Wednesday, March 25, 2009: No art for this public. A Halifax artist creates large sculptures for cities all across North America... but don't bother looking for his work here.
A book that's bigger than a car; A human ear as tall as a person; And a metal chair that's so gigantic you'd have to climb up two and a half stories just to sit in it. These are just a few of the large-scale artworks made by Ilan Sandler. Sandler lives in Halifax. And his art work is found in cities around the world - Philidelphia, St.Louis, Toronto and Busan South Korea. These days he's busy in his Halifax studio making more large sculptures. But, don't expect to see any of them around here. Once they're made, the new art work will be shipped off and set up in cities far afield.
Listen to the interview (5:11)
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s . . . a piece of sculpture?
Motorists travelling Highway 401 past Pearson International Airport aren’t seeing things.
There, on a mound of mud and sod that is usually home to the roar of traffic and the worst wind tunnel this side of the prairies, now sit three gargantuan pieces of contemporary art, installed just last week.
The sculptures, each by a Canadian artist and made of honking chunks of weather-resistant metal that loom mightily over Canada’s largest and busiest highway, cost an estimated $700,000 to produce but are free for the two seconds of viewing afforded by a fast-moving vehicle.
And they’ll be sticking around for the next three years as part of Artstage, a new public art exhibition on the airport’s grounds. It’s the result of a collaborative effort led by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority and curator Andrew Davies, and underwritten by corporate sponsors.
Carl Skelton, one of the artists commissioned to participate, calls it a poem on the side of the highway.
“Things around here are always appearing and disappearing,” the Toronto native said this week, on-site at the unconventional outdoor gallery, planes sliding silently in and out of the clotted clouds overhead.
“My piece asks what changed since the you last drove by it. What is the light like? It makes you look at this place as something beautiful.”
Mr. Skelton’s contribution to the project, Still Life, is a series of 250 steel panels—orange, blue, red and black—seamlessly welded to form an undulating, 23-metre-long wall of vibrant colour.
It’s flanked on one side by Montrealer Michel de Broin’s aluminum Airline (a staircase that launches into a coiling shape that resembles one of the overhead loops of the nearby highway), and on the other side by Ilan Sandler’s The Book (a 3.3-metre-tall tome with one page—punctuated with etched lettering and ideogrammic forms— floating away).
Irene Hawrylyshyn, senior manager of corporate and cultural programs for the GTAA, says Artstage is an effort to inject some personality into the lands surrounding Pearson Airport.
It was an outgrowth of architect Moshe Safdie’s recent rebuilding of Terminal One, where artworks by such internationally acclaimed artists as Ingo Maurer are already on display.
“The funding was in place for that initiative,” she says.
“This is a continuation of that, and it’s been a bit of a community effort which we’ve been happy to support.”
In fact, Pearson and its environs were a source of inspiration to the artists. Mr. Sandler, a native of South Africa who resides in Halifax, says the behemoth of an airport was on his mind as he conceived his piece.
“The airport is a hub of modern-day technology—it’s a site of transit and change,” he says. “And books themselves are both objects and also metaphors for containment. I was researching containers when I was asked to submit an idea for the project, and for me, books are transporters of language and ideas.
“When creating for this space, I wanted a book that was ripping apart, that was part of this site, part of the high winds and the speed of the passersby.”
It’s a profound concept that sinks into the soft matter of the brain even while the zoom of the highway forms a barrier to quiet contemplation.
But that’s the charm of Artstage. Even with the world crashing by, the artworks hold sway. They seize the imagination—even if glimpsed in the flash of chrome and steel.
Find out more at www.ilansandler.com.
More than ever, Toronto is warming to public art. Need proof? One only has to look at three recent developments.
• Nuit Blanche’s unqualified success as a noctural art-party.
• This month’s open call to explore new uses for Nathan Philips Square.
• Last week’s installation of Artstage on the outskirts of Pearson International Airport.
Long forgotten are the political battles of the ’60s that confronted the installation of Henry Moore’s The Archer in Nathan Philips Square. In such a media-intense city as we are now, a public display of significant contemporary art is seen as an innovative and necessary way to ornament existing urban space. And unlike the oversized bronze statues of a century ago, you don’t necessarily need space on the ground, either.
The three large-scale pieces at Artstage would be a terrific way to kick off a campaign of new outdoor art installations in Toronto—another 10 or so displays strategically located around town would do the trick. Two of Artstage’s three pieces, as yet unnamed, are slated to eventually become city property when they’re moved from the airport site in three years.
