In May, in London, England, Andrew Mackenzie Hull died in a bike accident. In November, he came back to Toronto.
Stretching across the city, from Queen and Beaconsfield to Spadina and Bloor to the Leslie Street Spit, are one thousand identical posters of Hull—black ink on white paper, a life-sized portrait drawn and shaded by a ballpoint pen. From construction hoarding plywood and long-abandoned windows, he stares straight out, and if you hold his gaze, it starts to look as though he might be about to smile, though it’s hard to tell for sure. Below where the drawing ends, just before his open collar would have closed, is the word “Andrew,” handwritten with that same ballpoint pen. That’s it: a face, and a name.
The posters were made by Shaan Syed, an artist and Hull’s long-time partner. Hull, a filmmaker among other things, had been finishing a thriller called Siren in London, where the two lived together, when he died. But for both of them, Syed explains, Toronto was home. “Despite growing up elsewhere in Canada, when people here ask me where I’m from, I say Toronto as it’s where I first established a strong community in Canada. For Andrew”—who was born in Oshawa, went to school in Lakefield and then Ottawa, and lived and worked after that everywhere from Tunisia to Dessau, Germany—”it was the same.”
Starting in November, Syed spent nearly every night, sunset to sunrise, putting the posters of Andrew’s face up, sometimes with friends and sometimes with the help of a pick-up truck, but usually by himself, by foot. By the time he stopped, it was three weeks later, and December.
“As an artist it seemed a natural way for me to pay tribute to Andrew, but also to raise questions around ideas of absence versus presence,” Syed told Torontoist. “The project is indeed a direct tribute to Andrew and a performance or exercise in public grieving, yet the tribute is so much more as well. It’s a tribute to a punk DIY mentality, to a questioning of advertising and the image. It’s a rejection of clarity, information, and answers, and an embracing of ambiguity and the idea of not knowing.” (That’s regardless, he explains later, of whether some people now know who the “Andrew” is, and who put his face around Toronto.) “It’s an experiment in memory, time, and permanence. It’s an examination of geography and gentrification, vandalism and beautification. It’s a celebration of city textures and derelict back alleys. In all of this, for me it is a tribute. ”
Another close, longtime friend of Hull’s, who asked that his name not be published, isn’t sure yet how to feel about the posters. The project, he said, “brings the pain of his death at surprising moments and in public view where’s it’s difficult to mourn and remember him.”
But, he added, Andrew may well have liked the posters just the same.
“Andrew did love to be counter-cultural,” the friend said. “We used to love to break into construction sites and explore publicly unknown bits of cities long before ‘infiltration’ became popularized…the whole mystery of the posters might have been something Andrew would enjoy.”
That, and the friend added, “Andrew was devilishly handsome and had no false modesty.” (In an obituary that they wrote in the Globe, Andrew’s mother, sister, and a close friend described Andrew as “almost impossibly handsome.”) “The posters may have even played off Andrew’s vanity,” the friend continued, “which is really not such a bad thing.”
Syed, now back in London, collected photos of the posters during the daytime after he put them up, “as they aged—either they were ripped down, graffitied, or postered over.” He’s making a book documenting them; he did something similar for another friend, Jane, in 2001.
“I like that the project is unstable, changing, and impermanent, and that I don’t have control over it beyond the initial pasting. In a way, it’s a test of resilience.”
“The Andrew Project,” Syed says, “only ends when people forget about the image.” It’s hard, now, to imagine that they could.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist. BlogTO and Metro Morning have both also reported on the posters recently.