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Art, laughter and important civic issues in Vancouver

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.

You can be forgiven if you missed the fact that this past Thursday was proclaimed the official Day of Laughter in Vancouver. Mayor Gregor Robertson declared it so as a tribute to Chinese artist Yue Minjun, the creator of A-maze-ing Laughter – the 14, larger-than-life cast-bronze figures near Denman and Davie Streets in Vancouver's West End. The piece was installed as part of the Vancouver Biennale in 2009 and eventually gifted to the city by philanthropists Chip and Shannon Wilson.

It is one of Vancouver's most iconic pieces of public art and, one could argue, deserves to be celebrated – especially since the artist was present.

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The public event, which included a noon-hour laughing yoga class, was intended to "amplify the message that happiness is a basic human right, and laughter fundamental to our good health," according to a news release.

Never mind about the opioid crisis claiming more victims, whole camps of homeless people being chased around the city, the state of single-room occupancy units, the lack of affordable housing in general and all the other challenges the city faces. Not to mention the wildfires raging through the province's interior, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.

But rather than call the mayor out for his tone-deafness, it strikes me that attaching civic proclamations to works of public art is a good idea. Not only does it draw attention to the many fine works of art the city has to offer, but it can help underscore important civic issues.

Take, for example, Douglas Coupland's Golden Tree sculpture at Cambie Street and Marine Drive – a 13-metre-tall replica of the famous hollow tree in Stanley Park – painted a brilliant, shiny gold and so full of promise, but hollow on the inside. The mayor could use it the next time he makes a proclamation about ending homelessness.

Sadly, Mr. Coupland's Gumhead is no longer with us. While it may not be the stuff of a proclamation, it was a perfect metaphor for the way one might feel when attempting to acquire a city building permit.

Another Biennale installation, Marcus Bowcott's Trans Am Totem, near Science World, would be a perfect fit for a "greenest city" proclamation. The sculpture features a stack of five scrapped cars sitting atop the stump of an old-growth cedar tree. The artist has said the work is about the impact of consumerism on nature. But it could also illustrate the regard the city has demonstrated for the private automobile – useless relics, with all but one of the five crushed, and mockingly elevated above a busy boulevard as an offering to the gods of bicycling.

Since it was installed at English Bay in 2005, Engagement – a sculpture by the late artist Dennis Oppenheim depicting two giant diamond rings – has become a popular place for young romantics to pop the question. Using the sculpture as a backdrop for an announcement about the public engagement process would be far too literal. Instead, consider that four in 10 first marriages in Canada end in divorce. It could be used to illustrate any number of civic promises that begin with good faith and the best of intentions, but that ultimately end badly.

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Mr. Oppenheim's more controversial piece, Device To Root Out Evil – perhaps better known as the upside-down church – was run out of Coal Harbour ostensibly because of complaints about the sculpture blocking sight lines. Roughly the size of a Vancouver starter home, the piece depicted a small chapel, perched upside-down on its steeple and leaning precariously to one side, perfectly illustrative of Vancouver's real estate market. Had it not been relocated, it could have become a gathering place for a civic proclamation on affordable home ownership, followed by a noon-hour crying yoga class.

Myfanwy MacLeod's giant, nightmare-inspired sparrows in the Olympic Village? The artist says she wanted to create something beautiful and frightening at the same time. This would be an excellent location for a proclamation about climate change and the mutant horrors that will ultimately follow.

And finally, there's the Mount Pleasant poodle – a seven-foot-tall, $62,000 cast-aluminum poodle chachka that sits atop a pedestal where Main Street and Kingsway merge.

The unnamed work was created by Gisele Amantea, who lives in Montreal, where all artists priced out of Mount Pleasant live.

The next time the mayor and council issue a proclamation about fiscal responsibility or using taxpayers' money wisely, they definitely should be standing in front of this.

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