In 2015, street artist Mark Ollinger installed Smoulder, one of his signature abstracted sculptural text works, onto the side of Canada Place, located at Jack Poole Plaza in Vancouver, BC. Ollinger often displays his works on the undersides and indiscreet spaces of urban structures around Vancouver, but he has also installed works all over the world. Canada Place remains a unique installation, firstly due to its private ownership, and secondly, to Ollinger’s surprise, because his artwork has remained on the side of the building since it was installed without official permission. Graffiti and other street art, tags, and acts of vandalism around the piece have been removed, leaving Smoulder to remain undisturbed for the past two years. Ollinger was curious how long the piece would last, and also what its fate might be should the construction at Jack Poole Plaza go ahead with the proposal that’s posted near his work. After so long on private property, to whom does Smoulder belong? Could its presence be pushed further to test the limits of public art, or more specifically, to recognizing street art as a legitimate contribution to the city’s façade? Ollinger recently made and installed a wooden plaque, designed to look like a bronze didactic installed by the city to commemorate the piece. The plaque reads:
designed and built by
This sculpture has been created for the enjoyment of everyone. It was gifted to the City of Vancouver and its residents in hopes of brightening people’s days and sparking creativity and wonder. The design is one continuous knotted line and the word ‘apath’ is hidden within it. This was intended to be used as a visual form of meditation.
Mark Ollinger, plaque for Smoulder, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.
Ironically, as a street artist installing non-commissioned artwork he usually doesn’t sign his real name in association with his works. In the contemporary art world, many know Ollinger as the man behind the pseudonym Apath, but this is a first for him creating a traceable link between his identity and his work.
Mark Ollinger’s work plays with the ambiguity and malleable nature of language. For the WORDS theme of Happenstance, Decoy Magazine's Temporary Art Series, we invited Ollinger to reexamine his work on Canada Place to further the conversation around street art and language, and its place within public art discourse. Smoulder not only tests the limits of understanding and the readability of words, but the work’s placement and unexpected survival in the midst of the city’s cleaning crews posits another facet of public artwork and its possible assimilation into urban spaces: What or who determines what public artwork remains or gets pressure-washed away? Is the subtle installation of works in semi-public space the loophole for integrating street art into the mainstream milieu?
Mark Ollinger, Smoulder, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.
Whitney Brennan (Decoy Magazine): Can you give a little background on the work and the timeline of when you installed it?
Mark Ollinger: The sculpture is roughly 8ft wide and 7ft tall. It cost approximately $600 to produce and took about a month to finish. The work was finished just over 2 years ago.
In this theme of Happenstance, WORDS, we wanted to explore different uses of words and language. A lot of your pieces are your street art tag, "Apath." And like a lot of street art and graffiti, the word is abstracted to such a degree that it's sometimes difficult to read. How do you plan the style or particular structure of the words? How does word-play factor into your choice of design/aesthetic?
My choice of the word "apath" came from trying to find an all-encompassing word that best describes life or the verb of life if you will. It's like life being a path through space and time and how people use anecdotes like "it's all about the journey not the destination" or "you don't wanna go down that road.” To pull it out even more, if you were to look at your Google maps app and zoom out you'd see an endless maze of roads in some form to all ends of each continent. These ideas were the motivation behind the word, and I try to build the meaning into the design of the letters by making them one interwoven line.
I like what you said: 'build the meaning into the design…" It's funny to think of meaning being misconstrued or misrepresented in wording, such as in signage or labelling. To incorporate a negotiation of that into the wording themselves is interesting.
With many of your works, you're testing the limits of publicly installed artwork. Was the location for this piece typical for your work or were you looking to test something further with using publicized private property?
The location was chosen before the piece was started. I built something site-specific to fit and enhance the plaza. I'd say the location was semi-typical i.e. a public/publicized area that could benefit from a piece of public art. I don't really like working on private property too much. The idea of public space and art in and on public property and the regulations that govern this interest me. I'm trying to explore the grey area between what's considered art and what's considered vandalism and why.
You didn't expect this piece to remain at Canada Place as long as it did! What prompted you to make the gesture of installing the plaque? Do you think this will draw attention to the piece that may cause it to be taken down?
I totally didn't expect the piece to stay up as long as it has, I was definitely hoping it would but didn't think it would happen. Now that the piece has been accepted in some capacity, and has in some form been approved to stay up, I want to further the work and project by commemorating its acceptance with the plaque. The plaque might very well get the piece taken down, but the piece will inevitably be taken down anyway.
Now that the piece has been up as long as it has, and with that plaque or not, the work's time on Canada Place is finite, what do you propose for the future? Would you want to display a second work on the site? Or is that against how you choose sites/what to do next?
The plaza has a proposed redevelopment project for a restaurant so that whole area will be changing. It's not necessarily against my process to create a second piece on the same site. In this case, I wouldn't make another piece unless I was hired to create one as a sanctioned public art piece.
In terms of installing this kind of work, has there been anything unique to Vancouver as a location compared to other cities?
The projects I've done in Vancouver tend to be more thought out and better planned. When I'm traveling and working in other cities, there's a lot less time to plan out the project and create the work and it usually ends up getting a little hectic.
Another thing that struck me about your works is that they are often placed on the undersides of bridges, overpasses or indiscreet corners. It makes me think of moss or moulds that require an underbelly to grow; without the overhead structures of industrial architecture, these spaces would not exist.
Yeah, the idea of graffiti art and how it all began interests and influences me a lot. It had a very natural evolution growing out of these huge urban centres. I believe our society's true identity is rooted in its public environments, making architecture and public arts (legal and illegal) the core influences of our culture. I try to stay true to those influences in the style of work I put forward and the locations I choose for the work. Like moss growing in a forest, graffiti art grows from a city.
Mark Ollinger, Smoulder, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.
Mark Ollinger’s work begins with how we communicate. From the macroscopic study of language to the microscopic analysis of their constituent alphabets, Mark explores the conditions of language that underlie our inner thoughts and outer expressions. He channels the meaning, sound, and physical appearance of words into sculptural elements whose geometric intricacies reflect the complexity of human linguistics. From here it becomes a cerebral exercise, a visual representation of an acoustic ephemerality. Drawing on the critical analysis of universal laws and fundamental frameworks, Mark seeks to visualize the phenomenology of the three-dimensional world through the usage of physical and mathematical formulae.