My Canada, 46/150: The everywhere art of Michael Snow

The Walking Woman just may be the most recognized silhouette in Canada.

The jaunty, bob-haired, swinging-armed Walking Woman, sometimes with a flare of a skirt at her knee, sometimes not, pops up in public spaces around the country. The first Walking Woman was created in 1961 by Michael Snow and he re-imagined her in scores of paintings, drawings and flattened sculptures. In 1967, Snow produced an 11-part sculpture based on the Walking Woman for the Ontario Pavilion at Expo in Montreal, the crown jewel of Canada’s centennial anniversary celebrations.

Snow, born in 1929, was a multimedia artist before people were called multimedia artists. To quote his biography from National Gallery of Canada: “Internationally acclaimed as an experimental filmmaker, Michael Snow is one of Canada’s most important living artists, distinguished as a highly accomplished musician, visual artist, composer, writer, and sculptor. Dazzling in his ability to switch from one medium to another outside of any predictable sequence, and noted for a multi-disciplinary approach to his work, Snow continually challenges notions of content and form, seeing and representation.”

I confess I know little about Snow’s many musical and film accomplishments. What I know him for is his unerring ability to create sculpture that engages people who might not normally think that art is for them.

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The overall view, and a closeup of Michael Snow’s Flight Stop (1979), installed in the Eaton Centre shopping mall, downtown Toronto. Photos: Kelley Teahen

Take Flight Stop, his installation of 60 Canada Geese that have enlivened the Eaton Centre since 1979.  They soar through the arched atrium of the urban mall, poised forever as if they will be aiming to land at the mall’s south entrance.

They seemed such a part of the place that, two years later, the mall management rather forgot they were artworks by one of Canada’s most honoured creators. Someone got the idea in 1981 that it would be festive to put ribbons around those 60 geese necks as part of the Christmas decorations. Snow objected, strenuously, and the case wound up in court. Snow v. Eaton Centre Ltd.  did more than get the red ribbons off the sculpted goose necks. The judge rules that sculpture’s integrity was “distorted, mutilated or otherwise modified” which was “to the prejudice of the honour or reputation of the author” under the regulations of Canada’s Copyright Act.

The case garnered international attention: analyses of its implications, and how it has led to strengthening of artistic rights under copyright law, are published online with the Harvard Law School and Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law at the University of Cambridge.

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The Audience by Michael Snow. Photo: Kelley Teahen

Snow was not deterred from further public installations (no doubt, it helped that he won his case.) In 1989, a new sports stadium with a retractable roof opened near the CN Tower in Toronto — waggish pundits often point out that the phallic-like big-high-pointy-thing of the CN Tower now was paired with the more, er, female anatomy of the SkyDome. Michael Snow, once again, created the artwork that for generations has defined the look of the place. The names may change — the stadium is now known as the Rogers Centre — but the Snow sculptures adorning its façade, The Audience (1989), continue to amuse and provoke scores of folks, including those who would never think of deliberately seeking out the creations of one of Canada’s most honoured artists.

 

Main photo: Michael Snow Walking Woman sculptures installed at the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts, Toronto. Photographer Kelley Teahen is reflected in the sculpture.

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