Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Strange welcome

What is this enigmatic figure on the Coal Harbour seawall saying to the tourists below?

Plaque includes poet's words written on sculpture.

Boats, mountains, Stanley Park; there's lots else to look at on the seawall.

Most seawall-walkers have their eyes on the scenery, including the unusual green-roofed convention centre.
The statue of a semi-naked man on the Coal Harbour seawall has always seemed strange to me. Surrounded by condo towers, shops and cafes, he stands on top of what looks like a cliff. A film of water runs continuously down the cliff, semi-obscuring some words written there. The man is situated high enough that he's easy to miss, and most of the people walking the seawall on Monday were ignoring him, as I always have. But I was with a friend and we had time to linger, so we took a closer look. Under the water, the writing says: "in the last of warmth/and the fading of brightness/on the sliding edge of the beating sea". The lines are from a poem by Earle Birney, a novelist, poet, and long-time creative writing professor at the University of B.C., who died in 1995.

The 2003 sculpture, called sliding edge, is by artists Jacqueline Metz and Nancy Chew, whose webpage says they explore ideas of "place and perception, landscape and culture." They say the sculpture's name refers to the always-moving edge of the waterfront; that the black stone waterfall suggests the coal cliff of historic Coal Harbour; and that the "enigmatic figure" on top is looking north and "acting as our compass."


The poem they used, November Walk Near False Creek Mouth, was written in the early 1960s and does not appear to be a happy one. Literary critic L.R. Early says it represents Vancouver as "the last issue of an attenuated civilization, threatened with nuclear destruction and waiting for the end." It refers unkindly to the masses who walk there -- a lanknosed lady, wrinkled tourists, snorkeled manlings. Tom Marshall, author of Harsh and Lovely Land: The Major Canadian Poets and the Making of a Canadian Tradition, says that in Birney's poem, "a solitary man broods upon human incapacity, decay, selfishness and vulgarity in the face of impending disaster, solitary man on the furious edge of an ocean of chaos and irrational violence."

Which makes me think it's a good thing there is so much spectacular scenery to draw tourists' gaze out over the water as they walk the Coal Harbour seawall -- the mountains, the seaplanes, the grass-roofed convention centre. It may be best if they don't inquire too vigorously into the meaning of the strange figure looming over their heads on the opposite side.

1 comment:

  1. Well, public art is almost always controversial. The bleak message rather appeals to me and seems like a good idea for people to get a bit of a jolt if only momentarily. And especially tourists. Richard felt that changing the B.C. Ferries' names to cruise ship like names such as the Coastal Celebration rather than the Spirit of Vancouver was not a good idea. They did this partly because tourists might be on a ship that was called the Queen of Esquimalt and got confused and panicked because it wasn't going to Esquimalt. Richard believed part of travel is being dazed and confused.