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A ship that lets the imagination set sail

The last thing you expect to find in the heart of Toronto: a salvaged thirty-foot Chinese junk. But its location isn't the only thing that makes this Luminato commission intriguing. The image of the ship of fools, an uncaptained vessel full of aimless passengers absorbed in vanity and frivolity, has long fascinated writers and artists.

Where is the sail?

Ship O' Fools, Janet Cardiff's and George Bures Miller's new, Luminato-commissioned installation, whimsically plunks a restored 30-foot Chinese junk onto a busy corner of Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park - thus exciting all kinds of interest from children, cyclists, and nosey dogs (the stilts holding up the ship look awfully tempting). But where is the sail?

A Chinese junk without a signature, ribbed "bat-wing" sail looks a bit like a Pride Parade float without dancers, a birthday cake without icing.

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Instead of a sail, the ship is topped off with chrome hoops supporting ugly, hot-dog stand tarp. One suspects this was a trade off against rain, and liability claims (bat wings can be pointy and prone to tourist impaling). How disappointing.

Furthermore, the fresh, clean lumber used to create the buttresses and the entrance stairs looks out of place against the burnished, antique ship. Would a coat of stain be too much to ask? Perhaps a layer of Chinese red lacquer to counter the suburban deck feel? I know, I know, this is nit-picking, but an installation this large takes up a sizable chunk of visual space, and should consider all the elements of presentation more carefully.

Once you climb the stairs and stumble below deck, however, everything changes. Claustrophobics beware - the interior of the ship is woefully tiny, which is disorienting given how large the ship seems from the outside. All natural light is blocked out, replaced by shaded, low-wattage light bulbs, and mist wafts through the cabin like incense smoke. It's spooky and ridiculous at the same time, a carnival funhouse in miniature.

Foolishness reigns in Cardiff's and Bures Miller's wooden cavern. Portholes are locked shut and used as vitrines for eerie sculptures featuring mud creatures, dead foliage, and cement-coloured ruins. Nooks are populated by sad, thumb-sized toy people who would not be out of place in a train set designed by Tim Burton. Vintage tube radios periodically blurt out bits of music and chatter while automated instruments gong and ring spasmodically. A partially filled aquarium tank tilts on a see-saw, creating small tsunamis (don't worry, animal rights activists, there are no fish inside). And in all directions, the relentless clanging of gizmos distracts and confuses.

The pointless, Rube Goldberg-like devices are the show-stealers here. They spin and churn with idiotic glee, endlessly performing and re-performing stupid tasks in mad, obsessive-compulsive rotation. A belt moves along a track, running cutlery against tin cans. A gyro winds and rewinds, setting off a cacophony of improvised musical instruments. Steam puffs out of pots, ropes drop and then lift stone weights, a ball bearing slides from end to end of a slim beam.

If you were one of those kids who liked to line up dominos just to watch them knock each other over, or built houses of cards in order to pull them down, you will love this installation. If you have one of those kids, she or he will love it even more.

An unapologetic crowd pleaser, Ship O' Fools nevertheless prompts some basic questions about labour - specifically, why do we all work so hard, and to what does all this circular toil amount? The fact that everything from the sound design to the boat's restoration was done by a team of artisans (credited at the bottom of the giant didactic panel on Queen West, in relatively small print) makes one wonder what was the exact role of Cardiff and Bures Miller, and how art stardom is manufactured.

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West Queen West itself, as the Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood is now called, is a perpetually contested class-war site, one where gentrification and preservation are constantly colliding without resolution, much like one of the whirligigs on the ship.

The Ship O' Fools could not have picked a better port.

Ship O' Fools is at Trinity Bellwoods Park, 790 Queen St. W., Toronto, until Monday June 28.

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