Saturday, December 5, 2020
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students


Vancouver’s ‘history of loss’: vandalism and theft of public art

When Sudarshan Shetty created “History of Loss,” a massive art installation featuring rows of three-foot-long Volkswagen Beetles stacked in clear…


Sudarshan Shetty's History of Loss
Sudarshan Shetty's "History of Loss" before its removal from King Edward SkyTrain Station. Photo credit: Dan Fairchild Photography.

When Sudarshan Shetty created “History of Loss,” a massive art installation featuring rows of three-foot-long Volkswagen Beetles stacked in clear Plexiglass boxes, he intended to draw attention to the changing reality of transportation.

Shetty, an up-and-coming artist from India, cast 42 identical Beetle replicas out of aluminum before dropping them individually from a height of 300 feet, to create unique damage on every car.

The installation transformed an iconic 20th century vehicle into a relic of the past – an artifact entombed in a glass case reminiscent of a museum enclosure, or even a coffin.

Now, attention is focused on the decision to remove the installation due to two incidents of stolen Beetles. Police apprehended the first thief after an anonymous tip led them to the miniature car sitting in someone’s living room. The second thief is still at large.

So, “History of Loss” vanished from the landscape outside the King Edward SkyTrain Station in December 2010.

I hope the thieves at least appreciate the irony.

This is not the first incident of vandalism for the Vancouver Biennale, the privately funded organization responsible for many of the sculptures Vancouverites are accustomed to seeing around the city.

Unlike the public art installed by the City of Vancouver, the Biennale often chooses controversial and provocative pieces, intended to challenge the viewer and create discussion in the community.

Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the top of Lenin's Head
"Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself at the top of Lenin's Head" has been vandalized with eggs and dirt. Photo credit: Dan Fairchild Photography.

This, of course, is what good art should do – the difference here is that there is no velvet rope.

In May 2010, vandals punched holes through a sculpture near Lansdowne SkyTrain station that featured three large, stylized human heads. The sculpture, by Mexican artist Javier Marin, was worth more than $1 million.

A notorious sculpture of Chairman Mao standing atop Joseph Stalin’s head has generated much debate in Richmond. However, the piece has survived petty acts of vandalism no greater than thrown eggs and mud-slinging.

Our city has a reputation of sophistication and artistic appreciation, but incidents like these damage our culturally-savvy image.

“History of Loss” – worth at least $250,000 – is now devalued due to the theft, and the experience has undoubtedly left a poor taste in the artist’s mouth for what was supposed to be his triumphant North American debut.

How can we expect artists to trust Vancouver with their installations in the future?