The Layers of Art at Viger Square: A study on situating public art in Montreal, focusing upon works by Charles Daudelin and Doug Scholes

Daniel Lewis Epstein is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts, double major in History and Art History. Previously, Mr. Epstein was an assistant antiquarian in London to Mr. Stephen Adelman, of New York’s prestigious Kentshire Galleries. As a young man, Mr. Epstein received operatic voice training with internationally renowned baritone, Edouardo Del Campo, and his wife, acclaimed pianist, Carmen Or, both currently based in Zurich, Switzerland. For the future, Mr. Epstein intends to pursue graduate work in England.

The contextualization of a work of art’s site-specificity cannot simply be regarded as a relationship between the object or performance and its geographic location. A work of art engenders many relationships within any given site; between the art and the inhabitants of the area, the passers-by, the historiographical story of the place, the contemporary condition of the site, and the intentions of the art ‘promoters’. Within a multi-oeuvre site, the relationships between the artworks or assemblages are of further consideration. However, these relationships are not always easily discernible, especially when the artworks exist atop one another; this is to say when one artwork becomes the platform or stage for another piece of art. In such a situation, how is site-specificity clearly discernible, if at all? Moreover, what are the ramifications of such a relationship?

Recently, the multi-disciplinary art group Dare-dare established a presence within Square Viger, Montréal, with the intention of presenting art outside the confines of a gallery. By presenting their Dis/location project within the square, Dare-dare appropriated a Charles Daudelin environment, Agora (1983), and transformed it from an urban plaza into an outdoor exhibition platform (Fig. 1). The first presentation, between 9 September – 16 October 2004, by artist Doug Scholes, entitled (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?) (2004), dealt with themes pertinent to the site: maintenance and decay. By presenting his work atop an earlier one by Charles Daudelin, Scholes was not negating or obfuscating the latter for the sake of his own. Rather, the space designed by Daudelin became an essential, even profound, backdrop for the work of Scholes, both aesthetically and philosophically. By examining the site-specific intentions, or lack thereof, of both Daudelin and Dis/location, this paper shall reveal the concomitant nature of site-determinism in the works of Charles Daudelin and Doug Scholes at Square Viger.

Doug Scholes came upon the idea of impermanence in art quite by accident while trying to construct an “endless Brancusi column” at art school. Similar to the fate of Humpty-Dumpty, the column collapsed and neither Scholes nor his teachers could put it back together again. The initial concern of witnesses to the collapse was for Scholes, who was regarded as the lamentable artist who had lost his art. Ultimately the experience was both an epiphany and a catalyst for Scholes; if art was not meant to fall apart, what could the artist glean from its disintegration? Scholes became very interested in how he could incorporate this impermanence into future works [1]. (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?) explored the disintegration of beeswax bricks built up in square shafts on a concrete island in Square Viger, as well as the effort required to maintain the bricks in order for them to decay. The idea of maintenance may seem incongruous with the notion of decay; however, it is perfectly appropriate within the socio-politico framework of Square Viger (Fig. 2).

Square Viger, the first park in Montréal established specifically for leisure, was initiated by French-Canadian women with the intention of preserving and strengthening a French-Canadian presence during the British regime. Land was first donated in 1818 by the Viger family for the purpose of establishing a park, but it was not until 1867 that the park was officially named Square Viger [2]. Whereas the park was meant to promote the growth of a French-Canadian neighbourhood, it likewise should be understood as furthering the French-Canadian culture in Montréal. Thus, a distinct precedent was established at Square Viger for the dissemination of culture in the early nineteenth century. The question of whose culture, despite the original land-donors’ intentions, is one that remains at the core of concern over the state of Square Viger at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

In 1867, the Holy Trinity Memorial Anglican Church was built at the corner of Viger and St. Denis [3]. In 1872, the Canadian Illustrated News reported that Square Viger had became the spot for “English-Canadians and French-Canadians […] to take a stroll” [4]. Thus, by the mid to late nineteenth-century a conflict of interests had been established at Viger, between the founders’ original intentions and the reality of whom the park came to service. Rosalyn Deutsche suggests that conflict, rather than existing as a symptom of malaise, actually offers a true representation of democracy, especially as it challenges any notion of a fixed or stagnant ideology [5].

