Worthwhile public art doesn't always have to be uplifiting, and the Union Station stained glass is a great example.
What’s more depressing: the new art installation at Union Station, or the complaints about how depressing it is?
Stuart Reid’s 500-foot-long ribbon of floor-to-ceiling stained glass, titled Zones of Immersion, doesn’t exactly brim with fizz and pep. Many of the figures depicted in the panels exhibit an aura of isolation, as if trapped inside themselves. Slouched in their seats or standing pensively, they seem haunted by a secret despair.
The word for this dark mood is “alienation,” that terrible feeling of being alone among many. To Reid, the subway—which he calls “a system of human plumbing”—is an alienating place, barren of vitality, except for the people who move through it.
Zones of Immersion reflects the bleak atmosphere of the subway back on those who use it, and the Star’s art critic Murray Whyte reports that many are unhappy to see their experience riding Toronto’s underground transit mirrored so non-optimistically. According to Whyte, the people have spoken: Reid’s installation is a major bummer.
Reid should probably be celebrating this response, because it means he’s hit home. Or to use another cliché, he found the nerve he was looking for and, yes, it’s exposed. Which is good news, because the connection people are making to the work is genuine, and so the installation might actually do what Reid wants it to.
The subway isn’t miserable so much as stuporous, and Zones of Immersion is meant to nudge us out of our trance. Reid isn’t trying to push us onto the tracks, but remind us where we are: a human among humans, caught up in forces beyond our control, surrounded by people with complex interior lives, none of us good or bad or happy or sad but all of it, together.
According to Reid, the subway is one of the few public spaces in Toronto that truly deserves the title. Pretty much everyone rides the TTC at least once in a while, while the city’s other public spaces are mainly visited by distinct subsets of the population. (The people who sprawl on the grass in Trinity Bellwoods Park are not the same people who hang around Yonge and Dundas Square.) The subway is the one thing that really brings us all together. The whole sprawling metropolis is down there, standing around in cramped metal tubes, pretending not to look at each other.
Reid himself isn’t so demure. The OCAD professor talks quickly and stridently, and never runs out of things to say. He has sharp, bird-like features and an electric spray of grey hair. On a recent visit to the installation, he darted among commuters along both platforms, telling stories about the people in the panels.
“I’m not making it up,” he says, when asked about the sadness of some of the figures. He points to an image of a man slouched in his seat: “This guy’s homeless. He’s invisible. He’s part of the structure.” But Reid isn’t fixated on suffering. The work shows all kinds of people emanating different types of energy: an athletic woman standing with her bicycle, an older man reading a musical score, a young boy picking his nose, a middle-aged woman with a wistful expression. There’s as much levity as there is loneliness.
Right: Stuart Reid working, courtesy of Peters Studio.
To make Zones of Immersion, Reid spent dozens of hours riding the subway, sketching strangers in a notepad from morning till dusk. Of those drawings, 50 or 60 were blown up and recreated full-scale on translucent Mylar, using graphite and India ink, in his studio overlooking Lake Huron. Many of those pieces were later sandwiched between panes of coloured glass—including some panels of expensive mouth-blown glass—that Reid hand-worked using a variety of techniques: acid etching, silver staining, sandblasting, and painting with kiln-fired enamels.
Hand-making a work of this scale is uncommon in public art. “That’s a recipe for huge failure,” says Reid. “The recipe for success is to stylize it and digitize it and have a protective veneer on it. I loathe that kind of crap. I wanted something alive and that could fail.”
Leaving the sanctuary of the art world and crawling out onto the altar of public opinion, Reid has made a work that’s ready for sacrifice, not just by making it personal, but also by taking an obvious approach. “To draw people on the subway is like a thing your art instructor gives you in grade 10,” says Reid. “What could be cheesier?” Even though it was degrading, he felt he needed to do something basic and vulnerable (“like painting a sunset”), rather than try to make something that’s immune to criticism. “I was protecting myself from protecting myself,” he says.
But if the early response is any indication, the biggest risk he took was letting the dark in with the light. Thankfully, he spared us the alternative, because the only thing sadder than the shadow side is rejecting it. There’s nothing more depressing than forced happiness. For that, the city could have sold the station to Coca-Cola and been rewarded with a delirious pick-me-up—no doubt there are plenty of corporations that would pay richly to engulf us in smiling faces and giddy colours.
Zones of Immersion isn’t an advertisement for a better mood. It’s an earnest and urgently wrought attempt to offer something beautiful. To achieve that, it hazards a little reality, because without reality, there can be no beauty.
Despite its makeover, Union Station still isn’t pretty or comfortable, but it does boast at least one remarkable feature: it’s full of people, each one nurturing their own story. Zones of Immersion doesn’t try to make us look better than we are, but it does seek to breathe some awareness into the space. Even if it isn’t reassuring, at least we might find, as one of the panels proclaims, “a shared sense of identity in a sea of private worlds.”