Artworks like “Cloud Gate” (better known by most as simply the Bean) in Chicago’s Millennium Park are intertwined with our image of that city. Tourists can’t get enough of the Bean!
You can’t think of Barcelona without Antoni Gaudi’s brilliant art and architecture. Parc Guelle and Sacrada Familia remain the places most visitors need to see before going home. Buenos Aires, Philadelphia and our very own Montreal have elevated street and graffiti art to a legitimate art form and something to celebrate with their annual well-attended mural festivals. The next time you’re in NYC, you may be more inclined to appreciate Arturo Di Modica’s “The Charging Bull” near Wall Street, or be inspired by the “Fearless Girl” by Kristen Visbal across from the New York Stock Exchange Building. And you’ll remember both.
Quirky, classical, contemporary or urban, public art matters. It defines, beautifies and humanizes our public spaces, helping us create a sense of community. It gives our cities a soul and a recognizable face.
So, while those complaining are part of a long tradition of initial negative reactions to public art, I would urge them to give “The Ring” a chance. Ten years from now, you might not be able to imagine Montreal without it. ■
Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.