Sunday, 7 March 2010

Bear Hunt

Image from Toronto Sculpture Garden website

The four life-size bear sculptures can not be missed in the small space of the Toronto Sculpture Garden, right off downtown King Street East. Their day-glo orange colour is unavoidable and renders the sculptures as somewhat excessive in a space that has been designated to Art. The first impression is that Dean Drever has not only trivialized nature into a fun game, which in Canada could border on sacrilege, but also the art framework in which the bears rest.

Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that nature has not run wild. The bears only appear bigger, brighter and in our neighbourhood. Each bear has the same shape and comes from the same mold; they are not four different bears but instead the same bear over and over again. The meaning of the sculptures begins to change. The bears become Bear, a signifier of all Bears, a symbolic Bear. Furthermore, only one of the four bears is in fact whole. Walking together eastward across the pavilion, three of the bears seem to pass through the wall on the east side of the garden - only the back half or less of the bears can be seen. Although Drever envisions the wall as a membrane between reality and a mythical realm, the bears appear to be literally and metaphorically disappearing before our eyes. In a country whose identity is invested in the landscape and wilderness, the orange bears confront the viewer as an emblem of this conflicted Canadian identity that has been constructed over the last 100 years, ignoring the presence of First Nations and constantly felt to be threatened, in the past by our British imperial leaders and in more recent years by our southern neighbours (Anderson 246).

Image from Toronto Sculpture Garden website

Dean Drever is part of the Haida nation and states that bears are a “symbol of purity, strength, dominance and authority” with no known predator (except, I would add, humans). Drever confronts us with “nature” in the gentrified city garden, pointing to modernity’s approach to nature as an idealized, romanticized state. A cement platform underneath the bears joins the four into one bear. However, the bright plastic-y orange paint prevents the platform from becoming a pedestal but rather gives them the appearance of a toy, like little plastic soldiers. Life-size toy bears immediately read uncomfortably within the Sculpture Garden’s framework of the art institution in which the viewer expects an aesthetic experience (Baker 51). This uncomfortableness is, in fact, Drever’s post-modern animal confronting the viewer with their romantic, but inherently destructive, attitude (Baker 53). The Bear Hunt is a game, but not the kind of game that first comes to mind. It is in fact a game that is grounded in our hunt for a cohesive national identity and our loss of understanding of nature. It is a metaphorical bear hunt: the only kind that most Canadians are capable of.

Anderson, Benedict. "Staging Anti-Modernism in the Age of High Capitalist Nationalism." Ed. John O'Brian and Peter White. Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 2007. 245-46. Print.

Baker, Steve. "What is the Postmodern Animal?" The Postmodern Animal. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2000. 50-54. Print.

Toronto Sculpture Garden. Web. 25 Nov. 2009. .

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