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