Way back when, public art in Toronto mostly meant one thing—the Lion Monument by Frances Loring and Florence Wyle. Lion snarled at everyone already snarled in traffic approaching Toronto from the west on the Queen Elizabeth Way before crossing the Humber River. Hidden ignominiously away in some parkland near the Humber, its former prominence now long gone, the limestone cat was not really about Toronto at all, though. To Loring, it showed “a snarling, defiant British lion,” symbolizing plucky British courage at the start of World War II.
Nevertheless, Artstage continues the Lion Monument tradition as a roadside civic greeter. The monumental size of work involved—Ilan Sandler’s The Book, Michel de Brion’s Airline and Still Life from Carl Skelton—represents a more contemporary take on the tradition, too. They can be seen from planes landing at the airport. There’s added synergy here since Pearson, operated by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, already sees itself as some sort of art centre, displaying work by a list of local and international artists including such A-list art star names like Richard Serrra.
“The airport didn’t have any particular requirement as to the theme of the (Artstage) work,” says Andrew Davies, curator for the $700,000 project. “However, there were considerations that the work reflected in a positive manner the airport’s current cultural activity. In fact, there are models, the maquettes of the Artstage work, inside the airport itself.”
Each individual Artstage piece riffs, in its own way, on the experience of air travel and getting to the airport. Airline by the Berlin-based de Broin, references a staircase that leads to a series of sleek, swooping curvilinear twirls. It’s a positive twist on the wear and tear one endures on arriving in Toronto, only to take that endless walk via stairways to the customs kiosks.
Halifax-based Sandler’s The Book—the best piece of the lot that on closer inspection reveals that it has perforations forming hollow words—reminds one of all the bestsellers dropped in the mad rush to make a flight. New York artist Skelton’s Still Life is a wall-long billboard with an array of colours sufficiently vibrant to give temporarily stalled Hwy. 401 motorists something interesting to look at.
Aesthetics weren’t the only considerations that went into choosing the pieces. Materials and durability came into it as well. “Some of the work required extensive foundations,” says Davies. “To do it properly you need to have a three-year period.”
And because a pair of the pieces will become city property, “we worked closely with the city in terms of material considerations, longevity, and safety criteria,” Davies adds.
Artstage’s corporate sponsorship—from Samsung, Capital One, Aeroplan and Home Depot—might also provide a model for a city strapped for art bucks, although I hope the city doesn’t follow the Artstage lead in giving statue-size models of the corporate logo even greater prominence than the artworks themselves. Airline, a wispy thing at best, is practically blown off the Artstage by the big fat corporate signs in front of it.
Toronto recently spent $350,000 to restore the 100 works it already owns, a good many a century old or more.
Yet it allots just one per cent of any of its constructions projects—such as the St. Clair Ave. streetcar redevelopment—for public art.
Private funding would be a plus. But if museums need deep-pocketed business sponsors to mount shows—Aeroplan is lead sponsor on the Alfred Eisenstaedt photography exhibition starting Nov. 18 at the Art Gallery of Ontario—why shouldn’t some of the same money be tapped for public art?
An Artstage-like scenario offers “an interesting” model for the city to develop public art in the future, says city cultural affairs manager Terry Nicholson. In fact, the city’s Art Committee for Public Spaces is already in place to find places for art—“super-sites,” it’s calling them—in otherwise unlikely spots.
“The beauty of the (Artstage) project is that we can eventually place work where art might not go,” says Nicholson.
The Artstage’s location likewise presents a model for further public installations in the city. “About 400,000 cars go by (the site) in a 24-hour period on 16 lanes of traffic,” says Davies. “That’s a tremendous amount of visibility compared to a museum.” Pre-renovation figures for the AGO, by comparison, peg attendance at between 500,000 and 580,000 people a year.
“In a way, we’re introducing these works to a large public,” says Davies.
On September 28, as weary rush-hour travelers inch towards Pearson Airport along the congested Highway 410 in Toronto, their choice of scenery will no longer be limited to flashing rearview lights and gaudy electronic billboards, thanks in part to Halifax artist Ilan Sandler and Velocity, a Burnside machining and welding company.
Sandler, also director at the Centre of Art Tapes, is one of three artists whose work was chosen as part of a new public art initiative called Artstage. Conceived by Gerry Mahoney of Hillside Communications—also responsible for the topiary logos that line the nearby Gardiner Expressway—his latest highway beautification project will introduce hundreds of thousands of commuters to Canadian contemporary art. The first projects will be on display for three years, launched at a ceremony attended by Toronto mayor David Miller.
