Calgary – Early this month a new public art installation went up in Calgary, over by the road works on the TransCanada Highway near Canada Olympic Park. It’s called Bowfort Towers, and my first thought upon seeing it was that it was part of the jumble of metal and concrete of the construction itself.
Positioned at a key “gateway” to the city from the mountains, the installation consists of upright girders “cradling” slabs of Rundle stone, taken from the aforementioned mountain area. Supposedly it draws upon Blackfoot inspiration, employing four sets of girders honouring the Blackfoot conception of the four seasons and the four stages of life. Thankfully, it was not erected drawing upon the wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures, otherwise we might have had 7 sets of girders, or perhaps forty
Blackfoot-inspired or not, criticism from the aboriginal community was quick. Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi was a little piqued at the bellyaching, as he doesn’t care for the implication that his administration is insufficiently progressive on matters Indian, whether of the aboriginal or immigrant variety. There had been, he huffed, proper consultation with a “traditional knowledge keeper whose expertise is in the field of Blackfoot archaeology and symbolism.”
Apparently the knowledge keeper was not traditional enough, as the Blackfoot objected that the Bowfort Towers looked liked their traditional burial scaffolds. The New York artist objected that he had grown up in South Dakota and the Sioux there made burial scaffolds with the rocks on the top, not the middle. So there.
Those without traditional knowledge to keep in the city generally thought the installation both ugly and costly. I don’t suppose it was intended to be ugly, though it is that, but it was supposed to be costly. When Calgary city council approves a public works project of sufficient size, one per cent of the budget has to go to public art. So the $50 million interchange to smooth out traffic in Calgary’s northwest generated a cool five hundred grand for art. That’s also how, a few years back, Calgary got an enormous blue ring over by the airport in the northeast; $500,000 apparently gets you really tall steel on the art market today.
The Big Blue Circle – entitled formally Travelling Light – is meant to invoke the “universal mode of transportation”, the wheel. That too is a little insensitive to aboriginal peoples, as the wheel was not as universal here as it was elsewhere in the world.
In any case, Calgary’s ongoing fiasco of public art raises another, broader question about our common life. Who should adorn it? When the city gets into the mix, the artistic impulse gets ground through a bureaucratic apparatus and the results are, well, not pretty.