Sunday, 23 June 2013

Teresa Casas' response to the installations


image by Teresa Casas
Powered by the salesman-turned-mayor Lastman's grandiose dreams, North York's city centre appeared almost overnight, with escalators connecting tower heights to subterranean transport depths; it was as if Jacob’s angels descending and ascending between Heaven and earth had unexpectedly touched down in this suburban strip. The all-encompassing design was to meet residents’ every conceivable need, yet the place memory contained in the heritage home / museum remained, along with other imaginative and provisional activities in the crevices between the condominiums. The Oh Dear! projects hinge what now is with what then was. Like the toy version of the divine ladder in which blocks appear to eternally cascade downward, it unfolds the city centre’s static monumentality by revealing some of its lost and hidden meanings.


Between Sheppard and Finch avenues north of the 401 high-rises appear suddenly, hiding a view of the North York city centre until the last moment. However, if your windows are down you can hear “Mel’s Bells”, named after city father Mel Lastman, ring out the time from the sky-scraping bell tower. As you lift your eyes upward you wonder how this regional hub was successfully anchored on the edge of massive arterial traffic.
Willowdale Transit Authority, 2013 by Matthew Blackett; image by Teresa Casas
The answer is that it draws from the underground human stream of the Yonge subway line, filtering it upward into multi-use complexes. However, dependence on the extension of underground transit for North York’s development has been a long-standing source of resentment against the City of Toronto. Matthew Blackett’s Willowdale Transit Authority, (near the subway entrance within the complex named the North York City Centre), is a map of a hypothetical subway that proposes an alternative articulation to this most central and affluent area of North York. A self-contained system, it dedicates separate lines to each category of Willowdale’s amenities, assets, monuments and even political grandees that shaped its current form. A subversive take on infrastructure, Willowdale Transit Authority fondly satirizes the metropolitan dreams of a former suburban borough.
Willowdale Transit Authority, 2013 by Matthew Blackett
Up at street level, Mel Lastman Square features a watercourse flanked by wide paths and steps leading down to a reflective pool at the entrance of the former city hall now called the North York Civic Centre. Joseph Muscat’s Homeostasis temporarily rests in the pool. It is the final note in the Square’s sliding scale that powers down the monumental surroundings to create a space for human interaction.
Homeostasis, 2013 by Joseph Muscat; image by Stephen Cruise
The playful form of Homeostasis invites you to turn it over in your mind as it transforms from different sight-lines. From one angle it resembles a child’s first drawings of a house. And yet, it is tilted and as you shift perspective the symbol collapses. Appearing both concave and convex the work capriciously morphs as you walk around it. Images of the flicking of cards in a dealer’s hands or a delicately balanced house of cards come to mind as Homeostasis evokes the high stakes of real estate in the surrounding affluent residential area. The prevalence of luxury condominium towers and “monster” homes side by side with modest postwar houses signal the loss of a standard scale of domestic life that has come with the widening income gap.
Homestasis, 2013 by Joseph Muscat; image by Stephen Cruise
image by Stephen Cruise

Enter the Civic Centre at the entrance beyond the reflective pool. Turn to your left and take the stairs up to the ground floor. The former city hall now houses offices for citizens’ groups and district services. There is a constant passage of people using it as an interior walkway from the adjacent North York City Centre to nearby offices, parking lots, streets and parks.

At the Civic Centre’s south entrance are two large photographic prints—one taken by day, the other by night—of the high-density development on nearby Yonge Street. Rare Earth, a work by Ian Chodikoff, refers to minerals essential in the manufacture of mobile phones. Foreign students and recent immigrants rely heavily on these devices that make round-the-clock global communication possible.

Rare Earth (day), 2013 by Ian Chodikoff
Chodikoff’s cityscape shows what you see on leaving Finch subway station. Emerging from underground you are deeply disoriented in a new location. You struggle to get your bearings and memorize landmarks. Unfortunately this strip of Yonge Street seems particularly anonymous, especially by night—it could be any urban place on the planet.

Rare Earth (night), 2013 by Ian Chodikoff
Paradoxically, the homesick students enrolled in the numerous ESL schools on the street may feel at home in this “anywhere” landscape. They, along with office workers and condo residents, are served by sidewalk cafes offering franchise international fast food. This commercial strip, a vestige of Willowdale’s main street, now houses many new window front businesses that turn-over quickly as entrepreneurs get their footing in a new culture. The mobile phone, made possible by rare earths, is an elemental ingredient for life to thrive here.

image of Toronto Centre for the Arts by Otino Corsano

Leave the Civic Centre through the south doors and cross to the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

The former North York Performing Arts Centre was built in 1993 when mega-musicals were at the peak of popularity. Garth Drabinsky’s production company, Livent, was contracted by North York Council to operate the theatre complex in 1994 but four years later the company was bankrupt. Another production company took over but was defeated by the plunging market for Broadway shows.

Otino Corsano's North York Video 1 "Optimus", 2013; Video Still, Credit: Directors Jeff Hamill & Maddie Goodall
Enter the screening salon, just beyond the ticket windows. Otino Corsano’s North York, 2013 presents three videos edited in the style of television commercials. The richly layered soundtrack from the headphones enhances the intimacy and poetry of the worlds created by different artists. These subtle productions are whispers that have replaced the booming notes of musical theatre. The recorded gestures, artistic and mundane, celebrate habitual activities that make North York environments a stage.

