In Vancouver these days, it's all about winning. With the Olympics in full swing, the message is clear: faster, sleeker, stronger. But at the entrance to Vancouver's Stanley Park, a monument has been erected that seems to contravene all that.
The brainchild of Vancouver artist Rodney Graham, Aerodynamic Forms in Space looks a little bit like a mangled glider - a cautionary note, perhaps, to the dozens of pilots flying small planes in and out of the harbour nearby. This mishmash, though, carries a deeper meaning, posing a carefully considered alternative to conventional assembly.
"I wanted to do something that played with modernism's history," says Graham of the work, which was commissioned by the City of Vancouver, "and I have always wanted to make a straight, traditional modernist sculpture. Every time I try to, though, I fail. So I guess the piece has to do with this idea of heroic failure."
It's a theme that has preoccupied Graham for decades. In his mixed-media works, photographs and projection pieces - for which he is best known - fruitless striving reappears in various guises: the pirate caught in the loop of his 1997 work Vexation Island (he rises from the sand, shakes a palm tree, is knocked unconscious by a falling coconut, only to rise again); the solitary artist in the studio throwing hit-and-miss potatoes at a gong (in an installation from 2006); or the pilot in Loudhailer (2003), stranded on the pontoon of his seaplane and hollering for help.
Recently, Graham has been trying his hand at making modern abstract paintings - some Picassoid, others à la Morris Louis (but with the paint drips running uphill) - with surprisingly compelling results. Willing to risk anything (he's even tried his hand at being a rock star and a country-western singer), Graham has positioned himself as the art world's beautiful loser, living proof that success in art, as in life, is all about process.
Graham's piece was not made in response to the Olympics. It arose, instead, from a work created in 1977, in the earliest years of his career. "I made a series of photographs of little sculptures made out of glider parts, assembled in different ways. I took them outside and shot them in the sunlight on a table," he says. "There are actually not too many ways of putting those things together where they can actually stand up. That became an important criteria."
Graham adds: "When I was given this opportunity to make a public sculpture, I thought it would be great to try to make something that would look at first glance like an Anthony Caro [referring to the king of British modernist abstract sculpture] I wanted to pun on the idea of artistic incompetence." The Soviet artist El Lissitzky was also on his mind, with his utopian aspirations.
Indeed, the end result reads like homage, until you notice the red wheels thrusting upwards into the air, and the giant blue rubber band (fabricated in steel) that holds the whole thing together like a bundle of kindling. This is serious fun.
If failure is a trope in Graham's art, it is not a condition of his life. He shows his work with Lisson Gallery in London, England, and Donald Young Gallery in Chicago - two of the art world's most respected venues - and he's an esteemed regular on the international museum circuit. This winter, his survey exhibition Rodney Graham: Through the Forest is on view at the Museu d'art contemporani de barcelona (MACBA), travelling on to the Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, where it will be on view during the Art Basel fair this summer.
For a guy who's so interested in losing, he's winning the race all the same.
Rodney Graham's Aerodynamic Forms in Space remains on permanent view at the Georgia Street entrance to Stanley Park in Vancouver. Friday night, he and his band play The Candahar, a temporary Vancouver performance-art venue in the form of a transplanted Belfast pub, located at the Playwright's Theatre Centre, 219-1398 Cartwright St., for the duration of the Olympics.