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Gisele Amantea prepares to install Untitled (Poodle) in Vancouver, British Columbia, 2012. © Gisele Amantea. Photo: Maureen Smith
For two full days in a row, during a sunny spell in November 2007, Gisele Amantea climbed on board the #3 Main Street bus in Vancouver and travelled up and down the 88-block route. She wasn’t sightseeing, exactly. She was watching who got on the bus and who got off. She was observing the local businesses, restaurants, thrift shops and antiques shops, cafés and coffeehouses, low-rise apartment buildings and private houses, as they went by in a steady stream, punctuated by traffic lights and bus stops. On some blocks, the artist, who is based in Montreal, got off the bus and walked for a while to explore on foot. She was also taking in the neighbourhoods along Main Street—one of Vancouver’s oldest and busiest transit corridors—and how their character changed, from old Japantown at the north end, near Burrard Inlet, to the Punjabi Market at the south, near the northern arm of the Fraser River.
Her immersive urban odyssey played a vital part in Amantea’s research for a new project that is currently part of the public art program 88 Blocks Art on Main—presented by the City of Vancouver and TransLink: the regional transportation authority that looks after buses and trains. Five years later, on 8 December 2012, Memento, her response to Main Street and the people who live along the bus route, was launched at Main and 18th Avenue. Somewhat unexpectedly, perhaps, the project’s centerpiece is a seven-foot-high poodle sitting regally on an elliptical platform held aloft by a 26-foot pole. Enlarged from a six-inch-high porcelain figurine—a gift from her husband who found the miniature in London—and cast in aluminium, the poodle is white with black eyes, nose and nails; the platform and pole are also black. The entire work stands 33 feet high, on a piece of land that the city is developing into a small park.
Untitled (Poodle) takes something intimate and domestic and transforms it into something that is gigantic and public. Visible from a distance, as part of the skyline of Main where it runs through Mount Pleasant, the poodle is a witty anti-monument that recalls older statues elevating goddesses, emperors and military heroes to the tops of lofty columns, as well as more common sights such as water tanks turned into teapots, 3-D signs in the form of giant milk bottles on stilts, huge doughnuts on the roofs of shops, or actual cars on poles at dealership parking lots, all for the sake of advertising. Beyond their functions, in North American contemporary culture, the latter have a way of becoming neighbourhood markers of time, place and space: something Amantea has in mind for her poodle. Imagine saying to a friend, “I’ll meet you under the poodle at Main and 18th.”
Amantea’s winsomely dignified canine has several cousins in contemporary art, including General Idea’s elegant trio of frisky poodles, Jeff Koons’s overwhelming Puppy—a 43-foot-tall topiary sculpture—and William Wegman’s variously dressed-up and posed Weimaraners, among others. But on Main Street, the figure of a poodle represents what Amantea sees as the general ambiance of the street, which is steeped in vernacular material culture. Main Street is the north-south thoroughfare that divides Vancouver into east and west. A New York Times travel writer once called it the city’s “metaphorical railroad track,” as in the division between the right and wrong sides of the track: affluent on the west, less economically advantaged on the east. The vibrant communities it transverses are ethnically, economically and socially mixed. Amantea chose to represent a poodle—a post-Second World War icon of French sophistication, an icon of mass culture, and a popular breed of dog—because it crosses lines of gender, age, culture and economic status. Poodle parlours are everywhere. Collectibles and antiques shops on Main are filled with 1950s and ’60s memorabilia. Knitters once happily clicked away making cozies from the Beehive pattern books that disguised bottles, jars and cans of cleanser as cheerful, if quaintly ridiculous, poodles.
Amantea herself has a collection of poodle cozies whose images she has used in this four-part project. In addition to the poodle sculpture, which shines in the sun like a piece of glazed porcelain, three articulated trolleys that ply the Main Street route carry exhibitions that complement Untitled (Poodle). Memento – Pink is a rolling showpiece in itself, covered by an exterior wrap that imitates a hot-pink, knitted cozy with looped fringes along the bottom and the goofy head of a poodle cozy looking at drivers from the back of the bus. The ad cards inside the trolley show the Beehive pattern for the cozy. Memento Multo carries a colorful exhibition of photographs of small, culturally diverse collectibles on the ad cards: an archaeology of the material culture of the street. On the third trolley, Memento – Envy, the exterior panel ad shows a staggered row of poodle cozies, lined up like people waiting at a bus stop, and staring jealously at the poodle figurine on which Amantea based the sculpture. This beauty’s pedigree is porcelain. Holding up a mirror to the art world, Memento – Envy plays humorously on “high and low” in popular culture.
Memento is Amantea’s second public art commission for Vancouver. The first, Red Horizontal, went up on the seawall of the David Lam Park extension on the north side of False Creek in 2005. This work comprises 63 red porcelain-enamel steel panels, 39 of which are printed in black with halftone photographs of the interiors of area residents’ lofts, condos and apartments. Although this project and the one on Main Street are very different, in terms of site, form, materials and aesthetic approach, a key element of Amantea’s work links them together. “I think they both really reflect on the site,” the artist says, “where they are and who’s there. They are both inspired by the neighbourhood and the people who live there.”
Nancy Tousley, winner of a 2011 Governor-General's Award in Media and Visual Arts, is a senior art writer, critic and independent curator based in Calgary.
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