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Public Art in Vancouver: Four Sculptures by the Waterfront

Linda Crampton is a writer who lives in Greater Vancouver. She enjoys walking and likes to take photographs of her discoveries.

A close-up view of a character in "A-maze-ing Laughter"

A close-up view of a character in "A-maze-ing Laughter"

Public Art Near Stanley Park

I enjoy observing public art in and around Vancouver. The area contains an interesting collection of sculptures. The four works shown and described in this article are located by the ocean. This is not all that they have in common. They have been placed close to Stanley Park, which is one of Vancouver's major attractions. Combining an exploration of the park and the art is very enjoyable.

Identifying the main entrance and exit of Stanley Park depends on the direction in which a person is walking. The A-maze-ing Laughter and Inukshuk sculptures are located in and near Morton Park close to the western entrance/exit of the park. The Search and Solo sculptures are located in Devonian Harbour Park by the eastern entrance/exit.

A walking and cycling path travels around the perimeter of the Stanley Park peninsula. An art lover can take a short cut from one of the sculpture locations to the other (points B and C on the map below) instead of travelling around the park. They may not want to take a short cut, though. The park contains additional art as well as other interesting sights. I often visit Stanley Park and nearby locations to take photographs, including the ones in this article.

Part of the sculpture in Morton Park with English Bay in the background

Part of the sculpture in Morton Park with English Bay in the background

The A-maze-ing Laughter Sculpture

Morton Park is a small neighbourhood park that can be reached from a path beside the ocean. The path passes by beaches, including English Bay Beach, and then enters Stanley Park. Morton Park is very close to English Bay Beach and is located at the end of Denman Street. It can be reached by walking along Denman Street from downtown Vancouver or by taking a bus.

The figures in the A-maze-ing Laughter sculpture are around ten feet tall. They have big, open, and grinning mouths with numerous teeth, and their eyes are closed. They appear to find something hilarious. Most are bent over, apparently in laughter. The sculpture is a very popular place for the public to take photos. People like to stand in front of a figure and mimic its pose as their photo is taken.

The fourteen figures were meant to be a temporary exhibit. Thanks to a large and generous donation from a wealthy family and the sculptor's decision to sell his work for a reduced price, A-maze-ing Laughter became a permanent fixture in Vancouver. The inscription shown below has been written on a low wall behind the figures.

May this sculpture inspire laughter playfulness and joy in all who experience it.

— Inscription behind the A-maze-ing Laughter sculpture

The Artist and His Background

The sculpture was created by a Chinese artist named Yue Minjun and was installed in Vancouver in 2009. The figures represent the artist. There has been speculation about the original intent of the sculpture because of the background of the artist and his work.

Yue Minjun's creations are associated with an art movement known as cynical realism. The movement has been linked to student protest in China, including the 1989 events at Tiananmen Square. The artist has said that his mood changed at that time and that he became "very down". He has also said that a smile doesn't necessarily mean happiness and that it can sometimes signify something else. He has used a grinning caricature of his face in both paintings and sculptures, which sometimes have a serious theme. The smiling character that he created is often shown multiple times in a single work.

An article from the City of Vancouver's website has an explanation for the apparent change in meaning of the sculpture. The article says that the choice of Morton Park for the sculpture's home stimulated "a rethinking on the part of the artist about how this work could reflect the site and be responsive to western society, outside the political concerns and religious ideology of China". A link to the article is provided in the "References" section below.

I don't know how the artist originally arranged or planned to arrange the figures. In the photos of Minjun's work that I've seen, the smiling characters are arranged in lines or tight groups. In Morton Park, they have been placed in a maze-like pattern. They are spaced out and are facing multiple directions. The arrangement enables people to walk among the figures and observe them closely, which adds to the fun of a visit. I've seen occasional reports of people resenting the fact that the sculpture is being presented as fun without an acknowledgement of another possible meaning.

"Inukshuk"

"Inukshuk"

The Inukshuk and Its Function

An inukshuk or inuksuk is a construction associated with the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic. It's made of stones and is utilitarian. It has the ability "to act in the capacity of a human", as the word inuksuk is said to mean. An inukshuk once acted as a communication device for the Inuit, conveying information to fellow travellers. The shape and form of an inukshuk indicated a good place to find prey, a site where food had been hidden for future use, or a danger in the path ahead, for example.

An inukshuk was created from nearby rocks and stones. These were placed in a sculpture formation without any means of attachment except for their shapes and relative positions. I assume that the constructions present in tourist areas today contain stones that are attached by additional means to help ensure safety.

Even today when the Inuit have modern means of travel and communication, the inukshuk has cultural importance. The sculpture overlooking English Bay has the title Inukshuk and was created by Alvin Kanak. It was commissioned by the Northwest Territories for their pavilion at the Expo 86 exhibition in Vancouver. It was later given to the city as a gift.

A view of the inukshuk from the opposite side

A view of the inukshuk from the opposite side

An Incorrect Name and an Innunguaq

Though a stone sculpture with a shape resembling a human is often called an inukshuk outside of the Arctic, that's not its correct name. The correct term is innunguaq, which means "in the likeness of a human". The sculpture was symbolic rather than utilitarian. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, it may have been used to indicate that humans gathered in a particular area. Inuksuit (the plural of inukshuk) did exist and were used to convey useful information as described above, but they didn't resemble a human.

