Sometimes art is for the birds. In February, artist Brian Jungen installed his Upside Down Flagpole (2017) outside the sleek new Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver. The piece – a cast of the concrete plug that was the base of an actual flagpole that Jungen pulled out of the ground from his ranch in Vernon, B.C. – is as it sounds: a pole planted upside down into the ground, the earth becoming the steady flag at its base. It didn’t take long – maybe a week or two – for nature to prove its supremacy.
The invasion was announced with loud bouts of rat-a-tat-tat – Northern Flickers. “They pound against everything – telephone poles, houses, but this pair went to town,” says Reid Shier, the Polygon’s director, staring up at the work from the ground on a sunny May morning. Shier, when he noticed the woodpeckers, called the company where the work had been cast and asked, just how much damage can they do? “And they said there’s no way they can get through that concrete.”
And yet the hole is now prominent, clearly visible from the ground, with bits of polystyrene dusting the bed of sword ferns below.
When he noticed what was going on back in the winter, Shier also contacted Jungen, the multidisciplinary artist of Dane-zaa and Swiss ancestry who is probably best known for Prototypes for New Understanding (Nike Air Jordan Indigenous masks) and Shapeshifter (patio furniture whale skeletons). “He said it is ironic that a work that is speaking very specifically about land, colonization, the earth as the national symbol, in and of itself becomes colonized by a little friendly denizen,” Shier reports. “I think there was some beautiful symmetry in that.”
Shier also points out that you really couldn’t have designed a more bird-friendly spot: a platform for birds to perch high atop a flagpole where other critters can’t get at it. “It’s a perfect little kind of squirrel deterrent,” he says. “Unconsciously, we designed a perfect nest.”
In late April, the birds departed, leaving the staff at the Polygon a little bereft and the work clearly altered. “What are you going to do?” says Shier. “It’s a home. And as Brian so eloquently said: it’s a hole in a hole.”