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The Top 5 Public Art Installations in Toronto

The Top 5 Public Art Installations in Toronto

Posted by Juan Gavasa on September 22, 2014

The top public art in Toronto is both highly visible and easy to miss all at once. We've got multitudinous Douglas Coupland pieces, from his red canoe sculpture at Fort York & Bathurst to the model home clocktower at the Shops at Don Mills; Henry Moore's famous Archer has boldly sat at Nathan Phillips Square for decades; Anish Kapoor's stone mountains in the courtyard of the CBC building have become a part of the institution's Toronto identity.

The list of installations is long and impressive, but we probably take them for granted at list a little while stuck in our everyday routine. But what constitutes good public art? Are the best pieces the ones that integrate so well with their environment that you barely notice them? Or are they contestable works that function by attracting attention to a particular part of the space in which they reside? Does public art have to be entirely given over to the public, or can it be housed private places with public access?

The following list includes pieces that fall into one or more of the above categories, but whose primary criteria for being "best" is in their contribution to the mythology of urbanity and humanity in Canada's biggest city. Here are the top 5  public art installations in Toronto.

Noel Harding, Elevated Wetlands at Don Valley Parkway, Taylor Creek

As a millennial who (mostly) grew up in the city's east end, my interactions with Canadian artist Noel Harding's strange cement sculptures, Elevated Wetlands, have always involved magnetism. As children, whenever we drove by them on the DVP, my brother and I would have our faces pressed up against the closed car window, hounding my parents with questions about what "those things" were. Now, realizing the piece is a sustainable eco art project (drawing water from the Don River into the vitrines and back down again) the importance of this Harding work feels more magnetic than ever.

Carl Skelton, Still Life at Highway 401 between Renforth & Dixie

Whether viewed daily by the 400,000 Hwy 401 commuters or simply driven by once-a-year, Skelton's Still Life, a large, optical piece whose emblazoned words are the same as its title, is one of the city's best for examining the constant, kinetic motion of the city dweller. Adequate viewing of Still Life requires you be in a car. It functions like one of those giant billboards on the Gardiner, the image spelling out "STILL" as you approach and transforming into an image spelling "LIFE" as you pass and look back at it.

Nancy Holt, Catch Basin at St. James Park (1982)

Famed American outdoor installation artist Nancy Holt, a figure often unknown to the art world because her work could never be housed in a gallery, used her art to promote the feeling of sublime closeness to nature and geography, in a similar vein as her husband Robert Smithson (to whom she was married for 10 years before his untimely death in 1973). Her piece at St. James Park, a basin that captures water which then recedes into a sewer below, is a small-scale version of one of her epic bio works, bringing natural dynamism to a park whose history is immeasurably rich.

Heinzerling/Apt, Unknown Student at 341 Bloor St W.

Nestled in front of the Rabba Fine Foods near the U of T campus at the corner of Bloor & Huron is Unknown Student, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sculpture that is sometimes affectionately referred to as "the crying hippie." Part of Rochdale College, which opened in 1968 as an experimental, art school/co-operative living space, the sculpture remains a reminder of the thriving bohemian scene that Toronto once facilitated and its important position as an alternative art centre.

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