Art in the City

In Vancouver, a world-class public art exhibition inspires locals and lures jet-setting collectors

Dennis Oppenheim’s Engagement in Sunset Beach Park seeks to incite thought and engage dialog via exaggeration and overstatement.


You need only walk out of the arrivals terminal at Vancouver International Airport to see one of the sculptures that punctuates the open-air museum known as the Vancouver Biennale, a bold and sometimes controversial event that places world-class, larger-than-life-size art in the daily path of residents and visitors. At the airport, Arriving Home, an iridescent, colorful Plexiglas and steel sculpture by the late conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim, spirals in a gesture reflecting the freedom and movement of traveling.

As you pace through the city, the rest of the biennale unfolds in fun and thought-provoking fashion. At beautiful Sunset Beach Park, for example, Oppenheim’s other entry, Engagement (two 30-foot “diamond” rings), joins Juame Plensa’s We, which celebrates the world’s linguistic diversity by using characters from many alphabets to form a 16-foot human body, and a signature Bernar Venet installation of 13 Corten steel arcs.

“The biennale is about making great art accessible to everybody,” says Barrie Mowatt, the event’s founder and president. He also owns Buschlen Mowatt Galleries (, which once had a Palm Desert location.

The biennale includes 29 sculptures by 26 artists from 12 countries. Since the current 18-month exhibition was installed in 2009, the diversity of media, aesthetics, and cultural perspectives has cracked open dialog about the sculptures and the importance of art in public spaces. The theme, “in-TRANSIT-ion,” emphasizes how people move in a mobile society. The program even included a BIKEnnale. (Visit if you want to pedal your way through a self-guided tour).

The locations of the artwork span the many distinctive neighborhoods of Vancouver, including glassy downtown, exclusive Kitsilano, waterfront Coal Harbour, and hip Yaletown.

In addition to sculpture, the biennale features video installations and performances, as well as a public lecture series, professional symposia, and an online exhibition of student art.

As the biennale winds down this spring, several world-class events remain. At Richmond Art Gallery (, the video installation Last Riot by the Russian artist collective AES+F Group screens through April 3. The three-channel work presents a digital landscape based on the seductive, hyper-realistic, glamorized aesthetics of violence in computer gaming; Last Riot made its debut to wide acclaim at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

On April 30, Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at University of British Columbia hosts the prestigious Phillips de Pury auction and gala. The nonprofit Vancouver Biennale funds its installations and programs primarily through the sale of art after each exhibition. Foundation grants, public and private donors, and in-kind support also support the biennale’s operating budget.

The gala includes a presentation of lifetime achievement awards and a performance by one of Canada’s rising-star pianists.

Family events and other programs continue through June, when de-installation of the sculptures begins. (Officially, the biennale ends Dec. 31.)

Just as your biennale experience starts on arrival, it ends on departure. In the airport’s international terminal building, you’ll find The Jade Canoe by First Nations artist Bill Reid. Inspired by 19th century argillite carvings of canoes thronging with human and animal passengers, the green-patinaed vessel carries 13 mythological Haida figures and is the twin of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, commissioned by the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Vancouver Biennale

The Listel Hotel
1300 Robson St., Vancouver

Shangri-La Hotel
1128 W. Georgia St., Vancouver

The Sutton Place Hotel
845 Burrard St., Vancouver

Bacchus Bistro
1064 216th St., Langley

West Restaurant + Bar
2881 Granville St., Vancouver

Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca
1129 Hamilton St., Vancouver

Coast Restaurant
1054 Alberni St., Vancouver

Gotham Steakhouse
615 Seymour St., Vancouver

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