Thursday, November 30, 2023
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

Birds, bears and brite-lite orcas: Vancouver overrun with animal art?

At the struggling Olympic Village development in southeast False Creek, two 18-foot sparrows dwarf the quiet landscape. The statues were supposed…

"The Birds"
Myfanwy MacLeod's "the Birds" tower over the Olympic Village plaza.

At the struggling Olympic Village development in southeast False Creek, two 18-foot sparrows dwarf the quiet landscape.

The statues were supposed to emphasize the importance of nature – to reverse the traditional roles of humans and animals. But as the site struggles to attract residents, the birds easily rule over the empty urban plaza.

The City of Vancouver commissioned “the Birds” as part of their Olympic public art program in 2010. Last year also saw the unveiling of Douglas Coupland’s LED-lit orca next to the new Convention Centre.

If there is one recurring theme in the Vancouver’s official public art, it is statues of animals. Specifically: birds, bears and orcas.

It seems to have begun with the “Orcas in the City” project in 2004 – followed by “Spirit Bears in the City” and “Eagles in the City” – that temporarily filled Vancouver’s streets with large fibreglass whales, bears and birds painted by various local artists.

A fundraising venture for the B.C. Lions Society for Children with Disabilities, the project has raised over $2 million for the charity from auctions of the statues.

Despite the good cause, Vancouverites still disagreed on whether their streets should be filled with the kitschy, kid-friendly statues. Many in the local arts community shuddered as tourists snapped photos of bears painted like Darth Vader and Elvis.

Artist Richard Tetrault said that projects like “Art in the City” do little to highlight the work of local artists, or create a meaningful reflection of Vancouver’s culture.

Digital Orca
Douglas Coupland's "Digital Orca" is a pixelated version of a city mascot.

Instead, they ask artists to conform to a strict template void of social or political commentary, and create a tourist-friendly image of Vancouver as authentic as gift-shop maple syrup.

Yet for Myfanwy MacLeod, creator of “the Birds” at Olympic Village, statues of animals do send a message.

She aimed to highlight biodiversity by featuring a foreign creature introduced to North America – the house sparrow – and allowing it to dwarf the landscape.

Will onlookers appreciate this message, though, when the postcard-perfect birds simply appear to reflect Vancouver’s “green” image? It may ring true for Olympic Village, but not yet for other neighbourhoods.

Coupland designed his “Digital Orca” with stereotypes in mind – ironically updating a city mascot with a set of flashing lights.

But it is questionable what kinds of conversations animal statues actually foster. Do they draw attention to our fraught relationship with nature, or present a clichéd image of Vancouver to outsiders?