Multiple billboards in Vancouver have been covered up after public complaints that the images featured were frightening, showed deceased people, and evoked the ongoing opioid and homelessness crises.
On March 30, seven billboards along the Arbutus Greenway had the artwork of Vancouver-based artist Steven Shearer installed. The artwork was part of the 2021 Capture Photography Festival and was intended to be on exhibition until May 21, 2021.
Shearer, a renowned artist, has had his work exhibited both nationally and internationally, including multiple solo exhibitions. He also has an archive of more than 63,000 digital images and paint clippings.
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The festival’s executive director, Emmy Lee Wall, says in a statement that Capture “received significant positive feedback” about the opportunity to view Shearer’s work publicly in Vancouver. They also worked with the artist for more than a year to turn the project into reality.
The festival, however, received complaints “regarding the suitability of these works as a public art installation.”
The images would be covered up two days after installation by Pattison Outdoor, the digital advertising company that owned the billboards. Shearer’s artwork showed pictures of people sleeping, which Wall describes as “a private and vulnerable act.”
“Capture and Pattison received various complaints including that the images were of deceased subjects, that they were frightening, and that they evoked the opioid and the homelessness crises,” Wall tells Daily Hive in an email.
And while Wall says that she respects the intense response and interpretations that viewers may have had, she also argues that it further displays how the images were able to spark a conversation.
“In a public space, the works offer a provocative and public commentary on the ways in which banal moments are often shared for public consumption,” Wall explains.
“The intense public reaction is, in fact, a confirmation that these works functioned as curatorially intended by sparking a dialogue about the thin line between public and private in contemporary society.”
The billboards were also accompanied by information panels that described the sleeping subjects. Additionally, the festival responded to complaints by sharing more information about the project and hosting a Q&A over their social media. They’ll also be holding a panel discussion to further explore some of the issues that were raised by the project.
And while Wall says that the removal of the images is disappointing, she added that Pattison Outdoor has worked with Capture since 2013 and has been “an incredible supporter of public art in the city.”
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She also says that it raises more questions around public art and the act of balancing artistic freedom with meaningful engagement.
“This is an important opportunity to take pause and consider the role of public art in our city,” she writes. “How we can balance individuals’ concerns with artistic freedom, the ways in which we might engage in meaningful, constructive dialogue around images that make us uncomfortable, and the methods by which we can make contemporary art more accessible to those who might not regularly engage with it.”
“These are not issues with easy answers but witnessing the response to these billboards makes it apparent that they are ever more urgent.”
Wall adds that Capture is profoundly grateful to Shearer for the thought-provoking work of his project. She also adds that the intense response from the public is a “testament to the enduring power of the photographic image.”
Daily Hive has reached out to Pattison Outdoor for additional comment.