By Erin Campbell
When I saw Elspeth Pratt’s installation, Second Date, at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s offsite location beside the Shangri-la, my immediate desire was to go wade in through the pool of water so I could immerse myself in the environment her work created. Of course, social convention and the friend who agreed to wander downtown with me refused to let me do this. Instead, I examined the work from different angles and tried to access its environment without actually getting my feet wet.
Then I realized I was already inside the work. Elspeth Pratt had reacted to Vancouver’s environment by making a small and artistically crafted model of it: metal for the buildings which created Vancouver’s iconic skyline, rolling white hills for a backdrop of mountains, and the sun hiding in a pool of water, waiting to be recognised. However, the distortion in this representation of Vancouver was so great that, even now, I wonder if my interpretation is right or if I’m inventing meaning where none should exist.
The illusive quality of Second Date and the difficulty I experienced in creating a connection with the piece really got me thinking about what the goal of offsite work should be. Traditionally, offsite gallery works and other instances of public art aim to make art accessible to the public through a joining of everyday and artistic life. I find myself wondering: If public art distorts its meaning to a point where it is inaccessible and confusing to the public—even if it references everyday environments—will it ever be able to become a part of the public sphere? Or will it become something with which people refuse to engage? And if the public remains separate from public art is there a responsibility for institutions to guide interpretation in order to make it more accessible?
The answers remain to be explored as art continues to be placed in the public realm. It is up to the public to respond to the works, engage (or not), and make sense of an often unexpected intrusion into their accustomed environment. I urge you to go and dip your toes into Second Date—and decide for yourself.
Elspeth Pratt’s sculptures demonstrate her interest in architecture and social spaces. She uses a variety of prosaic materials, from plywood to beverage containers, to comment on how architecture structures our lives. Pratt has shown nationally and internationally for three decades and her works are part of collections all over Canada. Recent exhibitions include Nonetheless at the Cooley Art Gallery in Portland, OR (2011) and Second Date, a large-scale public art project at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Offsite (2011), which is currently on view until January 8, 2012.
Second Date, 2010
Site-specific installation at Vancouver Art Gallery Offsite
June 29, 2011 to January 8, 2012
Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery