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

(City of Vernon)
Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
No words to express collective grief: Vernon mayor on 215 buried at residential school

Vernon mayor pens letter to Okanagan Indian Band Chief and council

This goose family went for a leisurely stroll down Vernon’s Main Street Saturday, April 25. (Dave Deshane photo)
Controversial Vernon goose cull won’t fly this year

Necessary permit procedures held up at a federal level

A fire deliberately set in a washroom facility in Vernon’s transit terminal could cost the city around $25,000 to repair. (City of Vernon)
Burned-out bathroom could cost Vernon $25K

Despite changes made by city, vandalism on the rise at transit loop loos

A storm watch has been issued for the Okanagan, Kootenays and Columbia regions of B.C. (Calvin Dickson photo)
Another severe thunderstorm watch issued for the Okanagan

Conditions are favourable for thunderstorms that may produce strong wind gusts, hail and heavy rain

Singer-songwriter Jann Arden is pictured with a draft horse. (Canadian Horse Defence Coalition)
Jann Arden backs petition to stop live horse export

June 14 is the International Day to End Live Export of Animals

(Phil McLachlan/Capital News file)
West Kelowna RCMP investigating suspicious death after body found in truck

Police responded to a truck parked out front of a Main Street business where the body was found

The BC Ferries website went down for a short while Monday morning following a provincial announcement that recreational travel between health authorities can resume Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries’ website crashes in wake of provincial reopening announcement

Website back up now, recreational travel between health regions to resume as of Tuesday

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

Four golfers from Fairview Mountain Golf Club in Oliver will golf from sunrise to sunset to raise funds for ALS on June 29. (Submitted)
Golfing from sunrise to sunset in Oliver for ALS

Four golfers from Fairview Mountain Golf Club have taken up the challenge June 29

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials watching U.K.’s Delta variant struggles, ‘may need to slow’ restart plan

Studies show that one dose of vaccine is only 33 per cent effective in preventing B.1.617.2 spread

RCMP Const. Shelby Patton is shown in this undated handout photo. RCMP say that Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over on Saturday morning in Wolseley, east of Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP
Pair charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance

Const. Shelby Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over Saturday morning

David and Collet Stephan leave for a break during an appeal hearing in Calgary on Thursday, March 9, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Appeal Court rejects stay for Alberta couple facing third trial in son’s death

Pair accused in their earlier trials of not seeking medical attention for their son sooner

Jann Arden will embark on Canada-wide tour Spring 2022 with a stop in Penticton at the South Okanagan Events Centre on June 13. (Contributed)
Jann Arden schedules Okanagan stop on 2022 Canada-wide tour

The Jann Arden Live! tour has been rescheduled for 2022

Most Read