Selected from a short-list of 15 local, national and international artists, all with experience in mounting major public art initiatives, Sandler has been working on this project—a gorgeously rendered 3.5 metre-tall steel white book with a page torn, almost dancing away, from its red spine—since January 2006.
Sandler’s West Street studio is difficult to find, but once inside, there’s no question that it’s his workshop. A giant, blue upturned hand looks ideal for curling up in, or for giving someone a grand rude gesture. A fleshy, foam espionage ear that last year transmitted sounds from an outside wall of Saint Mary’s University to visitors inside the art gallery is retired onto a back wall. Sandler deals in the unexpected—giant lawn chairs, bicycles that ride power-lines through the sky, full-sized helicopters constructed out of plaster dinosaur bones—and in architectural constructions that bridge our physical and intellectual lives.
The book started on West Street as research, then a proposal and a paper model that fits into Sandler’s (real) hand; the cheapest way to play with proportions, and to recreate a book’s movements. Then foamcore and table-sized wooden models were constructed to ensure the real thing could withstand nature’s forces. In the early paper stages, Sandler, who has a Bachelor of Physics degree as well as his Master of Fine Arts, began discussions with Sean MacPhee at Velocity about how to fabricate the project so that it would remain true to his vision, and still be structurally sound. “There was never any question,” says Sandler, “that the book would be made here in Halifax and shipped out to Toronto. There’s no other way we could have done it.”
In his small office, steps away from the heat of Velocity’s welding shop, Macphee doesn’t seem fazed by the large slabs of steel welded together to make the book’s pages, spine and cover. ‘We often deal with strange requests, so when someone comes with those ideas, we don’t automatically that that they’re crazy or out to lunch,” he says, although MacPhee admits most people are coming in for custom-made machines, not art.” He has an idea, we had the capability to do it, but we had to figure out how to do it and to make it look the same as what he wanted.”
Using a computer-aided design software program, MacPhee built 3D renderings of Sandler’s drawings. “He was able to figure out the geometry, it was all very complicated and unusual angles,” says Sandler. An impressive water-jet bed, which uses pressurized water and abrasive powder to cut computer-driven details out of steel, was used for the various sections before they were welded together like a 3D puzzle.
As cars drive past the runaway book, they will instantly recognize its shape. Those who are lucky to get as close will make out actual clusters of words, or their shadows, cut into the steel. It’s a high-concept tour of the history of the Latin alphabet, including Egyptian hieroglyphs, Phoenician letters and the syllabic sounds of early Semitic languages—the symbols representing various technological and architectural innovations.
The pages ripped from the book spell out another message: all of the words are associated in some way with the human body. “The words gain freedom to be less constrained,” Sandler says. “Within the structure of a book, there are words that describe characteristics of a book derived from the human body. For example, the spine.”
A few words worth discussing as all those cars continue on their long journeys.
In summer we begin our requisite, seasonally-induced search for paradise, or some reasonable facsimile thereof. The sun and the warmth of the year must trigger some primitive urge within us to seek out Eden and set ourselves there, if only for a short while. For urban folk who can afford it, a trip to, and a stay at, a cottage set along some lake, river or ocean will suffice. For the rest of us, urban or not, it is typically a shady spot somewhere with something cool to drink and, most importantly, something upon which to sit and relax.
And that’s the crux of the matter. Eden, no matter how mundanely it may be conjured forth in our attempts to relax and repose, seems to be inextricably bound up with chairs. For cottage dwellers of a certain kind, maybe it’s the wooden Adirondack (or Muskoka) chair, or perhaps even the annoying (albeit fashionable) discomforts of twig furniture. For the rest of us, it’s probably a park bench, or if an available back yard ensures travel and portability isn’t a factor, perhaps one of those moulded plastic stacking chairs intended for our-of-door use. But more often than not, it’s the ubiquitous folding metal-frame lawn chair, that classic of portable, one-size-fits-all discomfort consisting of a light-weight tubular steel or aluminum frame and a seat woven of some truly godawful synthetic fiber that will have inevitable occasion to rot or tear. The artifacts with which we furnish our quasi-Edens, it seems, tend to be of the non-permanent variety.
Which brings us to the Toronto Sculpture Garden (TSG) and the summer of 2003. The ring of trees, the small patch of lawn, and the (artificial) waterfall that comprise this place in the heart of downtown Toronto denote something remotely akin to the Edenic. So perhaps it is of no great surprise to discover that the summer occupant this year has been what looks for all the world to be an enormous lawn chair set squarely in pride of place on the TSG grass. This is sculptor Ilan Sandler’s Double Storey, and it looms over the TSG’s visitors and the patrons of a nearby open-air restaurant as if awaiting the return of an occupant equal to its enormity.
