Finding Your Place in the Street

Views of the Collection: The Street at the Vancouver Art Gallery considers the significance of the urban street. 

Jayde Atchison // Staff Writer

What’s your walking style? Are you the person with headphones in, head down and a power stride? Do you only notice potential dogs to pet? Or do you savor the views and take note of the world around you? 

Views of the Collection: The Street at the Vancouver Art Gallery prompts visitors to rethink their position in public spaces. The exhibition is curated by Grant Arnold, the Audain Curator of British Columbia Art at the Vancouver Art Gallery and draws from the gallery’s existing collection of works. The Street explores the history of the urban street through paintings and photographs that chronicle gendered discrimination during World War II, colonization in Canada, sex work in Los Angeles, and construction labour in Vancouver, among other things. 

Upon entering the exhibition, the first thing I noticed was a photo mural that takes up a majority of the ceiling in the first room. It’s a re-creation of the gay-bashing attacks that happened in the summer of 1979 in Vancouver, where gay men were thrown over the side of the Stanley Park Seawall, an area which had been a long-established cruising site. Located directly under the mural is a bench where viewers can lie down to absorb the piece. Created by artist Kevin Medill, the mural is a reminder of Vancouver’s history of homophobia. Vancouver is becoming known for being 2SLGBTQ+ friendly, but this piece addresses the struggle the community had to go through to feel safer walking in the West End. Medill uses the large scale photograph to mimic the stylings of artists such as Michaelangelo (think Sistine Chapel) where historical events and conflicts were primarily focused. 

In the second room sits a photograph titled “Marilyn, 28 years old, Las Vegas, NV, $30.” I found myself mesmerized by the spiritless stare of this male prostitute on a street corner in Los Angeles, staged and captured by photographer Phillip-Lorca diCorcia. Arnold also enjoys the impact of Marilyn but reminds viewers, “Photography isn’t the truth, photography is a kind of fiction.”

Arnold advises those interested in attending the exhibition to “think about the mechanisms of representation while exploring the exhibit. Think about your own perceptions and experiences of the street and how they might coincide or diverge from the works.”

Walking through the three rooms of The Street, I realized how I experience the world more securely than the people and scenes depicted. I was struck by an image that Robert Capa captured of two women walking through a crowded street in France during World War II. The image shows the crowd laughing at the women, whose heads were shaven on suspicion of Nazi collaboration. Another photograph of a girl with smiling eyes in Hebron after a political conflict in 2000 that left the city streets scorched and torn apart, photographed by Larry Towell, reminded me that people can survive destruction and still find happiness. 

When I stared at Fred Herzog’s photograph of Kits Beach in 1957, I felt an uncanny connection  to a city that existed four decades before I was born. The concession stand may have gone through some upgrades, but the ritual of getting hot dogs and ice cream remains the same. It’s a piece that’s representative of how the greater exhibition details Vancouver’s cultural and physical changes over the last 60 years. 

Views of the Collection: The Street will be on display until November 17th at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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