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Art & Architecture Toronto Sculpture Garden makes a comeback with installation for Nuit Blanche – and beyond

Some of the sculptures (this is a humidifier) by An Te that will be part of the Solid States art installation at the Sculpture Garden. (Photos by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

You can get yourself back to the garden this weekend, thanks to the ministrations of City of Toronto Arts & Culture Services, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, and Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. This would be the Toronto Sculpture Garden, a charming 720-square-metre oasis of grass, ivy-covered brick, cascading water and art, located less than four blocks east of the busy Yonge-King St. intersection.

Opened in 1981 in what had been a city-owned parking lot, the Sculpture Garden has presented original works by dozens of contemporary artists, mostly Canadian, many unknown (at least initially), sometimes in group exhibitions, but mainly as solo showcases. Featured artists have included Micah Lexier, Kim Adams, Liz Magor, Euan Macdonald and China’s Jiang Jie. The venue’s last exhibition, Gold, Silver & Lead, a totemic mound of modified Honda Civic chassis stacked by Los Angeles-based Canadian sculptor Jed Lind, closed in 2014 after a run of more than three years.

The site’s been bereft of art ever since, for reasons explained below, prompting many to fret that this “little cultural gem” and marker of Toronto’s claim to big-city sophistication was en route to extinction.

Now, though, the space is hosting a new installation, called Solid States, by noted Toronto sculptor/architect An Te Liu, 48. It officially opens to public scrutiny Saturday at 7:15 p.m. as part of Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. But unlike most Nuit projects, which vanish after their 12 hours of nocturnal glory, this one’s staying up through early December, and very likely longer.

The installation not only represents a reanimation of sorts of the TSG, it also stands as the first “pop-up project” for MoCCA since it closed its long-time quarters on Queen Street West in late August. While MoCCA has new digs, in the rapidly gentrifying Bloordale/South Junction neighbourhood, they require major renovation and likely won’t be ready until early 2017. Maintaining public visibility in the interim is a big concern. Which is why Terry Nicholson, director of Toronto’s Art & Culture Services, approached MoCCA director/curator David Liss this year to ask whether the museum would curate an installation for the TSG, the opening to coincide with that of Nuit Blanche, a famously high-traffic event that’s pulled at least a million visitors to the downtown core in each of its last five or six years.

Liss jumped at the opportunity, even as he acknowledged recently that MoCCA already was “extremely busy” running exhibitions and programs at its Queen West location, organizing that location’s eventual closure and negotiating with developers to lease new facilities.

Calling An Te Liu in May, he invited him to the TSG and offered him the commission. Liss chose Liu, he said, because he’s “well-known in the art community as a trustworthy and hard worker with a track record of doing really amazing work in a range of media and in circumstances within and outside the conventional gallery space.” Plus, “he always has a great team of studio assistants.”

A bubble wrap and Styrofoam sculpture.

Liu hesitated at first – “The time was tight and there were other things I was doing” – then agreed. He was attracted by the opportunity to do an outdoor work in a specific space with materials more durable than the plastic, foam and other “detritus of consumerism” that have been the basis of much his oeuvre.

Indeed, Solid States consists of six bronze forms, several of them quite large, mounted on great plinths of Caledonia marble (“leftovers,” in fact, from the Pan Am Games), each slab weighing as much as 2,200 kilograms. The forms unabashedly harken to the biomorphic sculptures of Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi and Barbara Hepworth – although closer inspection reveals bronze castings of various appliances Liu has “eviscerated,” including a Braun juicer, two humidifiers and an ice crusher.

For the artist, the presentation at the TSG is “very archeological … It’s like I’m taking stuff that has a short lifespan and making it forever in a way, petrifying it like something that happened at Pompeii and it got fossilized or weirdly preserved.”

Of course, An Te Liu’s weirdness isn’t the only weirdness that has found a home, at least temporarily, in the TSG, as a visit to its archives will attest. The history of the garden, too, is if not weird, certainly interesting, its creation due largely to one man, Lou “Bud” Odette, co-founder, in 1951, of Eastern Construction – and a passionate connoisseur and collector of sculpture. A visit in 1974 to a restaurant in a former mansion outside Rome that had sculpture scattered on its grounds got Odette thinking that the concept might just work in Toronto.

Five years later, seeing merit in his vision, the city agreed a sculpture garden, open daily and free to the public, could be located at 115 King St. E., in what was then a city-owned parking lot wedged between two city-owned buildings. The city agreed to lease the building on the lot’s western perimeter to Odette for 35 years at “a lower-than-market rate,” Nicholson explains.

The understanding was that Odette would rehabilitate 111 King E. to suitable commercial standards, then sublet it to a restaurateur. (Since 1983, it’s been home to the French restaurant La Maquette.)

“Proceeds from the commercial operation were then used to fund the programming and maintenance of the sculpture garden,” Nicholson says. Odette established a foundation and hired well-regarded local art consultant Rina Greer as director of the space, and an artistic advisory committee was formed to vet applications from sculptors. Three hundred guests attended the TSG’s official opening, with a largely Canadian group show, on Sept. 11, 1981.

For 13 years, the garden, under Greer’s supervision, mounted three exhibitions per year before going to a two-exhibition policy. Occasionally, a work’s duration would be shorter or longer: Hugh LeRoy’s The Arc and the Chord, for instance, was up for a little over two months in mid-1987, while Katie Bethune-Leamen’s massive Mushroom Studio, erected in 2008, stayed in situ for a year. This scenario held until mid-2011, when Odette died. With that, the Odette family foundation decided it wouldn’t try to negotiate another lease with the city once the extant arrangement expired in 2014.

However, observes Greer, the foundation did agree to mark the TSG’s 30th anniversary “with the commissioning of a significant work by Jed Lind, intending to let it remain [onsite] for the duration of the lease as a lingering tribute to the founder.”

There are no firm plans to extend An Te Liu’s installation beyond its advertised close date of Dec. 6. But both Liss and Nicholson believe conversations will occur later this fall about leaving it up longer. “I would say the city has a long-term commitment to do something,” Nicholson says. “The idea here was to at least kick-start things again using Nuit Blanche as a pilot,” then see how the TSG might be resurrected more permanently.

“Bronze and granite – that should be able to carry over through the winter,” Liss says, referring to Solid States. “Of course, there’s the issue of the ground freezing and how that might affect the footings. I think the original idea probably was to get it out before the freeze, but we’ll see.”

Liss indicates that, strictly from a personal point of view, he’d “love” to see MoCCA curate the TSG in future. “But there are budgets to consider, costs. Maybe the city wants to open it up to other organizations. Maybe MoCCA will want to stay focused on Sterling [158 Sterling Rd., where the new MoCCA will be based]. But I think it’d be great.”

Meanwhile, Dave Dyment, an artist, curator and former director of Mercer Union, the artist-run, Toronto-based contemporary art centre, thinks a revived TSG might also provide a modest riposte to those who criticize Nuit Blanche for being too ephemeral and lacking in legacy. Each year, you could launch a new installation at the TSG as part of Nuit Blanche, keep it there for a year, then replace it for the next Nuit.

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