But here, all is not right, and that realization is entirely dependent on the significance of the second look. In passing (and I mean that quite literally), Sandler’s sculpture overwhelmingly resembles a larger-than-life folding lawn chair. But, in fact, this is a resemblance that only really works from the seat of a moving car passing along King Street East in downtown Toronto, and via a brief glance past parked cars and through the fence that encloses the TSG and frames something of a view of Double Storey. The possibilities of strict representation—of real mimesis—are truly and only available to those for whom the cursory look suffices; for to stop and to look again, to visually apprehend Sandler’s sculpture beyond the mere passing glance from the vantage of, say, the aforementioned moving automobile, is to note departures from the expected representational norm.
To start with the most obvious of those departures: this “chair” has no real seat or back. The woven webbing of the real thing is entirely absent here, only allusively suggested through a few taut lines of nylon monofilament (you know, fishing line) that run in one direction up and down within the framework of what would otherwise be a seat and a back. It does not for a chair make, and neither do the actual physical proportions of the work. Sandler’s chair looks spindly and insubstantial. It is. The tubular stainless steel used for the frame is incorrectly proportioned. The tubular metal frame of a real folding lawn chair, would, if it had been appropriately magnified in size to correspond with Sandler’s work, be of a greater diameter and appear much thicker and more robust. By comparison, Sandler’s work is puny, a veritable 98 lb weakling barely able to support itself. And what about the overall proportions of the piece? An exacting look at Double Storey suggests that the legs are disproportionately long in comparison to the rest of the structure. It’s gangly.
In a nutshell, then, Double Storey seems to be a mimetic mess, coming up well short of its apparent intentions of true representational fidelity. In fact, the piece would appear to be little more than a failed caricature. How could Sandler get it so wrong? Here’s a thought: perhaps mimesis isn’t what he had in mind at all. Perhaps our employment of a mimetic yardstick to take measure of the work’s shortcomings as a scaled-up copy of some mass-produced artefact that is itself part and parcel of our attempt to create something akin to paradise in our backyard, just leads us off in an entirely wrong direction—down a dead end, in fact. Perhaps this sculptural object contextualized by its situation within TSG’s urban environs is indeed something else, something other than a mere simulacrum. Perhaps all is not what it seems at first glance.
No. Of course it isn’t. We are reminded (yet again) of the inevitable flaws inherent in a dependency on first impressions as a cheap and dirty way of determining and fixing meaning—aesthetic or otherwise. While the late American poet and novelist Jack Kerouac summed up his poetic with the advice “first thought, best thought” (advice he didn’t always follow), his reference points only toward the front end of the aesthetic equation. Here, standing in front of Double Storey, at the other, experiential end of things, Kerouac’s prescription could be taken as suggesting we should well be satisfied with the drive-by, the quickie, the casual glance out the car window at this crazy giant chair. But to take recourse in stopping and staring, even to rubberneck or gawp, at this spindly stainless steel and monofilament thing is to watch as an artefact is gradually evaded—to watch as Ilan Sandler makes a chair slowly and utterly disappear before our very eyes.
On a summer afternoon in downtown Toronto, the Toronto Sculpture Garden (TSG) is one of the few spots where a bit of greenery and shady respite from the sun can be found, and the only place for miles around that has a waterfall (albeit, artificial). And of course there’s always some interesting art for visual and tactile consideration. In the sweltering urban heat of the summer of 2003, how appropriate, then, is ILAN SANDLER’s sculptural installation Double Storey (Toronto Sculpture Garden, May 7—September 15, 2003).
It’s a chair—an enormously oversized rendition of a common folding lawn chair of the aluminum tubing and webbed nylon seat variety—that looms over the lawn of the TSG, dwarfing its many visitors, tubular framework gleaming in the sun. Sculpture is the form of oversized furniture is by no means new, but set in the context of a tiny green oasis that flourishes amidst the hardcore urban environment, Sandler’s rendition of the classic (or stereotypical) portable seat bypasses the acute narrowness of literal reproduction while evoking both the mundane reality and the by and large unattainable fantasy represented by the subject. In effect, Double Storey does double duty in conjuring up associations that have everything to do with two very different (though linked) notions of place, for this out-of-whack sculpture evokes a utilitarian structure most powerfully associated with the suburban backyard and, more appealingly (though a bit less strongly), the dream of a lakefront vacation cottage (or any variation thereof). Double Storey is, in essence, about our attempts to find or create a paradise where, let’s face it, none can possible exist. All courtesy some bent aluminum tubing and woven nylon webbing that isn’t really all that comfortable to sit on in the first place.