Although the conflicts of the nineteenth century at Square Viger may have been subtle and even genteel, those of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have had a coarse effrontery attached to them. According to Michel Demers, head of libraries and culture for the Ville-Marie borough, three groups of “undesirables” have predominated in Square Viger for at least twenty years: homosexuals, alcoholics, and “squeegees” (or street kids) [6].  The deterioration of the square from bourgeois idyll, however, had been a concern for the city as early as the nineteen-twenties after industry had chased out the last middle-class households [7]. The primary concern for the city in 2003 was not to eradicate conflict, but rather to “clear hostility” [8]. Indeed, by offering the space to artists, the city has chosen to encourage dialogues between social groups, rather than rely upon police to forcibly eject “undesirables” from the square. However, the city’s apparent benevolence is not without a certain nefariousness attached. One rumoured plan calls for a complete renovation of the square, thus destroying the Agora and Mastodo (1984) (a bronze fountain, Fig. 3), both by Charles Daudelin [9].

In two obituaries Charles Daudelin was hailed as both “Charles le Magnifique” [10] and “One of Quebec’s Greatest,” [11] after his death in April 2001. Although Daudelin’s previous public sculptures had at least been catalogued in art books [12], Agora and Mastodo were given scant attention by art historians. Simon Blais mentions Mastodovery briefly within an article summing up Daudelin’s career chronologically. Blais claims that Mastodo, along with some other Daudelin works from the eighties, demonstrated the creative spirit and drive towards reinvention still apparent in the artist [13]. His Agora at Square Viger may be closest to his ideal of integrating art with architecture, and ultimately his most successful piece of work. In 1995 Daudelin gave his view of his desired production of art to a journalist:

L’idée de faire du petit format et de fonctionner avec des galleries n’a pas été mon intérêt premier. L’architecture m’intéresse beaucoup depuis très longtemps. Pour moi, la maison, le désir d’avoir une coquille pour s’abriter, et la place publique, sont les choses les plus importantes [14].

Square Viger, having become a ‘home’ for many marginalized young people, has come to exemplify a denied notion of public spaces as dwellings; in other words, these young people’s adoption of Square Viger is considered by officials and taxpayers as an unwanted intrusion. Louise Daudelin, Charles’ widow, according to Jean-Pierre Caissie, artistic director for Dare-dare, has always felt the city has not used the square to its potential [15]. Why should it have been left to the city to assign its potential? By providing a locus for these young people, who might not otherwise have a locality to anchor themselves, has not Daudelin’s Agora indeed superceded its potential? By being both home and public place, it would seem the perfect marriage of Daudelin’s ideas about private shells and public spaces. Of course, this method of interpretation might not be easily accepted by municipal bureaucrats. Daudelin’sAgora, despite philosophical asides, has come to be the modern emblem of Square Viger’s failure as a public space. For whom, then, has Square Viger failed? It certainly has not failed the “undesirables” who inhabit the place. What public is thus represented by the failure of Square Viger?

Rosalyn Deutsche offers a compelling argument on the use of public space as a source of power-dissemination within a democratic society. Beyond the art world’s fixation on gallery versus public space venues, Deutsche postulates that public-spaces afford the emergence of debate on the “meaning of democracy” [16]. Dare-dare’s initial interest in Square Viger was completely independent of any social concerns, and merely concentrated upon the desire to exhibit art in a public space [17]. However, the exigencies of the location demanded that intervention at a localized level be undertaken, if only to safeguard the art. Doug Scholes, as shall be expanded upon below, felt compelled to intervene with the “squeegees” after initial acts of vandalism threatened to undermine (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?) [18]. Caissie, likewise, intervened during the winter by suggesting places where the young people could find food and shelter from the cold [19]. While Scholes’ intervention served to ingratiate himself to the ‘proprietors’ of the public space, Caissie’s was more of a social act aimed at combating the harsh realities of life within the outdoor space. Jürgen Habermas claimed that bourgeois society, without access to monarchical symbols, created the “public sphere” which alienates all segments of society not engaged in some measure of commercial advancement. Thus a division of public and private realms was inaugurated, whereby the public realm remains under the control of the private [20]. From this the public has engineered its own ideological comfort zone, exterior to which is the state of marginalization. This system of delineation has actually created two publics, which shall be referred to in this paper as the accepted public, and the true public.

The accepted public, or in the jargon of democratic philosophy, the bourgeois public, is that for whom public spaces are apparently intended. The true public is comprised of those for whom no private realm exists. The true public, while not the intended inhabitants of public spaces, are ultimately those people who occupy public areas a majority of the time. This dichotomy between intent and usage is precisely what instigates conflict. In the case of Square Viger, by inviting artists on-site, the city hoped to create new discursive venues for the sake of social harmony. Undoubtedly, this debate surrounding the “undesirables” of Square Viger would exclude those same people it was purporting to address. Debates surrounding the usages of public space are ultimately arbitrated by the accepted public. The true public has traditionally found no voice within a discursive framework [21].

