News : 2017

"Artist Peter von Tiesenhausen's glorious illusion shimmers in new Simon's store"
Fish Griwkowsky

Shimmering and suspended, a gargantuan sentinel greets visitors to the new Simons store in Londonderry Mall.

But as it’s an amalgam of almost 500 plates hung individually from the second-floor ceiling, the 15-metre human silhouette only coalesces from a certain point of view — entirely fitting for an artwork inspired by shifting perspectives.

Named Drawn by Desire by Peace Country’s Peter von Tiesenhausen — the artist who famously stopped a pipeline from crossing his land near Demmitt by copyrighting it as artwork — the piece is one of his familiar Watchers, timeless icons of the human form.

Besides being born into this shape, he explains his origins with the simple, universal imagery: “I was working with ice early on, 20 years ago. Winters are cold up there and I had too many paintings nobody wanted.”

Von Tiesenhausen noticed if he scraped layers of frost off the top, he could drive the ice surface down as it refroze. Over weeks, months, this became an obsession: “I could drive that layer down significantly, so you could look sideways at water.”

The first few layers were filled with stilled bubbles. But as he dug deeper, the ice became translucent. He had the idea of carving a human silhouette — his own — 20 centimetres deep into the frozen water, a black socket looking down into the dark.

Later in the season, playing a subarctic Moses on another project, von Tiesenhausen attempted to divide the lake in half, down to its bottom.

He got a few feet down, admiring the beauty of his icy aquarium, when the sun emerged from behind a cloud.

“On the bottom of the pond, this illumination of a figure appeared. I realized it’s that thing I made over there! And so now I can see it from below, and this same dark figure is now this angelic, illuminated figure from below.”

The artist was warmed by an epiphany: “Depending on how you look at things, one is darkness, the other light — it’s the same thing!”

Von Tiesenhausen has since made thousands of these figures in numerous forms.

Over the years, his figures have circumnavigated the country as statues, been burned in charcoal onto driftwood, carved into tiny boats sent down the Bow River.

The concept for the Simons piece is about five years old.

When the retailer approached him, he thought, “‘Naw, I don’t do stores.’ I try not to be a consumer, really conscious about footprints and all that.”

But Simons convinced him by sharing their ethos of not carrying certain products too hard on the planet to produce, their extensive plans for LED lighting and the solar array in the parking lot and roof — currently the largest in Edmonton.

“That was something I’m really interested in, plus we need somebody to really follow that, and support it financially. We need an example like this.”

Eventually La Maison Simons president Peter Simons convinced von Tiesenhausen, and production began.

“The last thing he said was, ‘I’m just going to strive to be the best client you’ve ever had.’ And I went, ‘That’s a pretty good line,’ ” the artist said with a laugh. “He’s a pretty good salesman.”

Each of the 500 small aluminum plates has two figures — one solid, one negative space — cut with water jet, manufactured outside Edmonton at Razorline. Four kilometres of galvanized aircraft cable keep the tiles hanging and turning. The hardware joining each plate to its cable was, fortunately, adjustable.

Hanging the plates to create the illusion of the giant figure was trial and error, taking professional installers — two on a lift, three on the ground — 100 hours to complete.

“The first day we got up six. Second day we got up 12. Third day was 32. Fourth day was 100,” von Tiesenhausen says. 

Keeping their art local, Simons also purchased work by Gary James Joynes, David Cantine and a beautiful mural and skateboard decks by former Simons employee Hayley Wright. Every Simons store features art installations, including the interactive glass and light piece Aurora by Philip Beesley in its West Edmonton Mall location.

“Art is transformative,” Simons observed during a tour of the store last week. “If there is a time when we need art, it’s now.”

A former construction worker, von Tiesenhausen notes: “During the install, workers would figure it out, see it on the TV we had going. You could see them getting into it. That was gratifying.

“With my background as an activist or whatever, I saw this as a potential sellout, yeah. But the sale of this, now it’s allowing me to put solar panels on my house. All our power will be supplied by solar.

“It’s made things better,” he says with a smile.


By Fish Griwkowsky

The Edmonton Journal

Published on August 30, 2017