The thing of it is, however, that the proportions of Sandler’s monstrous chair are quite out of skew. If exponentially magnified in size, a folding aluminum lawn chair wouldn’t in the least resemble what we see before us, and not only because the webbing most commonly used to weave a seat and back has been replaced here by almost invisible lines of monofilament that don’t even attempt to approximate the reality of the store bought thing, but instead simply trace one part of the weave, forming parallel lines of the vertical warp and entirely dispensing with a horizontally interwoven weft. No, it has more to do with the aluminum tubing that gives the chair its distinctive shape and structural integrity. In Double Storey, the tubing is disproportionately small in diameter—far smaller than it would be had Sandler accurately replicated a lawn chair to such a magnified scale. Too, the legs of the piece are disproportionately lengthy. In short, then, this isn’t some lawn chair on steroids.
A casual seeing of Double Storey renders it as little more than an oversized garden accouterment. A more considered look reveals that Sandler has dispensed with imitation and mimesis. This sculptural thing may be (and is) referential in intent, but it is not at all some cleverly enlarged, purely representational copy of a mass produced object. While referencing the mundane real world chair (and quite successfully carrying the heavy load of associations that go along with the territory), Sandler manages to work just far enough outside the arguments of mimesis that an aesthetic singularity can take root. It all depends on how you look at it.
Doublestorey is a visible and palpable promise of summer to come. The two-storey-high stainless-steel frame of a typical lawn chair was installed in the Toronto Sculpture Garden on King St. E. in April. Now that the thick green grass is up for the “backyard feeling” artist Ilan Sandler hoped to achieve, the chair embodies a universal desire to relax in the sun.
The Johannesburg-born multimedia artist was raised in Toronto and earned a degree in physics before going to the Ontario College of Art and Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to get his art degrees. He works in digital audio-visual formats and sculpture and his interests have led him to create public art pieces that “relate both architecturally and socially to the environment they’re in.”
In St. Louis, Mo., he created a 644-feet-long orange EKG printout that ran along a train bridge connecting the city to the outer suburbs. He called it Pulse. A recent project, coming soon to the Halifax harbour, is An Ear to the Sky. It’s an 11-foot Styrofoam ear painted in Epoxy that floats in the water like a boat or sits up to amplify the sounds captured on its interior audio recorder.
“I like to design a project with a given period of time in which the work can interact with the specific environment,” says Sandler.
Doublestorey is meant to last from late spring to early fall, framing the changing foliage that surrounds it.
The stainless steel frame is like a lot of Sandler’s work, linear. It’s an outline of a lawn chair, meant to give the viewer a chance to move out of his or her busy urban life and into a more contemplative existence. “I hope that my installations are both provocative and complementary to the existing phenomenon,” says the artist.
The back and seat of the chair are only suggested in high-test nylon cables strung across the frame. “I wanted it to be easy to see the trees and buildings through the frame. And the transparent nylon tends to glisten in certain lights.”
The lawn chair is 18 feet high, 10 feet wide and 13 feet deep. Sandler designs huge replicas of common objects, like a spiral staircase that ends up in the open air, and uses a change of design or material to “give them another sense of reality.”
From the little sculpture garden you can view St. James Cathedral, and the buildings that surround it as you walk from King St. to Front St. The sculpture works to change the viewer’s perspective. “I was trying to put different parts of the downtown urban environment together,” Sandler comments.
A local artist is treating waterfront visitors to the ambience of Halifax Harbour with a hugh ear sculpture that’s been wired for sound.
Ilan Sandler’s three-metre-long ear sculpture is anchored in the water along the Halifax boardwalk at the foot of Morris Street near the Tall Ships Quay.
The ear transmits sounds of the harbour into a headset located on the wharf.
“Does it hear fish?” asks Art Irving of Halifax, who was passing by with a fishing pole in hand.
“It’s calling you, Arthur, Arthur, Arthur,” joked his fishing companion.
After listening for a moment to the sounds of gurgling water, Irving removed them in disappointment.
“I don’t hear any fish,” he joked and walked away.
Sandler said public reaction has been mixed.
“People are wondering whether it’s an ear or a big piece of chewing gum,” he said.
Others, however, worried the unusual object floating so close to a cruise ship was up to no good.
Someone called Transport Canada out of concern it may be linked to terrorism, given the anniversary of Sept. 11 was yesterday, said Waterfront Development Corp. Ltd. Spokeswoman Janet Sullivan.
Sullivan said the corporation, which is sponsoring Sandler’s free exhibit, is always looking for new ideas to encourage people to visit the waterfront.
