The venerated Canadian artist discusses improvisational jazz, appraising his audiences, and why he wants to transform the Trump Tower into a work of public art.
1. You’ve marvelled at his artwork, even if you don’t realize it.
Michael Snow’s work is all over the AGO, but it’s his iconic pieces of public art that have had the most dramatic effect on the city. If you’ve ever gazed up at the sculptures of baseball fans adorning the front pillars of the Rogers Centre, or strolled beneath the flock of geese in full flight suspended from the ceiling of the Eaton Centre, then they’ve had an impact on you, too. The Eaton Centre piece, called Flight Stop, is notable for its sheer grandiosity, but Snow took a more analytical approach when he designed the Rogers Centre sculptures, known as The Audience. He knew whatever he created would be passed by multitudes of people, he says, “which made me think that maybe there should be a sculpture audience for the real audience—a sculptural audience which would appraise you, the human audience, with the range of reactions which you were about to see.”
2. He helped transform Toronto from a stick-in-the-mud enclave to a vibrant cultural mecca.
Widely regarded as one of Canada’s most versatile artists, Snow has been celebrated for his work in a range of disciplines, including experimental filmmaking, sculpture, painting, and photography—and he’s been a jazz musician since high school, to boot. In the early 1960s, Snow and his contemporaries (most of whom who were also represented by Avrom Isaacs’ famed Greenwich Gallery at Bay and Gerrard) came together for a series of mixed-media events that transformed Toronto’s stuffy social scene into the cultural juggernaut we enjoy today. Their formation of The Artists Jazz Band was not just a way to indulge their passion for improvisational jazz; it allowed them to bring the very cosmopolitan concept of the arty loft party to the Big Smoke. “We played at the Gallery a few times, but mostly at parties at [painter] Gord [Rayner]’s loft,” he recalls. “The music was extraordinary.”
3. For his next masterpiece, he’s taking on the Trump Tower.
Snow turns 83 years old this year, but his creative pace hasn’t slowed over time: In the last year alone, he’s performed concerts, delivered lectures, and held exhibitions in Spain, England, Austria, Turkey, and New York. His next major project, a massive public art piece called Lightline, will illuminate one of the newest additions to Toronto’s skyline. “I composed a large number of abstract white-light animation compositions, which will vary every night,” he says of the project, scheduled to brighten up one corner of Trump Tower starting in September. “The ‘canvas’ is 60 storeys high, and what happens on it will be visible from a long way away. It will be very noticeable.”
4. He wants to control your eyes.
The 14 pieces that constitute “Objects of Vision,” the collection of Snow’s sculptures currently on display at the AGO, were created over three different decades. “The works in this show have never been presented before, and it’s something I’ve been hoping [to do] for years,” he explains. Although the exhibition covers a wide swath of Snow’s career, he insists that the items selected “share a fundamental aesthetic. They could all be described as directors of attention, or directors of perception, or visual guides.” Each piece is constructed in a way that moves the spectator’s gaze in a specific manner—like “Transformer,” a 12-foot tree trunk suspended parallel to the floor, which has one end whittled down to a fine point, like a spear. The viewer’s eye is instantly compelled to look down the length of the tree, which puts the artist in control of how we see it.
“Objects of Vision” runs to Dec. 9 at the AGO (317 Dundas St. W.), 416-979-6648, ago.net.