The site-specific ramifications of (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?) were not immediately evident, other than the obvious theme of urban decrepitude and decay. However, Scholes’ hollow beeswax brick construction, and their subsequent deconstruction, came to exemplify the “squeegees’” on a multitude of levels. Scholes’ hollow beeswax bricks were originally intended to be built in the form of a cylindrical silo form. The sharp square outlines within the structure of Daudelin’s Agora ultimately determined that the bricks would be constructed into three square shafts in front of a blue-wall waterfall. Although decay was inevitable for structures made from such a fragile substance, Scholes monitored and controlled the decomposition (Fig. 4) [22]. In a very real sense, as witnessed by Caissie, city workers maintained a semblance of decrepitude within Square Viger by not emptying trash bins routinely, and allowing for refuse to gather on the ground [23]. Thus the city may have deliberately perpetuated a myth about Square Viger’s actual condition. Caissie suggests it is a municipal ploy to garner public sympathy in order to raise funds through taxes for an eventual renovation of the park. Whereas this ploy uses the young inhabitants of the square as mere pawns, Schole’s work was able to represent them on a more personal, if not merely sociological level.

The lifestyle these young people adhere to is not singular to Montréal. Nomadic young people adhering to an aesthetic akin to the punks of the late seventies are not uncommon in many large urban metropolises within the western context. The punk ‘movement’ was forged by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, out of the shop on London’s King’s Road which they shared with a used-denim enterprise (the first in London), when they began making clothes for the rock group The Teddy Boys. From its outset, the punk aesthetic represented anti-establishment sentiment. Thus, adherents to the punk aesthetic are daily expressing a conceptual artistic statement as a part of an unwritten policy of non-conformity [24]. The irony in the punk movement is that, ultimately, for Westwood, the ‘look’ was the means she utilized to build a fashion and accessory enterprise to an extent as had not existed prior in England. However, it was the issue of non-conformity, and its inherent deconstruction of social mores, based upon maintaining a semblance of decrepitude, that resonated within(This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?).

Doug Scholes prefers people who encounter his art to react viscerally to its inherent and situational aesthetic [25]. Robert Barry and Richard Serra were two artists who considered their work aesthetically exclusive to their sites [26]. Scholes’ willingness to adapt his work to a site, as mentioned above, furthers its identification with and representation of its location. However, this adaptability in Scholes allows his work to metamorphose according to the particularities of any given site. Scholes’ art can thus be regarded as nomadic. This aesthetic transience is substantive in relation to the site-specificity of (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?). This relational link between art and site does not, however, preclude the work from impacting upon any other location in the world. Scholes’ work is not limited by an aesthetic or institutional framework.

Scholes’ use of beeswax for his project at Square Viger was intended to prompt reflections upon construction and its results. Generally, the end result of construction is a structure, which invariably is used and thus valued according to its usage. Certain structures are maintained beyond their usefulness in order to stand as testaments to the permanence of humans; for example the Parthenon, or Forbidden City. Beeswax, the traditional building tool of bees’ honeycombs, is justifiably a fundamental life giving material. Within each beeswax honeycomb of a hive, the queen bee deposits one egg, thus instigating the reproductive sequence. When this same building material is transposed upon a human scale, its apparent strength is stretched to the point of extreme fragility. The accepted or bourgeois public certainly resembles a beehive, in the sense that both are well-organized productive communities. Both may seem permanent within the context of their productive habits. However, the symbolism of the fragile beeswax is not lost within a human dimension. In Square Viger, the “squeegees” are like the beeswax because they also represent a more fragile state of society. In truth, what they threaten to destabilize is the value of permanence so treasured by the accepted public. Doug Scholes attacked this value intrinsically with (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?).

If, as Mary Jane Jacob asserts, public art’s impetus after 1968 was to “adorn architecture [. . . and] rectify the shortcomings of a more alienating, inhospitable urban plan,” [27] then Agora and Mastodo together demonstrate the success of this theory in Montréal. Daudelin’s rectification of an apparent urban blight, the demolition of the old square for the sake of major urban transport channels underneath it, synthesized art as an integral component of the urban plan [28]. Jacob describes art on urban plazas, especially works by ‘great masters’ of modern art, as functioning “outdoor museum(s)” [29] In this regard, Daudelin created out of Square Viger a personal museum where the Agora operates as a platform for MastodoAgorais a multi-level series of pergolas and plazas, with a water-wall near the centre. Daudelin’s interpretation of Square Viger also incorporates the shift, as Jacob understands it, “from physical to conceptual space” in the 1980s [30]. Mastodo was originally meant to tilt back and forth, collecting and then depositing rainwater into a basin. That it never functioned properly does not diminish its conceptual value. The flow of rainwater through Mastodo into the basin of Square Viger indicates a cleansing process; the theme of urban renewal is evident throughout. Even if Daudelin’s pergola-shelters were interpreted as an idealized vision of public habitation, they do not encompass every concern of those who might inhabit it. Scholes’ work may extend the discourse surrounding the urbanization and socialization of the square. However, the debate still lacks a central voice: that of the true public presently occupying Square Viger.