It's understandable that the misuse of the word inukshuk might be irritating for some people. Unfortunately, the word is widely used outside of the Arctic. The correct term isn't as widely known. Another problem is that the name given to the Vancouver sculpture by its creator is Inukshuk and can't be arbitrarily changed.

In the video below, an Inuit cultural activist named Peter Irniq explains the difference between the terms inukshuk and innanguaq. Irniq is an artist who is currently known as Piiter Irnik. He has been politically active and has served as the commissioner of Nunavut, which is the most northerly territory in Canada. It separated from the Northwest Territories in 1999.

The sculptures described above are located by English Bay, which faces the Strait of Georgia. The strait is located between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island. The sculptures described below are located by a more sheltered ocean inlet on the other side of the Stanley Park peninsula.

"Search" by J. Seward Johnson Jr.

"Search" by J. Seward Johnson Jr.

The Search Sculpture

Devonian Harbour Park contains large lawns, flowers, trees, a pond surrounded by plants, sculptures, walking paths, and seats. On one side of the park is a harbour and on the other is a city road. The park is large enough to be relaxing, despite the presence of the road, which is separated from the park by a wide path. Devonian Harbour Park serves as an entrance to Stanley Park.

The lady in the Search sculpture sits on a park bench not far from the road. She is searching in her purse for something. Since she appears to be holding a case used to store glasses in her right hand, we can guess that she's searching for her spectacles or sunglasses. She seems to have forgotten that she's placed them on her head.

When I pass by the lady on my way to Stanley Park, I often find that someone has placed a bunch of flowers in the open spectacle case, as in my photos. They've probably picked the flowers from the displays in the park, which is technically not allowed. It does create a nice splash of colour, though. People like to sit beside the lady while their photo is taken.

Another view of the bronze lady

Another view of the bronze lady

Facts About J. Seward Johnson Jr.

The sculpture of the searcher is made of bronze and was created by J. Seward Johnson Jr. He also created the popular Photo Session sculpture in Queen Elizabeth Park. The artist was born in 1930 in New Jersey and died in 2020. He's sometimes known as John Seward Johnson Jr. or as Seward Johnson. He's known for his sculptures of ordinary people performing common activities as well as other works.

According to the City of Vancouver's web page about the Queen Elizabeth Park sculpture, the artist started his creation of a human figure with a clay model showing the desired pose. He then created a plaster model based on the face and body of a human posed in the desired position. Clothes were sewn into the plaster and stiffened with resin. Further models were created and improved until the final casting in bronze. This detailed process likely contributed to the realism of the models and their clothing.

Part of the Solo sculpture

Part of the Solo sculpture

A Sculpture in Devonian Harbour Park

Solo is an abstract sculpture created by Natalie McHaffie. It was installed in Devonian Harbour Park in 1986 as part of Vancouver's centennial celebration. The sculpture is made of stainless steel and painted cedar planks. The artist has reportedly said that the sculpture represents movement but not flight. She's a licensed pilot, so an association with flight might have been assumed by some viewers of the sculpture. This is especially true because of the sculpture's name and because it appears to contain wing-like structures. I can't get flight out of my mind when I view the work.

When the sculpture was first commissioned, at least one person on the Vancouver Park Board was unhappy. They felt that a metal sculpture wasn't suitable for a natural area. Their objections were overridden, however. My favourite aspects of the sculpture are the the coloured "feathers" of the wings and the light patterns created on the metal.

Facts About Natalie McHaffie

Natalie McHaffie is an artist, writer, and former stunt flyer from Ontario. She teaches sculpture and has been associated with various museums and heritage sites. She's currently associated with the Great War Flying Museum in Ontario and appears to have a deep love of planes.

The 2016 restoration shown in the video above was approved by the sculptor. After thirty years of being exposed to the elements, repairs were needed. The "25in25" reference in the title of the video refers to a public art retrospective that covered 25 years—1991 to 2016.

A view of the entire sculpture

A view of the entire sculpture

Exploring Public Art in Vancouver

I enjoy exploring Vancouver by visiting public art displays and their surroundings. The activity could be a good way for a first-time visitor to Vancouver to explore the city as well. The art can be found in the downtown area and in various neighbourhoods in the city. New works appear quite frequently.

The public art section of the City of Vancouver's website is useful. It describes some walks that people could take to see street art and sculptures and also provides the latest news related to public art in the city. Going on art walks and thinking about the meaning of the items that are seen can be very interesting.

References

  • A possible meaning of Yue Minjun's sculpture from the National Post newspaper
  • Cynical realism and Yue Minjun facts from the Encyclopedia of Art Education
  • A PDF brochure about the A-maze-ing Laughter sculpture and the artist from the City of Vancouver's website
  • Facts about the inukshuk or inuksuk from The Canadian Encyclopedia
  • Piita Irnik information from The Canadian Encyclopedia
  • Facts about Seward Johnson from Grounds For Sculpture (a sculpture park)
  • A description of the creation of a J. Seward Johnson Jr. figure from the City of Vancouver's website
  • Information about the Solo sculpture and Natalie McHaffie from the Vancouver Public Art Program

© 2019 Linda Crampton