Otino Corsano's North York Video 1 "Optimus", 2013; Video Still, Credit: Directors Jeff Hamill & Maddie Goodall
Cross the street at the lights on North York Blvd. Head north up Yonge Street and turn right on Empress Avenue. Cross to the east sidewalk and continue north on Doris to Parkview Avenue.

The porch of the historic John McKenzie house, headquarters of the Ontario Historical Society, is the site of Paola Poletto’s a hundred times, the excesses of daily living. This red brick home was built a hundred years ago on a fragment of the owner’s farm. Sold to create a residential subdivision, the only clues to the past existence of a farm are several outbuildings behind this house, parent to the surrounding Empress Subdivision homes. The extension of the radial railway line out of Toronto spurred settlement in the subdivision just before the First World War.
a hundred times, the excesses of daily living by Paola Poletto; image by Stephen Cruise

In the space of the porch, objects accumulate before they are put in their proper places; it is a service area where discarded packaging is sorted, possibly appraised for use as up-cycled craft material or put out on the curb. The city-issued “blue box” is a familiar unit of measure representing the hypothetical amount of recyclable material a household produces for weekly pick-up.

a hundred times, the excesses of daily living by Paola Poletto; image by Stephen Cruise 

On the John MacKenzie house porch a recycling box, painted white to draw attention to its unusual contents, holds containers from what the artist served to her family. Pick one up and examine it closely; each discard has been customized through a labour-intensive embellishment.

a hundred times, the excesses of daily living by Paola Poletto; image by Stephen Cruise
Local lore has it that the nitrogen-rich soil of Willowdale makes for vibrant yellow roses, yet in a hundred times… the rose petals have faded to a delicate brown-tinged pale hue. The artist has subverted the mass-produced iconic shapes of the food containers, covering them with faded organic membranes by hand. There is a deliberate scrambling of opposites: inside and out, surface and form, preservative receptacle and organic matter.

The accumulated containers are a diary of comfort or drudgery-filled meals. Merging with the refuse of other homes in the Ganges River of matter that ends in the recycling stations, the act of filling of the blue box translates a private into a public gesture of nourishment, conversion and renewal.

Head back to Yonge Street, go south to Empress Avenue and cross to the west sidewalk of Yonge Street. Go north through the covered hoarding that marks the edge of a construction site, turn left at the sign for Gibson House, walk through the lane and turn to examine the hoarding directly in front of the historic house-museum.

Like the half-completed behind-the-curtain set-change, this grouping of apartment buildings, historic house, and condominium construction site has the drama of elements caught in a transitional state. The window-shuttered farmhouse holds the memory of Willowdale’s rural roots. But it is also a look-out: from its windows and its front lawn, past and present are set in a fresh dialogue through the works of Bailey Govier and Stephen Cruise.

Home Economics (condos) by Bailey Govier, 2013; image by Stephen Cruise
Govier’s multi-part installation Home Economics explores the peculiar boundaries and countervailing forces of this site. Her painting on the construction fence can best be appreciated from the front lawn of Gibson House. On the flat surface the three-dimensional shape of towers is created in three point perspective by the angle of lines. Whether the thin diagonal lines atop the towers are pushing them off balance or keeping them upright by pulling them together is an open question. Their bases are cut off in the picture plane, giving the viewer a sense of being poised to fall into the sky. These dynamic optical effects contrast with the weighty stability of the half-way constructed condominium visible above the fence. Yet high up in the cat walks workers, along with local residents below, might relate to the strain of keeping balance in a constantly shifting environment.

Home Economics (Gibson Museum) by Bailey Govier, 2013; image by Teresa Casas

In the parlour of this circa 1850’s farmhouse and upstairs on a wall beside a bedroom, Govier’s paintings improvise on the warping of time in the space between the interior and exterior of the window. The push-pull between illusion of depth and the reality of line on flat canvas echoes the pivoting between past and not-yet-visible future that is playing out in this confusingly changeful corner of the North York hub.
Willow BOX by Stephen Cruise, 2013; image by Stephen Cruise 
Cruise’s Willow BOX is a mysterious apparition on the Gibson House lawn. Willow Dale was the name of the postal station located here and serving a widespread rural area. Covered in a tree bark pattern, the mysterious object has a shape similar to that of a mailbox, but Canada Post situates these on public sidewalks and Gibson House has lost its connection to public pathways and service routes. Severed from its surrounding streets by high-rises on all sides, this container of history is recessed both by its retrospective function and its stranded location.

However, the isolation helps in switching into a reflective state of mind. By walking around the house and observing details or through discussion with the costumed staff you may be taken back to an earlier moment that you yourself experienced in the history of the neighbourhood or it may remind you of your first vivid impressions on your arrival here.

Willow BOX at North York Central Library by Stephen Cruise, 2013

Join the discussion. Write your thoughts on an Oh Dear postcard. Put it in the metal box on the front of Willow BOX or a companion box in the North York Central Library. They will get to the project’s artists, writers and public and add to the layers of stories that make-up the history of this place.


Teresa Casas is a specialist in contemporary art in heritage settings. She has worked in such historic sites/art venues as the Freud Museum, London, The Power Plant, Toronto and Oakville Galleries, Oakville. She is currently writing about rural heritage and urban farmers’ markets as well as helping to set up the Regent Park farmers market in the heart of this re-developed community. Visit Back to the Park for her work on the history of Toronto parks.