The ramifications of art situated upon other art, therefore, are akin to the constructive and deconstructive nature of Scholes’ (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?). Whereas Scholes’ contribution to Square Viger promoted the integrity of Daudelin’s space as a venue for artistic communication, it also highlighted the inherent flaws of quick-fix urban planning. However, Scholes also posits through his work that the apparent decline of the square may simply be a question of perception. Within conceptual boundaries, the initial framework of the art belonged to Scholes. Upon construction of the work he was not only relinquishing intellectual interpretation to his viewers, but the physical presence of his art encroached upon the ‘property’ of the young inhabitants of the square. Vandals undid the pieces the first night after their construction, by throwing beer bottles, kicking the beeswax structures and the lights within their bases. Scholes, unsure of who the culprits might be, approached the “squeegees” if only as a preventative measure against further damage to ‘his’ art. The “squeegees” denied involvement, and said they suspected either drug addicts or a rival “Anglo” group. They claimed ownership of the site by offering their assistance in safeguarding the art in exchange for beer [31]. Square Viger conflicts have always revolved around the issue of ownership: linguistic and cultural, residential versus commercial, and today, accepted versus true public.

The site-specificity of Scholes’ (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?) may have initially been limited to issues concerning broader public access. The issues raised in this paper examine only a sample of those applicable to the symbiotic relationship Scholes’ work developed with Square Viger. In order to understand this relationship, one must understand that the site upon which Scholes built was not simply Square Viger, it was Agora by Charles Daudelin. The two art pieces (in conjunction with Mastodo) should be understood as having a discursive relationship, linked integrally to their shared socio-geographic site. In order to understand the issues raised by one piece, the viewer cannot ignore the other. Dare-dare intends to sponsor other artists’ works in Square Viger over the course of the next year; it will be interesting to see how applicable site-specificity will be to their works.

List of Illustrations

Reproduced here with kind permission of Doug Scholes. All photographs by Jean-Pierre Caissie.

Endnotes

1. Doug Scholes, personal interview, 12 November 2004.

2. Marc H. Choko, The Major Squares of Montréal, trans. Kathe Roth (Montréal: Meridian Press, 1990), 112-116.

3. Choko, 116.

4. Choko. Originally sited in Canadian Illustrated News, vol. 3, 1872, 279.

5. Rosalyn Deutsche, “Agoraphobia,” Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 270.

6. Michel Demers, personal interview, 4 November 2004.

7. Choko, 129.

8. Demers interview.

9. Jean-Pierre Caissie, personal interview, 2 November 2004. N.B. the city provided no documentation to support such a plan, and the architectural firm of Cardinal-Hardy, apparently engaged to study a renovation scheme, did not return requests for an interview.

10. Jérôme Delgado, “Charles Daudelin: Charles le Magnifique,” La Presse [Montréal] 4 April 2001; from archives at Heritage Montréal: Art Public, 1.b3*, tome 10.

11. Victor Swoboda, “One of Quebec’s Greatest,” The Montréal Gazette, 4 April 2001; from archives at Heritage Montréal, Carré (sic.) Viger, 2.c1*.

12. Charles Daudelin, ed., Charles Daudelin (Montréal: Musée d’Art Contemporain, 1974), 12-17.

13. Simon Blais, “Brève Chronologie,” Charles Daudelin: L’Avenir Retrouvé ou la Résurrection des Rêves, Charles Daudelin, ed. (Laval: Les 400 coups, 1998), 109.

14. Sophie Gironnay, “Charles Daudelin,” Le Devoir [Montréal] 11 February 1995, D10.

15. Jean-Pierre Caissie interview.

16. Deutsche, 271.

17. Jean-Pierre Caissie interview.

18. Doug Scholes interview.

19. Jean-Pierre Caissie interview.

20. Deutsche, 287.

21. N.B. two attempts to find some of these young people to talk to in Square Viger were for naught, as the square was empty both times.

22. Doug Scholes interview.

23. Jean-Pierre Caissie interview.

24. Annette Green, “A Conversation with Vivienne Westwood,” Fragrance Forum, 17.4 (Fall 200): 10.

25. Doug Scholes interview.

26. Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, E. Suderburg, ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 39.

27. Mary Jane Jacob, “On Locating the Public in Public Art,” Sur l’Expérience de la Ville: Interventions en Milieu Urbain, Marie Fraser et al. (Montréal: Galerie Optica, 1999), 101.

28. Choko, 136.

29. Jacob, 101.

30. Jacob, 102.

31. Doug Scholes interview.