Unsettled Ruins, Evolving Discourse
Published Date: Oct. 28 2021
Image: Loraine Luong
Imagine entering a playground of architectural spectacle where scattered remnants of Victorian, Beaux-Arts and Gothic-Revival buildings invite you to leisurely explore their intricate reliefs without the intimidation of a towering structure, to consider the carved symbols in a new setting and approach them as quasi-public art. A visit to Guild Park, nestled between an escarpment with magnificent views and the vibrant Scarborough Guild neighbourhood, evokes these impressions. Visitors become aware of the historical significance of the objects there—metaphorical residues of the modern era. Being conscious of this can be painful, depending on one's own life experience. The complex relationships that community members and visitors have and can have with Guild Park, where the visual representation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous tokens sidestep violent affairs that define(d) their relationship, prompts an investigation of what public art is and what it needs to become.
Guild Park’s legacy as an artist colony begins in 1932 when Rosa Breithaupt Hewetson purchased the property and developed it alongside her husband Herbert Spencer Clark. With a flair for artistic sensibilities, the couple modelled the newly acquired property after Roycroft, a reformist centre for craft workers and artists in East Aurora, New York., The Clarks named it ‘The Guild of All Arts.’ With a personal interest in heritage and cultural tourism, Spencer Clark collected the architectural relics produced by post-WWII demolitions, erecting them as follies: the Provincial Panels of the Bank of Montreal symbolizing the Canadian provinces (carved in the 1930s), the arches of the former Bank of Toronto depicting the Greek hero Herakles (1912), and the columns of the Banker's Bond building (1920). The Clarks re-framed these architectural objects as public art and inspiration for the artists completing their residencies. Unsurprisingly, the formal qualities of sculptures like Michael Clay’s Mobius Curve (1982) and Thomas Bowie’s St. Francis and the Wolf (1950s) fit well with the follies. Yet, public art’s transformative journey didn’t end in the repurposing, reproduction, and display of these static objects; in later years, the stillness became disrupted.
The postmodern movement changed public art’s parameters and in the contemporary moment it evolves, swayed by community voices that enunciate their existence (culture, needs, desires, beliefs) and gradually push for understanding public art as a local affair. For the past 10 years, the Guild Festival Theatre has animated the pillars of the former Bank of Toronto with colourful programming. More recently, radical on-site interventions interact with The Guild of All Arts’ cultural inheritance, calling attention to Scarborough’s current socio-political context and settler narratives. The six-month-long curatorial project (Un)settled (2017) invited artists Lori Blondeau, Lisa Myers, Duorama, Basil AlZeri, and Terrance Houle to excavate “the long-forgotten sediments of cultural and political phenomena around us: Indigenous identity and politics, ghost stories and urban hauntings, cultural hierarchies of oppression, economic inequality, and ecological devastation.” The performance art visibly complicated the aesthetic objects’ status in Guild Park by revealing alternative narratives, hidden but always present. Posing atop architectural remnants, Lori Blondeau evokes “powerful gestures of remembering and sovereignty,” while Basil AlZeri questions “the tension between power and powerlessness” with a park tour parody. How we experience public art changes with the insertion of embodied memories—gestures, performances, orality, movement, dance; they bring new affects and knowledge that burst though the concreteness of static objects. Such radical interventions teach us that public art can no longer be reduced to aesthetic enjoyment or cultural capital but should be approached as a harbinger of community self-determination that can be unsettling, traumatizing, disruptive, and yet, deeply promising.
Public art is “ephemeral by nature” and those words ring true for the (Un)settled project, of which we only have archival documentation. Its momentous existence, however, does not cease to be deeply inspiring, much like the architectural remains were to sculptural artists. (Un)settled’s legacy shows that the animated rebirth of public art in the city needs to continue its thread of engaging, revealing, intervening, and decoding history. The project exists now as a contemporary inheritance. With the forthcoming opening of the Clark Centre for the Arts, it will be interesting to see how the new era of artistic creation in Guild Park will continue this legacy of unsettlement and community engagement.