Artist Luis Jacob is on a bit of a high this week as installation progresses on his biggest work to date, a major public art piece in the Dufferin underpass (at Queen West). Three years in the making, Jacob’s Spirits of the Grotto consists of 34 large metal panels, each bearing a pair of mosaic tile discs representing eyes. Arranged within the underpass like heroes in a Hall of Fame, Spirits of the Grotto turns an otherwise dull transport corridor into a vibrant passageway.
Installation is expected to be completed by Tuesday, May 8, with a formal dedication taking place at the Dufferin Amphitheatre (1266 Queen Street West) on May 18 at 5 pm with City Councillors Ana Bailão (Ward 18) and Gord Perks (Ward 14).
Spirits of the Grotto was financed through a city policy that dedicates one per cent of capital project budgets – in this case the building of the Dufferin Street railway underpass – to a public art component. Jacob won the commission following a 2009 juried competition.
Although Jacob has created highly successful public artworks in the past – his 2005 outdoor work titled “Flashlight” was voted “Best Public Art 2005” by NOW and “Viewers’ Choice Winner 2006” by the Toronto Sculpture Garden – but Spirits of the Grotto is the artist’s first permanent installation.
That permanency created a range of challenges the artist had never confronted before. “It’s part of the city infrastructure,” notes Jacob, “and at some point the City will have to do maintenance to the bridge itself or to the tunnel. So we’ve created the work so that while being durable it’s still removable and all of that is extremely complicated to figure out.”
The scale of the work was also daunting, adds Jacob: “It’s a huge project. Each panel is 8′ x 8′ so that’s more than 60 square feet of work times 34 panels, outdoors. As soon as you place anything outdoors things become exponentially more complicated, there’s insurance, permits to block the road while installing, engineering questions. It’s important for the work to be very durable, beautiful certainly, but also durable so people can enjoy it for a long time to come.”
For Jacob, the site holds special significance; he’s lived in the neighbourhood for years and most of his professional and social life revolves around the art milieu of West Queen West.
“I ride past here on my bike almost every day,” he notes. “The disco balls are almost an homage to Stone’s Place and the Wrong Bar, the Beaver Café, all here on Queen West, and I DJ sometimes with friends so it’s a reference to those activities. For me, each panel has a different relationship to the neighbourhood and things I’ve seen happen here.”
The mosaic designs read quite differently up close and from a distance on the opposite side of the tunnel. Jacob says the work is meant to be viewed while moving and he observes that it has an almost animated or cinematic quality when seen through the support pillars that run down the median separating northbound traffic from southbound.
” For me that’s part of the pleasure of the piece,” says the artist, “that as you’re walking you see them right next you but you also see them across the underpass through these ‘windows’ created by the pillars. It’s almost like a film where they appear and disappear. Some of the panels are obviously eyes, but others are not, even though they read as such, particularly from a distance.”
“I didn’t want them all to read explicitly as eyes,” he adds. “It’s important to create an artwork that people can engage with at different levels. People can project their own experience and interpretation onto the work.”