by Liza Montgomery
Glimpsed through the window of a passing train, Instant Coffee’s most recent site-specific public art installationappears like a glittering, pixelated mirage amid a monotonous landscape of wet concrete, storefront signage, and grey skies. Known for their kitschy, DIY aesthetic and penchant for artifice and catchy slogans, the collective has placed their latest project, Perpetual Sunset, before a diverse public in downtown Richmond.
Spanning a forty by eighty foot westward facing wall, Instant Coffee (IC) has constructed a billboard-sized representation of a cliché sunset. The image is rendered in 40,000 suspended, coloured sequins using a technique borrowed from 20th century roadside signage, fittingly referred to in industry lingo as “schmaltz.” Loosely fastened, the reflective discs tremble in the breeze, producing a constant shifting light that is meant to mimic Perpetual Sunset’s natural counterpart. In IC’s version this normally fleeting moment of sublime natural beauty has been suspended in a state of endless shimmering bliss—providing tired commuters on the Canada Line a moment of escapist pleasure on their way to and from work no matter the time of day.
IC describes their installation as a “romantic gesture to portray, capture, and stay the majesty of the sunset.” The schmaltzy glamour of its sequined veneer combined with the less-than-majestic surroundings of strip mall signage touting businesses like “Money Mart,” “Pizza Express,” and “Micky’s Convenience Store,” makes it clear that a tongue-in-cheek irony is intended here. Mimicking the devices of advertising signage, Perpetual Sunset is, in many ways, barely distinguishable from a travel billboard, albeit an enigmatic one. The visual incongruity of IC’s “never-ending” sunset performing above a dirty dumpster and sad-looking strip-mall, is a playful intervention into the everyday; resembling a Situationists’ détournement, the work aims to shake us from our slumber of uncritical passivity or boredom. By appropriating the language of advertising and popular culture, Instant Coffee examines the nature of a ubiquitous cultural sign and the complex relationship between its referent and representation.
Photo courtesy of Rennie Collection at Wing Sang, http://www.renniecollection.org
Another pseudo-billboard occupying Vancouver’s public sphere is Martin Creed’s Work No. 851. Creed, referring to his appropriation of a similarly empty sentimental phrase,observed: “…I notice if someone tells you something like ‘don’t worry; everything will be all right’—that can be really helpful…Even if it’s empty, it still can be comforting.” (1) Emptied of authentic emotional meaning by arbitrary usage and/or commercial dilution, Creed suggests such culturally loaded signs are still capable of offering genuine reassurance or pleasure, even if only for their associations.
In their ironic relationship to their “everyday” surroundings both art installations also run the risk of appearing to alienate the community that they claim to engage with; inadvertently maintaining social hierarchies instead of promoting dialogue between communities. The social and economic context of Creed’s public installation in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is clearly more problematic than that of Perpetual Sunset in this regard.
Instant Coffee’s playful approach invites viewers to consider their art projects on various levels. Their intelligent manipulation of everyday space and language promote a heightened awareness of the peculiarities of our behaviors and manufactured surroundings. French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, in his theoretical discussion on the political power of ‘everydayness’ suggests: “Why should the study of the banal itself be banal? Are not the surreal, the extraordinary, the surprising, even the magical, also part of the real? Why wouldn’t the concept of everydayness reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary” (2) Indeed, an unexpected encounter with an 80 foot bedazzled wall amid a sea of rain-soaked concrete on a overcast Vancouver day is an extraordinary vision.
Perpetual Sunset can be viewed on the west wall of the Camino Development at the intersection of the Westminster Highway and No.3 Road in Richmond. It is also visible from the Canada Line between Brigthouse and Lansdowne stations.
Work No. 851 can be viewed on the south-facing wall of the Wing Sang building in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Read more here about Instant Coffee by Liza Montgomery.
1. Martin Creed, interview with Marsha Lederman. “From Balloons to Broccoli: Creed finds a home in Vancouver’s Rennie.” The Globe and Mail. May 20, 2011.
2. Henri Lefebvre, “The Everyday and Everydayness.” Yales French Studies, No. 73, Everyday Life (1987), pp. 9.