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‘Warning, Public Art’ — sign of the times?

Raven's Nest is behind a barrier after tragic death.

Raven’s Nest is behind a barrier after tragic death.

By MEL ROTHENBURGER/

ISSUES — The Raven’s Nest remains behind a fence in Riverside Park, looking as though it’s in jail, until the City decides what to do about the fact a woman died in a fire at the site.

Heather Carr, 40, was said to be holding a pagan ritual about 2 in the morning on March 31 when she somehow ended up in the fire, wedged between the rocks, suffering severe burns. It’s believed she removed a smaller rock to climb in between the bigger boulders and that her clothing caught fire.

What’s being called in some media reports “a rock structure” is actually a sculpture created as part of an art symposium in Kamloops almost 15 years ago. Several well-known artists participated, creating original art works and leaving them as a legacy to the City.

Nowadays, few people know what the Raven’s Nest is all about — a plaque in front of it identifying the artist and the sculpture was removed by vandals years ago and never replaced.

The huge rounded boulders are supposed to represent eggs sitting on a “nest” of smaller rocks. An angular boulder off to one side represents a raven approaching the nest. Each boulder is etched with squiggly lines.

The creator is Bill Vazan, a Montreal artist. Vazan is understandably “devastated” by Carr’s tragic death. He told CBC Daybreak Kamloops that signage near the sculpture might help warn people to be careful but that people still need to be able to get close to it and maybe even climb on the boulders.

“You can’t protect everybody all the time for everything in this life,” he said.

Raven’s Nest is expected to remain behind the fence for awhile, as engineers check out its stability. You can bet the City’s risk-management department is also doing an assessment to determine if changes need to be made to the sculpture to reduce risk to the public.

That might involve attaching the boulders to one another to make sure none can be moved. A further precaution might be to pump concrete into the cavity to stop anyone from getting into it.

It’s not the first time a public sculpture has become the subject of safety concerns in Kamloops or elsewhere. At Interior Savings Centre, another rock sculpture stands in the plaza, firmly cemented in place. In its original form, it was a water feature, until somebody backed into it and suffered an injury when she fell.

Special headwear for the Duke. (Mel Rothenburger photo)

Special headgear for the Duke. (Mel Rothenburger photo)

In 2011, an art installation at the Tate Modern gallery in London, England called Sunflower Seeds was closed to public access for fear dust from the porcelain seeds could be a health hazard. An earlier exhibit involving playground slides brought complaints about people getting hurt on the slides, and losing their mobile phones.

In Council Bluffs, Iowa, a massive sculpture project near a bridge so distracted a driver that he rear-ended another car. “It looks like Freddy Krueger’s hands coming down, trying to grab somebody,” said one resident about the sculpture, which is supposed to symbolize “man, machine and transformation.”

“It just doesn’t look right,” said another. “It just doesn’t look inviting here. ‘Come on, people, stop in, we’re going to stab you,'” said another.

Neither is the tragic incident with Raven’s Nest the first time someone has gotten stuck in public art. Last June, it took 22 firefighters to rescue an American exchange student after he got stuck inside a giant sculpture of a vagina in southern Germany.

In another case, a child burned his hand after touching a steel sculpture heated by the sun. In 2006, two people were killed and 13 injured when an inflatable public sculpture broke in County Durham.

During a trip to Scotland three years ago, I was fascinated by a huge statue in downtown Glasgow of the Duke of Wellington. Of more interest than the sculpture itself was the traffic cone on the duke’s head, and on his horse’s head, too. I marvelled at how anyone could have managed to climb up the base of the statue, scale the duke’s horse and reach high enough to place the cones. Surely, a fall from that height would result in serious injury or even death.

As it turned out, the traffic-coned duke is famous. The statue was installed in 1844; Some 30 years ago traffic cones began appearing on it. Due to safety concerns, climbing the statue to put cones on it has been discouraged but not forbidden. Instead, the cones are regularly removed by authorities. A plan to double the height of the plinth was abandoned after a Facebook campaign called “Keep the Cone” gathered 72,000 likes in 24 hours.

“The cone on Wellington’s head is an iconic part of Glasgow’s heritage, and means far more to the people and visitors than Wellington himself ever has,” said the petition.

“Raising the statue will, in any case, only result in people injuring themselves attempting to put the cone on anyway: does anyone really think that a raised plinth will deter drunk Glaswegians?”

So, about 100 cones a year continue to be removed from the duke’s head, though I don’t know why they aren’t just left there, since they’re always replaced.

But what to do about the risk factors of public art, which is intended to be accessible, even touched, by the public? It’s apparently now not uncommon for jurisdictions that inherit or buy public art installations to require safety certifications and that the artist secure public liability insurance.

Reasonable steps to protect the public from public art are, of course, a good idea. Unfortunately, as more of these cases pile up, warning signs advising the public of “Danger, Public Art” may become reality, even the norm. The real problem will come if artists and cities simply decide the risk is too great, and give up on public art altogether.

There’s a difference between making sure public art doesn’t fall over or otherwise poses a danger, and people who create their own risks with it by how they behave. As Vazan says, “You can’t protect everybody all the time for everything in this life.”

 

About Mel Rothenburger (7575 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

1 Comment on ‘Warning, Public Art’ — sign of the times?

  1. Pierre Filisetti // April 13, 2015 at 7:05 AM // Reply

    Do liability issues boil down to the courts using questionable metrics to uphold the public rights to do stupid things? Did the structure started the fire or was it a human with poor judgment? Did the vagina grabbed the student or did the student willingly entered it for a cheap thrill?
    Due diligence up to a point, after that it’s an individual’s call, with potential consequences.

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