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Rocking Toronto

Published Saturday August 21st, 2010
Telegraph Journal, Salon

The Toronto International Film Festival Bell Lightbox building and its 40-floor Festival Tower splits the Toronto skyline this fall along with Peter Powning's latest commissioned 'Split Rock.'

Story by Sean Flinn 

From its humble beginnings in a New Brunswick stone yard, Peter Powning's new sculpture is now part of the Big Smoke's latest, swanky new cultural building.

Peter Powning picked a boulder and had it hauled away to Toronto where it would stay.

If that sounds like children's verse about one of the southern New Brunswick artist's new commissions in Toronto, it's with good reason: during childhood we arguably enjoy an uncomplicated, unfettered connection to the natural world. Those are the years when we understand intrinsically that we're a part of, not apart from, nature.

After we've grown up, we can forget this fact.

"We're a part of nature whether we think we are or not," says the multidisciplinary artist from Markhamville on the line from his office, where's he's been catching up on paperwork.

With that idea and spirit in mind, Powning created Split Rock, a sculptural installation comprising of a 24,000-pound found boulder (cut in two equally weighted pieces and still supporting living lichen and moss) and a fabricated and patinated silicon bronze plank. The rectilinear form runs between the two stone halves, joining them once again.

All told, the dimensions of Split Rock are 18' x 5'6" x 9'. Physically, it's a large and heavy work, but conceptually it expresses the lightness of being "human in nature" rather than "human as nature," a different way of looking at this duality, according to Powning.

He discovered the rock, a massive piece of New Brunswick granite, in a stoneyard. It was covered with other debris and detritus. "I don't want to anthropomorphize a chunk of rock, but to me it's ended up in a more interesting place to be," he says.

Powning made Split Rock specifically for a rooftop meditation garden that crowns the Toronto International Film Festival's (TIFF) Bell Lightbox building, the latest and perhaps the most southerly of the new or newly refurbished cultural institutions' buildings Toronto has received in the last several years. They include renovations and additions, such as Daniel Libeskind's crystalline form grafted on the Royal Ontario Museum on Bloor Street West, and new structures, including the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (the home of Canadian Opera Company) on Queen Street West and University Avenue, just around the corner from the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

The TIFF event and organizational headquarters at King and John (just blocks north of Lake Ontario's shoreline) gets its grand opening with this year's festival in a few short weeks.

The 40-storey Festival Tower condos rise above it. From balconies overhead, residents will look down on the garden, which was still being put in at the time of writing, or they'll descend and take a stone pathway to enter the greenspace populated by flora local to southern Ontario.

"Anybody walking through there has chosen to do it," Powning says. "It's not a path that's a destination to anywhere else."

Powning describes Split Rock as "a quiet but a bold presence," a companion to meditation, fitting with the purpose and intent of the garden as a "designated quiet place."

The piece's quietness sharply contrasts with its creation.

To begin with, the stone had to be cut in half. This was completed at Nelson Monuments in Sussex. A 10-foot blade made two cuts. After the first, the rock was rolled over, repositioned and received the second cut.

"They took it on and it wasn't easy. They enjoyed the challenge and so did I," the artist says of the stonecutters. "It was quite an astounding process - pretty exciting and nerve-wracking."

During one of the cuts, "a big chunk came off. So we cleaned it up, drilled holes and epoxied it back together," the artist recalls. "Going from that point, it added a layer of complexity and intrigue to the piece that I really like. That's just part of the process to me. It was unanticipated."

In other words, Powning didn't panic. "I didn't think, 'Oh damn, I've ruined the perfect boulder.' Because it's not about perfection. It's about dealing with what you get."

He also called the Lightbox building's developer, The Daniels Corporation, to tell them what happened and what he was going to do. Powning explained to them that he was going "to cast bronze replacement parts and make a bronze seam around it. And they said, 'yeah, that sounds great.'"

The Daniels Corporation privately commissioned Powning for this "semi-public" sculptural installation more than three years ago. First acquaintances and then collaborators, the relationship between developer and artist involves other projects and sites in Toronto.

Previous to Split Rock, Powning sought The Daniels Corporation's feedback when applying for a competition with the Canderel Stoneridge company in Toronto. Powning won the commission at The Residences of College Park on Bay Street, which is northeast by several city blocks of the TIFF building, with Light Spirals - two matching sculptures of stainless steel and glass that stand 14 feet high. The first spiral was installed in 2006 and the second in 2008. Light Spirals resulted in Daniels' interest in having Powning do work for them.

The internationally renowned architectural firm KPMB designed the TIFF Bell Lightbox building for the King and John Festival Corporation, which is made up of The Daniels Corporation and members of the Reitman family - filmmaker Ivan and his sisters Agi Mandel and Susan Michaels.

Powning worked directly with landscape architect Robert Ng of Toronto-based NAK Design Group. Powning describes a "give-and-take" working relationship with Ng, with each of them adapting to the others' concepts and practices.

"Peter's art piece was purposely set high on a plateau of wild grasses and wandering creepers," explains Ng by email. "This composition mimicked the native vegetation among the rocks in the Canadian landscape. Granite slabs and boulders, juxtaposed throughout the garden, defined passage to the art piece. Granite was chosen to express a connectivity in material palette."

Split Rock is "nestled between a pool pavilion and [the] condo tower," continues Ng. It provides, he writes, a visual (and no doubt in time an emotional and spiritual) "relief for our city core" and a reminder of the "spirit and beauty of our natural environment."

As the garden's plants and grasses are put in, Powning hopes life on the stone continues to flourish. "All the stuff that lives on it, grew here. We'll see if it takes," he says. "It's gonna be a tough job for that lichen to hang on in that urban air. But the moss may make it."

The south-facing garden will experience some "severe swings" in temperature. But an irrigation system for the entire garden will at least regulate during Toronto's hot and humid summers.

To an extent, the bronze plank will age and change along with the rest of the garden. "It will mature and gradually alter but bronze is fairly stable," Powning says. "Peoples' rear ends will polish edges and so on. That patina of use is really the nicest kind. But I took it to a good starting point."

With its rustic natural elements, it's easy to feel something inherently New Brunswick about the piece. Powning's naturally inclined to play down his work's evocation of his home province on a larger level; in a way that the condo residents and other visitors to the garden will realize. But, going back the three-plus years to the project's beginnings, he admits to moments of provincial pride.

"Because I was picking this natural boulder I was definitely quite aware of a little frisson of excitement, irony maybe, taking a big rock from New Brunswick and putting it on a roof in downtown Toronto."

Similarly, Powning subtly states (and stakes) his place in the lobby of Festival Tower. At 12 feet wide and eight feet tall, Fantasm is a wall-mounted sculptural installation combining cast bronze, slumped glass and video.

"The glass is very thick and distorting," Powning says. "The back side of that glass is sand-blasted, so it's frosted, essentially."

Projecting video he shot and edited himself ["the ferry to Grand Manan, inside of kiln firing, flames, being in a car and shooting out the window"], he's evoking cinema for the Festival Tower residents, festival-goers and passersby on the street.

"What you see from the front of the video images is a very impressionistic kind of movement and colour and light," he says. "Instead of pitching something or entertaining, it's this kind of evanescent experience."

An artist's fairy tale. Peter Powning's happily ever after. s

Sean Flinn is a freelance journalist living in Halifax.