Of the many iconic Depression-era photographs, perhaps one of the most recognizable is Charles Ebberts’ Lunch Atop a Skyscraper (1932). Taken during the building of the RCA Building, Ebbets’ supposedly un-posed photo depicts eleven construction workers sharing cigarettes and eating boxed lunches while perched sixty-nine stories above a Manhattan sidewalk. Thanks to a Toronto advertising firm, a unique steel and epoxy version of this photograph is now on permanent display, not quite so high, above a Toronto sidewalk.
Mounted atop two billboards positioned at right angles above a restored (former) bank building at 3442 Yonge Street, the recently installed sculptures consist of sixteen, life-size figures inspired by Ebbets’ photograph. Created by Italian sculptor Sergio Furnari, the pieces were installed in early June by Abcon Media with the blessing of the Yonge-Lawrence Village BIA.
According to Leslie Abro, president of Abcon Media, the idea of installing Furnari’s work in Toronto occurred while Abro was trekking through the Soho district of New York City. Previous to this, Abro’s firm had been toying with the concept of integrating artwork with signage. Try as they might, they could not find a piece that fit their vision. It was while in the Big Apple that Abro saw a life-size, cast version of Charles Ebbets’ Lunch Atop A Skyscraper being hauled through the city on the back of a flatbed truck. Immediately, he knew he had found the perfect artwork to complete Abcon’s vision for Toronto.
Back in Toronto, in order to fit the billboard format, the sculptor was required to modify his original work, recasting the figures from sitting to standing positions. In the spirit of his original work, one figure remains seated on the corner of the building, boots dangling over the edge.
The process of creating the sculptures included fitting real clothing over steel mesh framing. The head and arms were formed from an epoxy base. Before each figure was bronzed and painted, an application of a durable epoxy resin was applied, ensuring the pieces would not rust. The installation is expected to withstand Toronto winters.
By the scale and placement of the billboards, it is obvious their viewing is intended for vehicular traffic. Not so for the Furnari sculptures. To fully appreciate the finer details of his work, such as the intricate facial features and the distressed quality of the workers’ clothing, the best viewing is from the sidewalk below. The parkette north of the bank building and the east side of Yonge Street also provide advantageous sightlines.
Though there is nothing quite like this art-billboard hybrid anywhere in the city, it is important to make a distinction between Furnari’s installation, and say, Anthony Gormley’s thirty-one cast figures in his recent Event Horizon exhibit. Gormley’s work is purely art; because of its proximity to an advertisement, Furnari’s is art tinged by artful marketing.
This is not to say that Furnari’s work sells out. Unlike usual marketing campaigns that incorporate the use of extensions, Furnari’s figures have no relation to the product being marketed on the billboard. True, the atypical placement of these sculptures will attract the eye of consumers to the advertisement. Except for being big, however, the billboards are nothing outstanding.
It is the sixteen Furnari figures that deserve study.
At a future date, Abcon Media intends to mount a plaque explaining the history behind this unique art-billboard hybrid, the artist, as well as the original Ebbets photograph.
Photos by Susan Kordalewski/Torontoist.