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

Ron getting loose and sipping a glass of the family’s favourite greek amber spirit, Metaxa. (Photo supplied)
In Our Valley: Ron Lechner

Retired part-time singer and Rio Tinto lifer: Ron Lechner

Map of the road work that will be completed this summer. The streets highlighted in red are what the district planned on completing before additional funding, and the streets highlighted in orange is the road works that will be done with the additional funding. (District of Kitimat photo)
$1.1 million allocated for road work this year in Kitimat

Kitimat council has added $470,000 for more work by deferring four other projects.

Hirsch Creek Golf Course Volunteer, Augie Penner, talking about how he continues the tradition, set by Joe Atamchuck, to catch and release fry that keep spawning at the course. (Jacob Lubberts photo)
VIDEO: Kitimat golf course volunteers making moves for the fishlings

During the highwater season, salmon are known to lay their eggs in the ponds at the golf course

Ocean Wise’s cetacean photogrammetry research program uses aerial images collected by boat-launched drones to measure the body condition of whales. (Ocean Wise Marine Mammal License MML-18 photo)
LNG Canada commits $750K to whale research, conservation initiative

Ocean Wise education team will work alongside educational and Indigenous leaders in the area

The Sam Lindsay Aquatic Centre will be closed from June 28 until September 13 for annual facility maintenance as well as teach pool and decking repairs. (Black Press photo)
Sam Lindsay Aquatic Centre closed: June 28 – September 13

The aquatic centre will be closed for annual facility maintenance

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

A Heffley Creek peacock caught not one - but two - lifts on a logging truck this month. (Photo submitted)
Heffley Creek-area peacock hops logging trucks in search of love

Peacock hitched two lifts in the past month

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and Attorney General David Eby attend opening of the first government-run B.C. Cannabis Store, Kamloops, Oct. 19, 2018. (B.C. government)
B.C. government to allow home cannabis delivery starting July 15

Added convenience expected to persuade buyers to ‘go legal’

The first suspension bridge is the tallest in Canada, with a second suspension bridge just below it. The two are connected by a trail that’s just over 1 km. (Claire Palmer photo)
PHOTOS: The highest suspension bridges in Canada just opened in B.C.

The Skybridge in Golden allows visitors to take in views standing at 130 and 80 metres

BC Green Party leader and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau introduced a petition to the provincial legislature on Thursday calling for the end of old-growth logging in the province. (File photo)
BC Green leader Furstenau introduces old-growth logging petition

Party calls for the end of old-growth logging as protests in Fairy Creek continue

B.C. Premier John Horgan leaves his office for a news conference in the legislature rose garden, June 3, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. premier roasted for office budget, taxing COVID-19 benefits

Youth addiction law that triggered election hasn’t appeared

A vial containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a vaccination site in Marcq en Baroeul, outside Lille, northern France, Saturday, March 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michel Spingler
mRNA vaccines ‘preferred’ for all Canadians, including as 2nd dose after AstraZeneca: NACI

New recommendations prioritizes Pfizer, Moderna in almost all cases

Most Read