“When I saw pictures of the ear, I went ‘Wow,’ and picked up the phone and called Ilan,” she said.
Wow indeed, thought cruise-ship passenger Cathy Burns from Pennsylvania.
“We were trying to decide what it was. You know things happen in other nations and we couldn’t decide exactly what it was,” she said.
Fearless art correspondent Sue Carter Flinn lends a hand rolling a giant eyeball through downtown on its way to installation.
“Um, this may sound strange, but have you seen a…” The painter cuts off the question in mid-sentence, as he leans over his scaffolding and opens a pack of Players. Using a fresh cigarette as a pointer, he nods, “The giant ball? It rolled that way, towards the Commons.”
By the time the ball—which isn’t really a ball but a 2.54-metre-tall, stainless steel spherical cage equipped with a digital video camera—is located, it’s crossed the Halifax Common and is sitting on Bell Road in front of locked-out CBC television employees. Ilan Sandler, the artist who designed the traffic-stopping piece, crosses the street to explain his project to the group, while his assistants, fellow artists Tania Sures and Aaron Schmidt, take a rest before the next challenge: Citadel Hill.
This roaming eyeball is an integral component of an installation by Sandler called Three Senses. Imagine if your senses—sight in this case—were removed from your body and allowed to experience life on their own, roaming the streets of Halifax. It’s absurd, Sandler admits, as he directs the eyeball to record video of the soon-to-be-destroyed NSCC building and the thick trunk of a tree, but he’s interested in the unusual coincidences and panoramic patterns—sky, cityscape, asphalt, grass—that the ball experiences.
“I want to pick up images that are particular to Halifax. Inevitably there are some surprises,” he says. “As we walk around, you observe what’s at the plane of your height. You’re never this close to the ground or the upper reaches of the sky.”
Once the city tour is over, Sandler, who is also director of Centre for Art Tapes, will edit three hours of video into “10 really interesting minutes.” The video, along with photos and the eye itself, will be on display at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery from October 6 to November 20, along with representations of two other senses: hearing and touch.
Formed out of cotton-candy pink high-density foam, “The Ear” is what the artist refers to as a “passive listening device.” For the length of the exhibition, the oversized three-metre-tall representation will be fixed onto the outside of SMU’s Loyola residence. A microphone tucked into its canal will pick up bits of conversation and street noise; those with voyeuristic tendencies can listen in from a pair of headphones inside the gallery. It’s not exactly an accurate surveillance piece—Sandler mixes in previously recorded conversations and sounds. There’s a Hitchcockian mood to “The Ear”: things are never as they appear, or, in this case, how they sound.
Completing the trio of dislocated senses is a ceiling-grazing hand.
“Touch is the most difficult sense to relate to somebody,” says Sandler, guiding the eyeball across Trollope Street to the base of Citadel Hill. The eyeball makes a harsh scraping sound on the sidewalk before relaxing on the grass. “So I converted touch to sound.”
In the giant hand is a large speaker playing sounds from hands touching a variety of objects. Sandler contacted researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who recorded sounds emitted from receptors in monkeys’ hands in an attempt to better understand their sensory complexities. The two sources are mixed in what Sandler refers to as a polyphonic soundscape.
The eyeball takes Citadel Hill with ease, much to the confusion of a Harbour Hopper tour operator who is stunned into momentary silence by its sight. As Sandler checks the videotape, he explains the last installation, Table Talk, to be installed in a popular Loyola food court. Two copper tabletops are etched with stories from victims of violence—one from Philadelphia, and the other, a swarming victim from Halifax. Text taken from transcripts and from interviews Sandler conducted with the victims is permanently “stamped into the copper, the same way violence is literally engrained into the minds of the victims.”
Sandler explains the connection between the victims’ stories and Three Senses: “It still deals with a sensory experience. It’s a literal portrayal of senses being shocked—both the victim and the person reading it.”
A third copper tabletop will be left blank, with encouragement for other victims or witnesses of violence to come forward to tell their stories.
The eyeball and crew finish their brief break and carry on to the Public Gardens and through the south end. With a mere blink of an eye, they vanish from sight.
Three Senses and Table Talk at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, October 6 to November 20, 2005.
Find out more at www.ilansandler.com.
Suh, Sangsuk. Arrest, Woganmissol Korean Arts Magazine, September, 2001
Two exhibits in Eastern State Penitentiary explore crime from the prisoner’s and the victim’s perspectives.
Arrest and Unimaginable Isolation: Stories from Graterford
Through Nov. 4, Eastern State Penitentiary, 2124 Fairmount Ave.
