It's a safe bet that many of the people who visit the Polygon Gallery for its free opening this weekend will be motivated by curiosity about the building. This $18-million, 25,000-square-foot gallery has risen on North Vancouver's waterfront; a gleaming new beacon for SeaBus passengers as they chug across the Burrard Inlet from Vancouver. It's sure to be a game changer for the Lonsdale Quay neighbourhood; there's a lot more to do here now than meander through a so-so public market. And from inside the gallery, visitors will be treated to jaw-dropping views of the Vancouver skyline to the south.
But even if the star of the show is the Patkau Architects-designed gallery, its raison d'être is what's on the walls and installed around the building. It won't be forever that the building upstages the art.
For its inaugural exhibition in its new oceanfront location, the Polygon has mounted a show focusing on art that has a connection to the city, in a show called N. Vancouver.
"I'm nervous, I'm excited. I'm excited to show the building off," executive director and curator Reid Shier said during a private tour. "I'm proud of the building, I'm proud of the show. We've done our best."
The Polygon, formerly Presentation House Gallery (which resided in much smaller and shabbier quarters a few blocks away), is a non-collecting public gallery with an emphasis on photography and media arts. It has a stellar reputation and history, but this exhibition focuses on the history of the place where it resides, rather than the gallery itself.
N. Vancouver features work by more than 25 artists, including some 15 commissions; all have a connection to the city. Issues such as contact and colonization, Indigenous relations, the resource economy and North Van's cultural history are dealt with in smart and sometimes surprisingly beautiful ways. When was the last time a photo of a grain terminal rocked your world?
The show begins outside, with Raw Goods, a new work by Holly Ward, visible from the exterior in a glassed-in gallery. The installation features two wide, cone-like piles – one coal, one sulphur. Both commodities are integral to the local economy, and the sulphur's bright yellow is a familiar sight for anyone who has spent time on the Stanley Park Seawall across the Inlet.
In the Polygon's light-flooded lobby, Myfanwy MacLeod's The Butcher's Apron stands dark against the backdrop of the Burrard Inlet, on the other side of the glass wall. It's a one-eighth scale recreation of the HMS Discovery, the ship captained by George Vancouver that led the Europeans to the first point of contact with the Coast Salish here. After the ship was decommissioned as a naval vessel, it was permanently moored back in England, on the Thames, serving as a hospital and, later, a prison. MacLeod's model, constructed with charred wood, recreates the ship at the prison stage, with two extra levels. The scale installation uses a full-size Union Jack – a pejorative term for which is "the Butcher's Apron."
Also in the lobby will be Tim Lee's video Lonsdale Quay, North Vancouver, August 21, 2017. It wasn't installed yet during my visit on Wednesday, but Shier explained that it was shot during last summer's solar eclipse, tracked through the landmark "Q" sign outside the Lonsdale Quay Public Market next door.
On the way up to the second floor and the main galleries, visitors will encounter a new work by Nisga'a poet Jordan Abel, this year's winner of the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. As he has done previously, Abel conducted Control-F searches through digital versions of old western novels to find words related to a theme – in this case, issues of territory and ownership. The large-scale work, Cartography (12), is created in the shape of the Burrard Inlet.
Upstairs, one large gallery is installed with Jeremy Shaw's two-channel video projection Best Minds. The work documents a rave held in North Vancouver; part of a puritanical punk subculture known as "straight edge," where participants abstain from sex, drugs and alcohol (but apparently not slam dancing).
Next door, the large Freybe Family Gallery is installed with spectacular works by Vancouver superstars such as Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham and many more. There are three photographs by Greg Girard, including the grain-terminal works I found so striking, Untitled (Grain Terminal) and Cargill and Neptune Grain Terminals. I was particularly moved by Squamish Nation weaver Shelley Thomas's recreation of the ancestral blanket Chief Joe Capilano wore when he famously met with King Edward VII in London in 1906 to appeal for Indigenous rights back home in Canada. There's an iconic photograph of the delegation in which he is holding the blanket. Thomas later learned of a family connection to the blanket – it was likely woven by her great-great-grandfather's sister.
Nearby, a text work by Haida artist Raymond Boisjoly speaks to the Indigenous experience. The work is made up of pieces of 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper, hung as if they are woven on the wall. The sheets are photocopies and when you examine the work, you see that they spell out "Places Beyond Become Another." Boisjoly, a finalist for this year's Sobey Art Award, used to work for Presentation House – making photocopies, among other things – so perhaps there's a cheeky aspect to this work. But on a very serious note, the words speak to the Indigenous experience, and I read them as speaking very much to this moment for the gallery and the city. Presentation House has become another place, the Polygon – a place perhaps beyond the gallery's wildest dreams. And the Polygon will no doubt be transformative for this part of North Vancouver, a place beyond the big city across the water.
The Polygon opens to the public on Saturday and is free through the weekend (after that, admission is by donation). N. Vancouver runs to April 29 (thepolygon.ca).