Sculpture of Steel, City of Nerves

By: Bernard Schütze | 2018

Espace art actuel


Dendrites, a public artwork recently inaugurated along with its sit — Place de l’Aviation CivileInternational, is a fascinating and consistent extension of Michel de Broin’s ongoing and prolific art practice. In fact the work combines two elements that are characteristic of his multifaceted approach. In the first category, the artist has followed a method whereby he repurposes various urban entities,  often related to traffic and transportation, into creations in which their original function has been  rendered inoperative in order to present an eye-catching and thought stimulating object that has no other  purpose but to trigger purposeless contemplation and the reflection it may give rise to. This category is comprised of generally large-scale public works, such  as the collecting and reassembling of lampposts ripped away  by hurricane Katrina (Majestic, 2011, Ottawa), the absurdist rerouting of street  signage (Entrelacement, 2001), the surprising reworking of spiral staircases (Révolutions,  2003, Montreal)  or performative works that toy with the functionality of road vehicles (Shared Propulsion Car, Toronto and New York, and Keep on Smoking,  Berlin, both 2005), among others. The second category consists of a series of museum-suitable works in which the artist either repurposes, often humorously, various aspects of symbolically charged everyday objects or reflects on contemporary socio-political issues (Étant Donnés,  2015, Black Whole Conference, 2006, and Engine, 2006), to name but these.  Dendrites effectively fuses elements of both these categories.
On one hand, like many of the artist’s previous works, Dendrites repurposes functional elements (stairs  and platforms) in a highly frequented and traffic intensive public space.  For example, the repurposing of an urban structure (the stairs), which is normally designed to facilitate and guide pedestrian flow through public space, here  becomes the vector for an inoperativeness in which the viewer is invited  to take a step back from the frantic, nervous rhythms of the city and reflect on or simply  admire the complex urban system looming  and pulsating all around him or her. On the other  hand, the sculpture functions  on a sustained symbolic  register via its multileveled referencing, ranging  from dendrites and their function of receiving incoming  electro-chemical impulses, to tree-like forms contrasted with the surrounding urban  space, and to the notion of traffic flows traversing the cityscape and so on. More specifically,  the sculptural installation modifies this pivotal passage point—signalling the end of the Bonaventure expressway and indicating one’s entry  into Montreal—by providing a visual attractor that detracts from, and somewhat mitigates, the unattractiveness of the concrete behemoth, just behind it on the northwest side, that is the self-enclosed Brutalist-style Place Bonaventure building. Echoing  the multileveled non-identical twin  structures (the north side sculpture has 62 steps,  while  the south  side boasts only 40), these functional détournements and symbolic ramifications can be viewed as several interconnected readings according to the perspective one adopts.
In an opening perspective, Dendrites, by virtue  of its name (derived from the Greek for tree branching) and its natural  ochre  trunk-like forms, can be said to speak to the dichotomy between urban space and the natural land within which the city is an island of sorts.  With its curvilinear forms, warm colours and organic textures the sculpture thus contrasts with the rectilinear lay out of concrete, steel and glass urban mega-structures and infrastructures that fan out in front of viewers’ eyes  on all sides. In yet another reading, perhaps the most  fascinating and least immediately obvious,  Dendrites also directly addresses the notion of the gateway, this portal between two distinct spaces. Of course, due to its location at the end of Bonaventure expressway and its proxinity to the Montreal Central Station, the newly erected sculpture literally marks a neuralgic transition space between downtown Montreal and its outlying  suburbia, rural  areas and vast natural land that stretches endlessly all around  it. But, symbolically  it branches out further. The artist’s adoption of the dendrite as a model  is indeed a very clever symbolic choice,  as the specific function of this nerve cell part is precisely to be a portal, an entrance vector that receives nerve impulses fired electro-chemically across synapses by neighbouring axons (the nerve cell parts  with an impulse transmission vocation).  In magnifying and aesthetically transposing this impulse-receiving function to this busy traffic hub and its incessant inflowing fluxes, the works opens several other  captivating interpretive avenues.
In my view, the most exciting of these is the analogical overlap  between the impulse receiving activity of dendrites and the city as a complex technological system, which is knowledge driven,  i.e. it is the result of applied  human intelligence to construct a living and wealth generating space in the face of an inhospitable natural environment. Moreover, one can extend this to another level by making an analogy  between the extensive electrical grid, which underpins and propels the modern city’s daily activities,  and the action  of the dendrites’ electro-chemically driven  nerve impulse reception. In a more  phenomenological approach, one also could say that the sculptural installation invites  and induces a particular experience that resonates with the symbolic dendrite reference. In climbing the steps  of the structure and taking in the sights, it is in a sense the sculpture itself that facilitates  and triggers this experience of the cityscape. As such, the sculpture acts as an impulse- activating interface whereby the incoming signals  (sights, sounds, even smells)  are modulated through the viewer, who  can thus be likened to an axon, or an impulse transmitting agent. By way of the sculpture, one thereby is led to reflect on the incoming  and outgoing neuronal impulses that (literally) generate our state  of mind and perception of the world.
With Dendrites, de Broin has once  again demonstrated the potential of art to activate impulses beyond purpose: as well as enabling us to look anew and otherwise at our world,  it allows us to become inoperative in our contemplation before  its marvels and horrors, and to reflect both upon what it is and what it could become. Clearly Dendrites is a superbly executed, aesthetically energizing and symbolically far-reaching work that contributes marvellously to a new  envisioning of this, far too long neglected, entry  portal to Montreal.  That being said, I do have one minor reservation regarding the choice of unpainted grey galvanized metal  for the stairs,  railing and platform structures. Though  the winding form of these extensions works quite well in conjunction with the Corten steel mother structure, it seems to me that a material of another colour,  for instance, oxidized bronze-green, or a surface painted in similar  hues, would have been  more complimentary with the rusted orange tones  of the main sculpture and that the whole  would have consequently blended together better as a single unit. As it stands, these interaction-inducing structural elements appear to be more of a functional add-on (albeit purposeless) than an integral  formal  sculptural component with its inherent material and aesthetic qualities.  This choice of material was perhaps dictated by extra-aesthetic factors,  such  as the stringent safety requirements stipulated for such  a public work, or the prohibitive costs of a more noble material, such  as bronze, or the upkeep-intensive expenses occasioned by a painted surface, or it may have been  simply driven by a well-founded artistic  decision. Regardless, Dendrites is a fabulous and far-reaching work that invites  a wide  scope of readings, actions and interpretations for viewers and at the same time, makes a significant and thought-provoking contribution to improving and embellishing the city’s urban fabric. This erection of a symbolic and aesthetically stimulating portal  aims  to fire the dendrites and axons of citizens as they meander into or out of the complex system of fluxes and interconnections that drive the city of Montreal forward

Bernard Schütze is an independent art critic and curator. His essays have been  published in numerous art magazines and he has written various catalogue articles and artist monographs. He also has given talks at art-oriented events mainly  in Canada and Europe.  Originally  from Germany, he has been  living and working in Montréal since  1985.