Writing on the wall: A piece from Ilan Sandler’s installation, Arrest.
Violence, crime, grief and compassion. Two exhibitions installed this summer at Eastern State Penitentiary illuminate these experiences. The first is an installation of 13 audio and visual self-portraits of men currently serving time in Graterford. The second is an installation by Philadelphia artist Ilan Sandler, which deals with his family’s response to the unsolved murder of his sister, Simone Sandler, in Toronto seven years ago. These shows highlight contrasting aspects of crime and human nature and use different approaches to the process of making art.
I visited Eastern State a few weeks ago, on one of the hottest days of the summer. Entering Cellblock Eight, I heard a dozen or so murmuring voices. Here, and elsewhere in the prison, the beautiful barrel-vaulted ceiling and elegant skylights are lined with crumbling plaster and peeling paint. Along the corridor photos and written biographies of prisoners stick out at eye level on small signboards, and self-portrait paintings (all about 48-by-48 inches) hang in the cells. In many cells, audiotapes the artists made about their personal history and current experiences play. Lily Yeh, Glenn Holsten and Gerry Givnish worked with the inmates for nearly a year to produce the self-portraits.
William “Sonny” Gravil’s self-portrait is a forboding image, with barbed wire below the figure and a dove and sun above. In his tape he describes the sounds of the prison at night: quiet conversations and the footsteps of guards. An oversized mug shot forms the center of Gerald Mayo’s self-portrait triptych, with autobiographical text on the side panels. Tyrone A. Werts’ self-portrait shows a stoic man, his dark, serious face flushed with turquoise, chartreuse and scarlet. Many of the artists maintain their innocence, but others discuss their remorse, grief, loneliness and self-doubt. Family relationships are important to all of them. The stories and paintings of these artists are primarily therapeutic and sociological in their importance, but the raw urgency of their self-expression allows us to understand something deeper about human nature. The self-portraits in Unimaginable Isolation are filled with rich details and are raw, troubling and sad, and here and there, humorous and remarkable.
As I went farther into the prison complex to Cellblock Ten, the site of Ilan Sandler’s installation, sound was the first thing I encountered once again. Here the continuous sound of the amplified heartbeats of Simone Sandler’s five immediate family members play on eight speakers throughout the cellblock. Four additional speakers continuously play sounds taped at the place Simone’s body was found. These are natural and urban ambient noises (at times it’s not clear if they are part of the soundtrack or from the city beyond the walls of the prison), sounds of birds singing, water rushing and dripping, and a train whistle. The rhythm of the heartbeats corresponds with the rhythm of the ambient sounds, and these external and internal sounds combine—like John Cage’s Zen-inspired work—with a randomness that makes us keenly aware of where we are.
In the dark doorways of the cells on both sides of the long corridor, Sandler has installed grillwork in the shape of text—each an excerpt of a conversation the family had about the murder of Simone. The cursive script is handmade out of stainless-steel wire and mounted in horizontal bands within a heavier oxidized steel gate. The quotes are short and personal, expressing feelings of generosity (“We set up two memorials to benefit young girls”), anger (“I would like to know that the person who did this is dead”) and hope (“We cannot go into the future only feeling a loss”). The family’s feelings about the official response to the murder were included too: “In the judicial process victims are often forgotten. They are made secondary by the court’s attempts to understand the criminal’s motivation” and “If someone is given life for taking a life there are no winners, none at all.” A few of the cells are completely dark, but most are dimly lit by a tiny skylight within. Some cells are completely empty, as if to magnify the emotional desolation of this story. A few have plant life struggling to survive in the pale light.
Sandler’s conceptually-based installation is deeply compelling because of the cool restraint in his exploration of painful emotions—emotions that have been distilled and sharpened. I spoke with Sandler (born in Johannesburg, South Africa and raised in Toronto) about the project. He told me the idea of doing a work of art about his sister’s murder—partly as gift to his family—had been in his mind for a while, and Eastern State Penitentiary was the right place for it. He said he was “intrigued by the opportunity to work with the prison in a project, and interested in the social history of the place, the architecture, the light, the decay and the sense that lives were lived there.” Like Sandler’s past work, where he draws from science, physics and theater to make idiosyncratic conceptual art projects, Arrest metaphorically stops us in our tracks and launches us into another state.
Arrest and Unimaginable Isolation are both well worth seeing, offering much to think about above and beyond aesthetic issues. Though very different, these two exhibitions show individualized violence and pain, and they ask for our attention, compassion and—possibly—social action.
Find out more at www.ilansandler.com.
