At the Royal Ontario Museum, the portraits of homeless or formerly-homeless people holding signs with self-scrawled messages on them start outside the main entrance on Bloor Street, one large-scale man and large-scale woman standing back-to-back, dwarfed by the Crystal. They continue life-sized just inside, one young woman hiding above the main entrance, an older man further inside off to the right. In total, there are eighteen portraits wheatpasted at spots on the Crystal’s bare walls, part of a series called “The Unaddressed” created by Dan Bergeron—fauxreel. Like his spectacular Regent Park portraits from last year, Bergeron’s focus in “The Unaddressed” is on uprooted subjects, which is why it makes sense that the portraits themselves refuse to rest in only one location: all eighteen portraits, in addition to being safely contained on the ROM’s property and walls, are also mirrored on walls across Toronto.
“Panhandlers’ signs are usually asking for money,” Bergeron explains, “but there’s other stuff you may want to convey to people passing you by.” So that’s what the homeless people who Bergeron met and interviewed over three months did, writing in whatever they wanted on the cardboard signs that he photographed them holding. While the messages are short, all of the finished signs are in dialogue with someone or something, whether it’s a hostile or apathetic public (“Just because you think you know where I’ve been doesn’t mean you know where I’m going” and “If thou shalt not give then at least verbally acknowledge me!!!”), or a stereotype (“For me this was not a choice!” and “Homeless does not mean dirty!”).
“The Unaddressed” is part of Housepaint, the ROM’s multi-stage street art exhibit focused on homelessness (which we’ve covered a few times now). The portraits appear throughout the Crystal half of the museum, many of them with a view of the street but all, save for the two out front, separate from it. While, for obvious reasons, both the ROM and CONTACT—the ones funding the work in the museum—stay at arm’s length from the other half of the project, the success of each set of portraits ultimately is defined against the success of the other.
The street, Bergeron explains, is where the subjects “spend most of their time,” and it’s allowed Bergeron to put the portraits in context: a wheatpaste of panhandler Tony Clemens, for instance, is up near where Clemens panhandles on Roncesvalles, and other shots are up at spots where homeless people are likely to be. For wheatpastes that Bergeron wanted to “look as natural as possible,” wherever they were put up—one of the reasons why they’re only pasted on ninety-degree-angled walls at the ROM—the streets seem like the most appropriate fit, not only for their subjects’ lives, but for the portraits’ overall accessibility. The work on the street, after all, is free, and open to the public at all hours.
Still, the museum has its benefits. It makes “your culture real” and “legitimizes” it, Bergeron says about street art, and, perhaps most importantly, it “immortalizes” its subjects, an opportunity that he says the homeless men and women who are the stars of “The Unaddressed” wouldn’t otherwise have. But that institutional seriousness is probably the same reason why Bergeron has found working with the ROM “very bureaucratic” and a “bit frustrating” so far. He wanted to do one wheatpaste on a brick wall in the old half of the museum, a chance to make one portrait permanent, but the ROM turned him down; he had planned to paste the pieces that are now outside the building right onto the Crystal’s exterior walls, but that plan was changed at the last minute, too, with Bergeron told that they could neither be attached to the Crystal’s walls nor to the ground below—because, he says he was told, “there’s diamonds in the ground.”
Francisco Alvarez, the ROM’s Director of Contemporary Culture, put the benefits in not altogether different terms. Part of the ROM’s mandate, he explained as we looked out at the painted houses that fill Housepaint‘s main room, is “being relevant,” which street art certainly counts as, and the museum’s exhibit can “reach a whole different audience” than street art usually would, an audience that may hit five hundred thousand over the six months that Housepaint lasts.
To its credit, the ROM has tried to make Housepaint and the half of “The Unaddressed” that takes place in its building accessible to the people it’s about: groups of homeless young people, for instance, are given free tickets for Monday afternoons, and the eighteen men and women featured in “The Unaddressed” are invited into the museum, with guests, at any time, however many times they want to visit, while the exhibit lasts. But as we viewed the pieces in the museum, cautiously glanced at by a security guard as we shot one portrait that overlooked part of the dinosaur exhibit, with our tour guide—Alvarez—the only reason we didn’t have to pay $22 for the opportunity, it was hard to shake the notion that the ROM has been left with the inferior copies.
Even though he sees the merits of each one of his project’s two different kinds of locations, it’s clear which Bergeron likes best. When “The Unaddressed” was still being planned, Bergeron says, CONTACT was trying to get him to narrow his focus to the work going up in the museum, rather than the work going up in the streets. Bergeron’s attitude, he says, was more like: “who cares about the ROM?” His art is “living art,” he explains, he’s “adamant about putting work up outdoors,” and “it’s very stale in the gallery.” Ultimately, “The Unaddressed” works much better when it joins its subjects in the streets.
Housepaint runs until July 5, after which it will be replaced by an exhibit of Vanity Fair photos.
All photos, unless otherwise noted, by Dan Bergeron.