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Another kind of transformation project

December 8th, 2005

photo: Henry Moore
British, 1898-1986
Warrior with Shield
Conceived and cast 1953-54 Bronze
(C) 2005 The Henry Moore Foundation

From the Globe and Mail
Thursday, December 8, 2005

Why mussel a Henry Moore into Lake Ontario?
By Sarah Milroy

The announcement of the Turner Prize-winner in London earlier this week took a Canadian twist when the winner, 38-year-old Glasgwegian Simon Starling, shared some of his thoughts about his upcoming project for the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto.

Starling, who is known for his installation projects foregrounding processes of transformation, won this year’s Turner Prize for his work Shedboatshed, a performance/sculpture that entailed the dismantling of a wooden shed on the banks of the Rhine River, its reconstruction as a boat, and its eventual reconstitution as a shed once again downriver in Basel, where the artist was launching an exhibition.

The Canadian angle emerged, however, when Starling spoke to reporters about another transformation project, this one slated for Harbourfront Centre’s Power Plant next fall. The Toronto gallery’s curator, Reid Shier, says many details are still to be worked out, but the core proposal involves casting a replica of Henry Moore’s Warrior with Shield, a 1954 bronze in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and sinking it into Lake Ontario for six months, where it will become encrusted with zebra mussels before being displayed as the centrepiece of an exhibition of Starling’s work.

Like the mussels, Moore’s sculpture arrived on the shores of Lake Ontario via boat. British cultural legacy in the colonies is thus likened, metaphorically, to the invasive incursions of the dreaded bivalves.

Moore’s original bronze was donated by the artist to the AGO almost 40 years ago as part of a major gift of more than 800 works in various media — from bronzes and plaster maquettes to drawings and woodcut prints. Moore made that donation in recognition of the city’s defence of his sculpture The Archer, chosen as public art for the plaza in front of Toronto City Hall. (At that time, the selection of the Moore incited vigorous controversy — the disgruntled were outraged by the work’s modernist style, and by the British nationality of the artist — but broader public sentiment prevailed and in 1966 the work was installed, where it remains to this day.)

Sinking the Warrior with Shield (or rather, a replica of it, to be fabricated by a local artist in iron) is the kind of gesture that many artists today are interested in, says Bruce Ferguson, who — as the newly appointed director of exhibitions at the AGO — has had ample opportunity to contemplate both contemporary international art and the Moore legacy in Toronto.

"This project to me has the feel of social collage," says Ferguson, likening the revamped Moore to the work of another British artist, Mark Quinn (who erected a traditional marble statue of a pregnant disabled woman artist on a plinth in Trafalgar Square earlier this year), or the African-American artist Fred Wilson, who culls objects from museum displays and presents them in new ways in order to accentuate the often latent narrative of black history.

"Starling is one of many artists today who is thinking about art history materially, as opposed to conceptually. In this project, he is taking something, an object, from one context and then placing it in another to better reveal its meanings."

Starling’s comments in London preceded the Power Plant’s board approval of the project, which is pending in mid-January, but a lead corporate sponsor has already signalled its readiness to assist, and plans for the $100,000 project are well under way.

The Power Plant’s Shier likens the undertaking to Starling’s earlier project to transplant Scottish rhododendrons back to their native Spanish soil, a work that also spoke of the artist’s environmental interests, and his fascination with the ways in which human cultural history has an impact on the natural world. "He wanted to see Niagara Falls," says Shier, speaking of the artist’s Toronto visit nine months ago, "and he wanted to see the AGO. But I can’t remembering him talking about his observations of Toronto in particular."

We are thus left to speculate. As Ferguson says: "You have to wonder if Starling saw in Toronto — beyond the postmodern glass towers of Harbourfront — an Englishness that may not be so obvious to the people that live here. It’s like when you walk around the campus of the University of Toronto. I mean, that’s British ecclesiastical architecture. You could be in Oxford or Cambridge, except that the food’s better."

Link to the Globe and Mail article.

  • Sarah Stanners

    The first sentence in the fourth paragraph of this article by Milroy is incorrect. Moore did not donate the Warrior with Shield to the AGO. It was a gift from the Junior Women’s Committee fund in 1955, well before Moore’s major gift. The Junior Women’s Committee purchased it upon the recommendation of Anthony Blunt.

  • Sarah Stanners

    The first sentence in the fourth paragraph of this article by Milroy is incorrect. Moore did not donate the Warrior with Shield to the AGO. It was a gift from the Junior Women’s Committee fund in 1955, well before Moore’s major gift. The Junior Women’s Committee purchased it upon the recommendation of Anthony Blunt.