Close observers of the epic overhaul taking place on Toronto’s central waterfront will have noticed a striking transformation over the past week or so.
Venture south of crater-strewn Queens Quay West, negotiating the temporary traffic lights and dug-up concrete, and you’ll reach a couple of paved squares that until very recently were muddy construction sites. Newly renamed Canada Square and Ontario Square, they boast benches, white tents, trees, and food trucks.
A new exhibition space next to the two squares has become adorned with a series of mounted photographs.
The pictures are part of Nine Rivers City, which is being billed as Canada’s largest outdoor photography exhibition. Its official public launch was on June 21, and it will remain on display until June 2014.
Featuring 72 images from six artists, Nine Rivers depicts history and conservation efforts behind nine rivers that feed into Lake Ontario, including the Don, the Humber, the Rouge, and various creeks.
“By focusing on the natural beauty of the rivers, we can begin to appreciate the complicated history of the natural environment,” says Harbourfront Centre curator Patrick Macaulay.
The desire to big up Toronto’s waterways will strike a chord with residents who regularly cycle, walk, kayak, and paddle along the city’s rivers, ignoring the incredulous reactions of fearmongers who warn of industrial runoff and rampant E-coli.
Some of the scenes, like Surendra Lawoti’s Lake Ontario, Near the Mouth of Rouge River, are almost eerily serene, while others create a weirdly comforting sense of isolation, like Jade Lee Portelli’s Rouge Beach No.45.
“Unexpected beauty and experience is essential to the environmental outcomes of this exhibition,” explains Macaulay. The intention is to “give access and understanding to what it means to live in a city that has this unique treasure that is our river system.”
But the collection overall refrains from romanticizing Toronto’s waterways. Graffiti, piles of landfill, eroding cliffs, and invasive fungi show the human impact on the city’s natural landscapes, while forensic shots of newts, beetles, and bloodworms reveal some of the less attractive creatures sharing our aquatic terrain.
Other photos document archaeological digs at historical sites, as well as the people who have built their lives around Toronto’s rivers.
This emphasis on human interaction with the water underlines the way Nine Rivers City, just by taking place on what had been an underused stretch of Queens Quay West property, is itself contributing to the waterfront’s evolution.
The exhibition arose from a two-year collaboration between the Harbourfront Centre and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. A second part, due to be installed in a year’s time, will be called No Flat City, and will focus on “the very surprising topography of the Greater Toronto Area, which we think of as flat, but it isn’t so,” according to Harbourfront Centre CEO William Boyle.