Each week in What’s the Meaning of This?, we explain what those weird public-art installations you walk by every day are supposed to represent. This week: the story behind what is, without a doubt, Toronto’s coolest set of public benches.
Name of installation: Pi
Artist: Evan Penny
Location: 220 Bay St.
Date of display: 1996
What’s it supposed to be?: Despite speculation that Pi is meant to resemble the psyche of the businesspeople and other Financial District movers and shakers, the truth is simpler: It’s a bench, for people to “encounter and have their lunches on,” says Evan Penny, the 59-year-old South African–born, Alberta educated artist who created it.
Penny has a long history of making life-like busts and sculptures, even going so far as to implant individual strands of hair in his works; since the 1990s, he’s also worked as a special makeup and effects artist on films for David Cronenberg, Oliver Stone, and John Woo. This installation, located in the city’s Financial District, is quite obviously the artist’s way of rebelling against a style of sculpting for which he had become well-known. “I was locked into this progressive refining process with these smaller-than-life-size, hyper-realistic statues,” he says. “But I wanted to get away from it, so basically I identified what was good about my work, and then I started doing the opposite.”
Consisting of a large bronze head that has been dismantled and reassembled in a small courtyard, Pi fits into what Penny calls his “monumental phase,” where he made an active push to get away from the smaller, personalized sculptures he was making right out of art school in favour of something better suited for public consumption. “It was a deconstructive process for me, to dismantle my early work, and also dismantle the monument at the same time,” he says.
The piece exists as an important transitory step in the artist’s career: His new work, which can be seen in his RE FIGURED exhibit at the AGO from Sept. 20 onwards, is heavily influenced by both his early phase (of making realistic busts) and his middle phase (of making monumental sculptures), resulting in richly detailed busts that are often twice as large as their human counterparts.
Curiously, Pi wasn’t named by Penny, but rather by the architect of the building outside of which it sits. “That’s one of the main problems with doing something more deconstructive,” Penny says. “It’s hard to name it!”