Steven Shearer, <em>Untitled. </em>(Dennis Ha/Courtesy of Steven Shearer)

Steven Shearer, Untitled. (Dennis Ha/Courtesy of Steven Shearer)

Vancouver photographer’s billboards taken down after complaints about being ‘disturbing’

‘Context is everything’ when it comes to understanding these images, says visual art professor Catherine Heard

By Catherine Heard, Professor at University of Windsor School of Visual Art, The Conversation

The swift removal of seven billboards that were part of a public art display in Vancouver at the beginning of April is a chance to consider how people interpret images and art.

Artist Steven Shearer’s billboard images of people that were displayed as part of Capture Photography Festival began as a collection of found images the artist gleaned from various sources, including eBay.

Blown up and displayed on billboards on March 30, these photographs elicited such vitriolic complaints from the public that they remained on display only for 48 hours before being replaced with stock images.

Context is everything

Context is everything when it comes to understanding images. In their original milieu as informal snapshots, the photographs would have been barely worthy of note. Transposed to billboards where the sleepers we expect are likely to be touting the restorative benefits of mattresses, these commonplace images evoke deeper and more ambivalent responses.

Unlike traditional portraiture, these figures are anonymous — their identities unknown to artist and to viewer. The viewer might imagine them as being universal figures who symbolize the everyman but, in our digital age, they also speak to the ethics of sharing private images in the public domain. It is possible that a viewer walking past a billboard might recognize themselves or someone they know, plucked from the obscurity of a lost snapshot and catapulted into the public eye.

When Shearer’s images were exponentially enlarged to a billboard scale, the images invaded the familiar streetscape in a way that some viewers found deeply disturbing. Commentator Gordon Harris, an urban planner who decried the billboards’ removal, wondered if some people’s outrage was connected with the fact that “perhaps the images look a little too much like a reflection of people’s image of Vancouver’s homeless population?”

Sleeping, intimacy

What did the festival or artist intend? Shearer’s works do not appear to have been meant as provocations. Prior to the project launch, Emmy Lee Wall, the Capture festival’s executive director, received positive feedback about showing Shearer’s work and the curatorial statement associated with Shearer’s series notes:

“The reclining and sleeping figures presented on Shearer’s billboards recall the poses found in religious paintings and sculpture, wherein bodies appear to be in states of ecstasy or seem to defy gravity as if they are floating, having been released of their earthly bonds … (T)he figures have unintentionally invited passersby to observe them at a heightened level of vulnerability and intimacy.”

‘Throw-away image’

By comparison, the low materiality and association of the snapshot as a throw-away image frames Shearer’s sleepers as abject bodies, flawed and vulnerable in their unconscious state. Their gestures can equally be read as ungainly.

In a gallery, the sleeping and reclining figures would be less disturbing. When we enter into the rarified space of the white cube, we are primed to see art. While much of it may be beautiful, we know some of it may challenge us. We are prepared to view images critically.

In comparison, situating the images on billboards heightens the viewer’s unease. Normally, images there are easily decoded commercial messages. On the rare occasion that a billboard depicts disconcerting pictures, for example, diseased lungs in an anti-smoking campaign, words provide context.

Seeing an ambiguous image on a billboard triggers the imagination to construct a narrative. Viewers must reach their own conclusions about the significance. For some viewers this is a pleasant surprise, for others it is mildly perplexing and for a few it can be deeply disturbing.

During the pandemic, more so than in normal times, it is difficult to tolerate uncertainty and to process psychologically complex visuals like the figures in Shearer’s series.

The visuals of Shearer’s found images of bodies are, in part, disturbing because we are uncertain what we’re seeing. For those who are patient enough to spend time with them and to engage with their ambiguity, new worlds open and, as a result, one’s own world becomes richer.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

ArtVancouver

Just Posted

Forty sled dogs were seized by the BC SPCA from a Salmo kennel in February. A recent ruling has decided the dogs won’t be returned. Photo: Gounsil/Flickr
BC Farm Industry Review Board rules against Salmo kennel after 40 sled dogs seized

Spirit of the North Kennels was also ordered to pay BC SPCA $64,000

Residents line up outside the Vernon Recreation Complex for their COVID-19 vaccine Saturday, June 5. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
No appointments necessary for first dose COVID-19 vaccine: Interior Health

People can just show up at clinics, register on the spot and get the shot

Image: Castleview Care Centre’s Safety Den presentation
Castlegar’s Castleview Care Centre wins safety innovation competition

The Dragon’s Den-style competition was sponsored by Safecare BC

SD20 now has an electric bus. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay-Columbia School District 20 adds electric bus to fleet

Bus will be incorporated into Castlegar route for next school year

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on Thursday, June 10, mentioned Grand Forks among two other COVID “hot spots” in B.C. Photo: Screenshot - YouTube COVID-19 BC Update, June 10, 2021
PHO Henry says West Kootenay city is a COVID ‘hot spot’ in B.C.

There are 11 cases of COVID-19 in the Grand Forks local health area, according the BC CDC

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

The Queen Victoria statue at the B.C. legislature was splattered with what looks like red paint on Friday. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)
Queen Victoria statue at B.C. legislature vandalized Friday

Statue splattered with red paint by old growth forest proponents

Police cars are seen parked outside Vancouver Police Department headquarters on Saturday, January 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver police officer charged with assault during an arrest in 2019

The service has released no other details about the allegations

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Christian Eriksen in stable condition, Euro 2020 match resumes

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Rescuers free humpback ‘anchored’ down by prawn traps off Vancouver Island

Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Most Read