The Good, the Bad and the truly Appalling

Robert Fulford - Toronto Life

IF YOU STROLL down the west side of Spadina, from the Baldwin steps near Casa Loma to Dupont Street, past the neo-Georgian Castle Hill town houses and under the old railway bridge, you will walk both over and under an art object, though you may not know it's there until someone points it out. The art object is Spadina Line, by Brad Golden and Norman Richards, completed in the fall of 1991. It's an elusive, mysterious work, and it's also a symbol of what may be a new era in public art.

In 1989 the city planning department held a competition to generate ideas for improving the surroundings of two rather forlorn railway underpasses at Spadina and Dupont and at Lansdowne and Rideau. Golden and Richards won the Spadina commission and set out to make a work that would integrate the underpass with the street to the north. Like many public artists of this period, they began with the idea of animating the space by drawing attention to the specifics of local history.

Golden and Richards are among hundreds of North American and European artists who are now rewriting the rules of public art. Their work represents a generational shift, a gradual redefinition of goals. What they want to create is an art of public revelation rather than personal expression. The objects these artists produce show no common style (Spadina Line doesn't look like anything else I know), but you can identify them by their conversation and their rhetoric: often they announce that they want to articulate the shape of a district, identify its historic meaning, reveal the essence of the site. Unlike earlier artists, they sometimes describe their work as astory or a narrative. Like architects, they may speak of reconnecting and reintegrating districts that have been ripped apart by big buildings and roadways. Context has become a favourite work of theirs, as it is for many architects trained since the 1970s.

Spadina Line attempts to answer the pressing problem of making art for public spaces. Brad Golden and Norman Richards started out with the idea of suggesting how much history their site contains, but the piece they made isn't obviously didactic; their goal, clearly, was to weave their ideas into the fabric of the site and insinuate their history lesson into the consciousness of the public. They erected a series of highly sculptured lampposts whose lights shine in circles on the sidewalk; and in the sidewalk they inserted seven capitalized words in bronze: IROQUOIS, FURROW, SURVEY, AVENUE, POWER, DAIRY and ARCHIVE.

IROQUOIS refers to the prehistoric Lake Iroquois that began here and FURROW refers to the market gardens that were here a century ago; SURVEY acknowledges the laying out of Toronto in the late eighteenth century, and so on. The last word in the series, ARCHIVE, welcomes the latest user of the site, the Metropolitan Toronto Archives building on the other side of Spadina.

Is Spadina Line a success? Certainly it causes talk; from time to time strangers can be seen asking each other what it means and discussing its implications, which satisfies one of the purposes of this kind of art. A major mistake is the lack of any explanation of artists' signature, which will soon be rectified by a plaque. One of the committed fans of the work is June Ardiel, who has spent the last four years on research for her forthcoming illustrated catalogue, Sculpture Toronto. She thinks it works superbly, even if only for a minority. "For most people, it doesn't exist. It's very peripheral to their vision. But for those who see it, it's beautiful and elegant. It adds another dimension to the street and unifies it. I've been walking through it for months, examining it from every angle. I'm still not sure whether it's an entirely successful work. All I know for certain is that it makes that part of Toronto far more interesting than it was before, and that it makes the future of public sculpture seem wonderfully promising.

Robert Fulford is a regular contributor to Toronto Life. His most recent book "Accidental City, The Transformation of Toronto", is published by Macfarlane Walter & Ross.