Dennis Oppenheim: “Device to Root Out Evil” to be Removed

VANCOUVER — It was too hot for New York City; too hot for Stanford University. But a controversial, imposing sculpture by renowned international artist Dennis Oppenheim finally found a public home in laid-back Vancouver. Now, after 21/2 years in a prominent location near Stanley Park, the upside-down country church, denounced as “blasphemous” by some aghast Christians, is about to be unceremoniously dismantled, its future uncertain.

Too many negative comments and too many neighbours complaining that the sculpture interfered with their view of scenic Coal Harbour sealed the immediate fate of Mr. Oppenheim’s work, entitled Device to Root Out Evil.

The decision to remove the sculpture, approved unanimously by Vancouver Park Board commissioners this week, has dismayed those who wanted to keep the piece’s topsy-turvy church spire where it is, firmly planted in the grass of Harbour Green Park.

And it has rekindled debate on the role of public art in a city that yearns for world-class status but often succumbs, in the eyes of critics, to small-town thinking.

“The Park Board couldn’t find a way to rise above the history and controversy of this sculpture,” George Wagner, an associate professor at the University of B.C. school of architecture, said Wednesday.

“So they just made an expedient decision … that amounts to de facto censorship. It’s quite disturbing, and makes us, in my view, a lesser city.”

Said Michaela Frosch, the disappointed chairwoman of Vancouver Sculpture Biennale, which has spearheaded an ambitious citywide program to display sculpture in public places: “I don’t think we are yet prepared for this level of art. Very clearly, it does create debate and dialogue, but that’s good. It helps humanize Vancouver.”

Ms. Frosch said the sculpture is likely to be lost to another city that is prepared to take a bolder approach to withstanding criticism of a celebrated but provocative work of art.

Not only high-minded art lovers have risen to the sculpture’s defence.

Roger Swetnam, whose condominium overlooks the sculpture, lists “beer, hockey and cop shows” as his major cultural events.

“But I really like that church. It’s such a quirky thing. There’s always parents down there taking photos of their kids standing on their heads. It’s fun. I bring people down there all the time,” Mr. Swetnam said.

He loves the upside-down church so much, in fact, he wanted his wedding pictures taken there. “It’s not blasphemous at all.”

The well-known piece has attracted both widespread acclaim and censure since its unveiling at the famous Venice Biennale in 1997.

The controversy was too much for the director of New York City’s public art fund, however. He rejected the artist’s offer to display the glass-and-aluminum church on Church Street, citing worries that religious leaders would be offended.

A few years later, Stanford University in California backed out of a deal to buy the sculpture after extensive complaints by churchgoers.

Mr. Oppenheim has denied any anti-religious design to his sculpture. “Pointing a steeple into the ground directs it to hell as opposed to heaven,” he told one interviewer. “It’s a very simple gesture.”

In 2005, the Vancouver Sculpture Biennale persuaded the New York-based Mr. Oppenheim to lend the city his sculpture as part of an exposition of 17 pieces by accomplished artists to be displayed at public spaces throughout the city.

The pieces were supposed to be replaced in subsequent years by other works of art.

However, the Biennale wants to keep some of the best sculptures on permanent display, including Device to Root Out Evil. Mr. Oppenheim’s work was sold at auction for $300,000 to the private Benefic Foundation of Vancouver in 2006.

“We’d like the church to stay where it is,” Ms. Frosch said. “We think that’s a lovely site. It’s so prominent. Taking it down will cost $40,000, and that seems a terrible waste of money to move it somewhere else.”

Park Board vice-chairman Ian Robertson rejected allegations that censorship, controversy and lack of appreciation for public art determined the board’s decision to remove the sculpture.

“We’ve had 16 other pieces widely accepted by the public, and one piece that has been controversial in two other cities,” he said.

“Controversy seems to follow that piece around. Myself, I think it’s great. I like it. It opens up discussion. But what’s wrong is the location.”

The site is too close to condominium towers, and the pocket park is too small for such a large sculpture, said Mr. Robertson. “It’s a controversial piece, and it’s in people’s front yards. They can’t escape it.”

“Many residents have told us they don’t want to see it there, and I think we have to respect their wishes.”

He said commissioners hope to work with Vancouver Sculpture Biennale during the next 60 days to see whether an alternative location can be found. “It would be better off in a park where it wouldn’t be so much in your face.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Oppenheim is said to be very disappointed by the decision. “He felt his sculpture had found a home in Vancouver and had been embraced by its citizens,” said Ms. Frosch, who talked to the artist on Tuesday.

by ROD MICKLEBURGH From Globe and Mail

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This entry was posted in Art, Installations, Public Sculpture, sculpture, Sculpture Exhibitions. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Dennis Oppenheim: “Device to Root Out Evil” to be Removed

  1. Ross MacDonald says:

    When I first saw an image of the sculpture I thought immediately it had a positive contemporary message regarding the state of spirituality in North America.
    It is sad but not unusual for a sculpture to be ignominiously removed or dismantled in Western Canada.
    Vancouver is after all, definitely a Western Canadian city, even though demographics are changing with the insatiable Canadian demand for new immigrants.The attitudes still seem to be the same as Winnipeg or Saskatoon on many levels.
    Vancouver IS a world city, it is simply a world city from Western Canada.
    Unfortunately, it will take several generations to rid itself of that narrowness of mind.

  2. Maria Holman says:

    Contrary to what was reported in the Globe and Mail, most people who live near the sculpture actually like it. Tourists love to take pictures of it or have their picture take with it.

    Roger Swetnam, quoted in the article, is heading a grass- roots (no pun intended) movement in the neighbourhood to keep the sculpture in its present location. If you are interested in supporting it please talk to the staff at the Urban Fare across the street from the park where the church is located.

    Even if it is not your favourite piece of art, it is a very relevant piece. If Vancouver is ever to become culturally relevant, we need this kind of art.

    By the way, you would have to be very tall for the sculpture to block your view of anything, let alone Coal Harbour!!

  3. Glenn says:

    once again the parks board gives in to the few people who are offended by something (the not-in-my-backyard idiots), who despite the fact it’s been there for some time, are now saying it’s offensive and blasphemous. This sculpture and its location are one of the things I love best about this city. It’s in a great location and makes for lots of interesting conversations. What offends me is there was no public debate about it. Just the rich people who live near the site have their say. How can it block your view? It’s not a huge metal wall.

    Once again Vancouver proves itself a no fun city.

  4. Lisbeth says:

    Having discovered Dennis Oppenheim’s sculpture “Device to Root Out Evil”— and, being thrilled by that discovery — I was surprised and saddened to read that there is a plan to remove it. It was on the last page of the tourist guide “Where,” in the section ’15 Things We Love About Vancouver,’ that I saw a photo of the sculpture…it encouraged me to go searching for it. There will never be consensus about any creative effort. Should the idea that some people find it offensive determine the sculpture’s removal? What about all the people who love this piece? Public art that generates a response, that delights because of its original point of view, that is situated in a setting that is appropriate, that enhances the piece as well as the place…is the best art!
    PS I am a student at Seattle University in the School of Theology and Ministry.

  5. Jason R says:

    The Glenbow Museum in Calgary managed to obtain the sculpture and its new home in Calgary was unveiled this morning as the sculpture arrived in the city and was paraded to where it will be installed in a park just south of the Stampede grounds, surrounded by an area where a massive revitalization is underway

  6. Pingback: Flavorwire » Remembering Dennis Oppenheim’s Public Art

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