Crime and punishment. This season’s new art installations at Eastern State Penitentiary address crime and punishment with varying degrees of success.
The “punishment” project in Cell-block 8 consists of self-portraits and taped commentaries by inmates at Graterford Prison. It’s more sociology than art, even though it was directed by three professional artists—Lily Yeh, Glenn Holsten and Gerry Givnish.
With two exceptions, the 13 portraits, which hang at the rear of each cell, aren’t very good. The best one is a symbolic collage of images centered on a human eye by Nicholas Spel Dematteo.
Clarence Odoni’s portrait head, which features a bar code—a symbol of dehumanization—is another winner. But generally, visitors will be more engaged by the commentaries and life histories of the participants, most of whom are serving life sentences.
The “crime” installation, by Ilan Sandler, memorializes the murder of his sister in Toronto in July 1994. It transforms the setting and develops an appropriately reflective mood.
Sandler interviewed his parents and his brother about the crime, in which his sister, Simone, apparently was abducted. Her body was discovered 10 days later; she had been strangled. The crime remains unsolved.
Sandler translated some of the interview statements into texts created from stainless-steel wire. Set into frames, the texts are mounted in cell doorways along Block 10. While his parents and brother were talking to him, he also recorded their heartbeats. A tape of the amplified, mingled thumps plays continuously, like a rhythmic drumroll.
Ironically titled Arrest (because there hasn’t been one) Sandler’s installation points out subtly but effectively that the survivors of crime victims can become prisoners of their memories, their grief and, in this case of justice deferred.
None of the comments I read sounded bitter, but by casting in stainless steel, a material that resists decay, Sandler implies that he and his family will be dogged by their emotional incarceration for a long time.
If you happen to be in Old City walking on Third Street during the Fringe Festival, you’ll want to gaze skyward or you might miss Ilan Sandler’s installation piece, “Peddling Ideas.” Paying homage to the urban cycle messenger, his modal bicycles will “travel” on tightropes connecting various buildings.
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE NAME OF YOUR PIECE, “PEDDLING IDEAS?”
The name comes from the idea of peddling being both [a way that] you sell and something you do—that is, pedaling a bike. I am interested in conveying the notion of how ideas are transferred.
WILL THE BIKES HAVE PACKAGES ON THEM?
No, the bicycles are modeled after the most economic, streamlined courier bike. They will have drop handlebars and a high seat. There won’t be any pedals, but it will look like a one-speed with foot brakes.
HAVE YOU HAD ANY EXPERIENCE WORKING AS A BIKE MESSENGER?
No, but I do have a lot of experience as a cyclist. I have ridden through the Canadian Rocky Mountains twice and have completed a few 1,000-mile trips. The bicycle is my main mode of transportation around the city.
WHAT OTHER PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON?
My most recent project was a piece where I had some flesh removed from my body and sewn onto a mouse. The flesh lived on the mouse for 11 months. After the mouse died, I took its ashes and couriered them on bicycle from the home to the wall of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I then interred them in the wall there. The piece was called “Grafting.”
DID THE MOUSE DIE OF NATURAL CAUSES?
No, the mouse was part of a cancer research project. After the mouse was irradiated, it was put to sleep before it would experience any sort of pain.
HAVE YOU BEEN INVOLVED WITH THE FRINGE FESTIVAL IN THE PAST?
Last year I put together a proposal for a surveillance project involving the National Showroom. In the entranceway of the building I set up a series of different peepholes and monitors. It was called “Sighting the Sight.”
WHAT FUTURE PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON?
I teach autistic children as well as some adjunct teaching. Currently I’m teaching an autistic child to ride a bike.
Arts in Transit’s program of the Bi-State Development Agency in Saint Louis, Mo., presents Pulse:Rhythms of the City, a piece by arttist Ilan Sandler that will remain on display for one year. Near the intersection of Interstates 70 and 170, the Saint Louis MetroLink light rail crosses a bridge over Interstate 70. On this bridge, at the nexus of transportation routes and of people, the artist installed a fifteen-foot-high 614-foot-long piece over the course of seven nights with help from BSDA crews. The sculpture appears as a line of bright orange corrugated plastic duct material attached to a grid of steel aircraft cable. The line does indeed pulse along the tracks and is easily viewed from the highway and inside MetroLink. The staggered curved and pointed line evokes numerous biological and transportation metaphors, from heartbeats to electrical activity to transportation hubs and the community itself. Funding support for Pulse was provided by The Missouri Arts Council and the Regional Arts Commission of Saint Louis.
Find out more at www.ilansandler.com.