Reinventing the Wheel

For two months this summer, one could be forgiven for mistaking the stretch of Toronto’s waterfront between York and Spadina Avenues as the site for the Canadian National Exhibition. The cause of this confusion was Dutch artist John Krmeling’s installation for the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery’s summer exhibition. Entitled Mobile Fun, this Ferris wheel was erected in the public space bounded by the York Quay Centre arts complex, Harbourfront Centre Theatre, and the parking lot of the Queen’s Quay Terminal. No ordinary Ferris wheel, mind you. Upon closer inspection, the four vessels containing passengers reveal themselves as shiny new identical Saab 9-2Xs, two black and two grey. No better way to spend five dollars on opening night in mild June than to ride a deluxe Saab with three pals 100 feet up in the air, enjoying the waterfront scenery in constant slow rotation. The soothing balm of the placid lake waters competed for my attention, as did the voyeuristic impulse of peering into the windows of the identical and repetitious units of the rapidly sprouting Queen’s Quay condo towers.

This summer exhibition was an unusual mix: the sober and spiritual audio installation Forty-Part Motet by 2001 Venice Biennale prizewinner Janet Cardiff harshly contrasted with the extreme kitsch of Laura Kikauka’s Exactly the Same, But Completely Different, in which troll dolls, fluffy slippers, porny images and other bits of cheap tat formed the material equivalents of the lunatic ravings of a madwoman. Somewhere in between resides Krmeling, whose exhibition pieces contained within the gallery spilled outside to encompass Mobile Fun, arguably the highlight of the show. Its first unveiling was in Utrecht in 1999, where people were allowed to drive their own cars directly onto the gondolas. Detracting from the spontaneity of the original incarnation, stringent insurance regulations in Canada required that the vehicles be pre-loaded on the Ferris wheel and that they be of precisely the same weight. Consequently, Saab stepped in as the show’s sponsor and loaned the cars for the duration of the exhibit. Not a bad deal for those of us who would otherwise never have the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of a high-end European driving machine.

While Krmeling’s pieces in the show were varied, they presented merely a sample platter of his work and bore little relation to one another. A more thorough and focused theme to his oeuvre is indicated in Good Book, the companion catalogue to this exhibition, in which Krmeling’s fascination with urban form, buildings, and patterns of [vehicular] circulation is evident. Essentially a scrapbook of the past 12 years, gritty urban sites and building artifacts from around the world are documented in his own photographs. Supplementing the photographs are Krmeling’s mapping schemes, crude drawings and sketches, as well as miniature and full-scale models of building structures and architectural elements. In these conceptual works, it is apparent that Krmeling is insistent on breaking free of the restraints of convention in architecture and urban planning in his objective to promote freedom of movement and appropriation of space.

Though educated in architecture and urban planning at Eindhoven Polytechnic in Holland, Krmeling defies every committed urbanist’s battlecry of “Death to the automobile!” In his work, the automobile is often the primary determinant of his design concept/solution. Much to the horror of enlightened urban designers the world over, the text accompanying the map in Krmeling’s 2001 piece entitled A SOCIALIZED A12 exhorts, “Broaden highway and open it to all sorts of traffic. Fast-moving vehicles in the middle, slow ones at the sides. Enter and exit anywhere. Where intersections are required, centre lanes rise and outer lanes continue at ground level. Slow-moving traffic includes animals and plants.” And in the Power Plant show, he even goes so far as to propose vehicular freedom of movement for a place of habitation in Hasselt Traffic Circle of 1999, which consists of a cardboard and wood model of a house attached to a motorized circular track hidden beneath a plywood base. The house moves jerkily in endless circular motion, going nowhere in particular, with the text in the catalogue explaining, “Freestanding row house with front/back yard rotates at the speed of traffic in the circle.”

While Mobile Fun presents no competition to the massive tourist attraction of the London Eye Ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames, its sudden appearance on Queen’s Quay drew much more curiosity than most shows at the Power Plant, and at least temporarily, created a much more habitable and dynamic public space delineated by the various buildings comprising the arts complex at Harbourfront. The siting of the Ferris wheel and all that it signifies on the water’s edge is poetic, given the current contentious debate over the future of Toronto’s waterfront. In his refreshingly irreverent poke at the sanctimony and earnestness surrounding contemporary urban design discussions, Krmeling encourages us to re-examine the form and function of buildings and cities from a critical perspective with a childlike imagination and a wry sense of humour.