Public art piece draws criticism from some Vancouverites

The sculpture is of a young, distraught boy standing atop a red tower with a melting shark in his arms, a visual warning of rising sea levels and the destruction it could wreak. 

But for some residents on the southern edge of Vancouver’s False Creek, the proposed 7.8-metre-tall sculpture, to be installed temporarily amid manicured lawns and waterfront residences, is a blemish. 

“Do I think the art is suitable for this location? No,” said Maggie Rayner, a resident of a neighbouring building, while strolling past the site Sunday afternoon. 

“I don’t think it’s appropriate, the scale for the space.”

Those comments have been echoed by a group of residents who have set up a sign in protest at the proposed site, a small elevated park space bordering the bike path near Stamps Landing.

The disapproval has led to an online petition with more than 1,000 signatures. 

The sculpture, which has yet to be installed, was designed by Chinese artist Chen Wenling. (Vancouver Biennale)

In question are the sculpture’s height, its proximity to neighbours and the foot traffic it could draw in the middle of a busy bike route. 

“It will obscure views, which will affect property values and sell-ability,” MC Marciniak, one of the petition’s signatories, wrote in the comments. 

The sculpture, titled Boy Holding A Shark, is part of the Vancouver Biennale, a public art exhibition that’s held every two years. 

It’s the creation of Chinese artist Chen Wenling, who earlier this year unveiled The Proud Youth, a towering red statue of a laughing boy on the north end of False Creek that drew a similarly polarized response. 

Chen’s latest work is a “reflection on the growing tension between humans and the ocean,” according to a description on the biennale website.  

“It is an alert that the destruction of nature will eventually counteract humanity itself. The artist hopes to evoke concerns about environmental issues through the power of art and inspire changes in the global community.”

Sculpture ‘captures the discussion’

Barrie Mowatt, the founder and artistic director of the Vancouver Biennale, said Sunday the criticism of public art is not unusual.

He pointed to previous biennale installations that have since revitalized public spaces, such as the giant laughing statues in English Bay.

Installations from other developers, such as the $4.8-million chandelier under Vancouver’s Granville Bridge, have faced similar scrutiny after their unveiling. 

But Mowatt noted the early blowback to the sculpture has “created conversation way in advance of normal.” 

Chen unveiled The Proud Youth, a 5.5-metre-tall statue, in March, as part of the Vancouver Biennale. The installation is situated on the north side of Vancouver’s False Creek. (Ben Nelms)

Part of that came after biennale organizers alerted residents within a two-block radius of the incoming sculpture, which Mowatt said has already received engineering clearance. 

He said misinformation has since circulated about the sculpture’s height, with a sign at the site stating it will be 28 feet (8.5 metres) tall. He said the base will be 4.8 metres tall, while the boy itself will add an additional three metres. 

Troubling discussions of the artist’s ethnicity have also seeped into the dialogue, Mowatt said, with some questioning the decision to commission pieces by a Chinese artist. 

“Those kinds of statements in a time we’re experiencing today are kind of concerning,” he said, referring to the rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic.

Mowatt noted he has also received positive feedback about the artwork, and expects safety concerns can be addressed with clear signs on the bike route for cyclists to slow down. 

“I think it’s quite an attractive piece in its slenderness and really captures the discussion that we want to be having,” he said.

The City of Vancouver is accepting feedback on the sculpture until Monday. Mowatt said the aim is to have the piece installed by the third week of June. 

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