Modernism in mothballs?
The final location of airport's two giant artworks still uncertain
Sat Dec 22 2007 | Sitelines -- By Ian Tizzard | Winnipeg Free Press
If you and your friends find yourself in the Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport this winter, you might want to make a game out of saying that name once without stumbling. After someone wins, try another stumper: Where would you put the giant pieces of art now hanging at either end of the terminal?
The future of our proud terminal building might be shaky, but preservation favours art over important buildings. Art tends to be more portable, relatively speaking. A sculpture originally made for the airport, Anne Kahane's carved wood panel of Frederick Stevenson walking across the field to his plane, as well as Alfred Pellan's painting, The Prairie, have already been moved to the nearby Western Canadian Aviation Museum following earlier renovations.
But John Graham's large aluminum, tile and Plexiglas mosaic, called Northern Lights, on the north terminal wall likely still needs a home, as does the piece on the south wall, Eli Bornstein's Structurist Relief in Fifteen Parts -- 15 white panels covered in enameled metal cubes, covering about 60 square metres. If Winnipeg's first jetport falls under demolition, they will have to be relocated.
Our international airport terminal, which opened in 1964, may or may not still stand in a few years. With a replacement terminal coming in 2009, neither the owner, Transport Canada, nor the tenant, Winnipeg Airports Authority, needs the structure we use now. The Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office is considering giving it protected status, as it does all threatened federal buildings that are more than 40 years old.
"It was one of the best airports in Canada, if not North America," says Bornstein from his home in Saskatoon.
Bernard Flanam, writing about Winnipeg's airport in the anthology Winnipeg Modern, says the terminal's striking modernist design -- complete with customized art -- represented our city as forward-thinking and cosmopolitan.
Bornstein never thought the south terminal wall was a good place for his structurist relief piece.
"It was never lit the way I intended. They've had airplanes and balloons hanging in front of it, and bank machines and other junk along the floor under it."
Christine Alongi, communications director for the Winnipeg Airports Authority, says the WAA knows of Bornstein's concern.
"We've heard from him, but it's still two years away and we haven't made a decision yet," she says, offering assurances that any necessary decision will involve a community of interested parties, including the artist.
"The only thing I got from them is that there's some commitment to preserve it," says Bornstein. That makes him happy, "provided it's preserved properly," he says, although he fears that "preserve" could simply mean finding space in storage.
Bornstein gets local help from Oliver Botar, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba school of art. Botar says he's "pretty confident" the pieces will be treated well. He says Northern Lights could be Graham's "masterpiece," and says Bornstein's piece represents geometric abstract work unmatched in the rest of the province.
"With neo-modernism so big internationally, it would be a shame to mothball such excellent examples of high modernism here," he says. "But they haven't provided a place in the new terminal for it," he adds, and predicts it will be a challenge to find a place for such huge art.